Financial Fair Play: Footballs Biggest Con

Well, now feels like the perfect time to talk about Financial Fair Play. The domestic season is over, and now we turn our attention to European football. I wanted to leave this post long enough for it to just not appear to be a pop about Man City and the ridiculous appeal. Instead, I wanted to talk about the system as a whole and why it is essentially football’s biggest con (after maybe VAR being used to screw over Wolves and Sheffield United, of course).

We’ve all seen it: clubs spending vast sums of money on players to screams of ‘Financial Fair Play!’ from the sidelines. But do we really understand what we’re screaming about (other than the fact that a rival is spending more than us)? I’m not going to lie – I have fond memories of Aston Villa fans screaming FFP when Wolves spent £15m on Ruven Neves (and what a spectacularly well-spent £15m it was), while their team floundered in the Championship. In the end, Wolves did not break FFP to gain promotion (somehow!). But does anyone really understand what FFP is? Hell, now I think about it, I’m not entirely sure myself. The rules and explanations are extremely convoluted, and it got me thinking: has it purposefully been designed like this? 

On the surface, FFP makes sense. You prevent clubs spending beyond their means, thereby protecting a club from going bust. That is the simple reason and what we the public are told. Excuse me while I go to get my tin foil hat from my previous post about VAR, but I don’t think FFP is that simple, and I don’t think the reason it was set up was to stop clubs from going bust. Now, don’t get me wrong. Football was spiralling out of control in the early noughties, with Portsmouth being the most famous casualty of crazy spending in this period (Harry Redknapp strikes again!), and a system needed to be put in place. But the system is crap. 

To understand FFP fully I need to break it down as simply as possible, because trust me this shit is confusing as hell. There are three areas of focus: UEFA, the Premier League and the Football League. (There are more, but these are the main ones in England and we haven’t got all day.) 

  1. UEFA – You are allowed to spend up to €3.9m more than you make in a season BUT there is something called a monitoring period where you are allowed to make losses of up to £25.5m (which the owner has to cover). Sanctions for breaking these rules are a ban from European competitions, please refer to Man City and PSG…oh wait.
  2. The Premier League – Clubs can not make losses of more than £105m over 3 seasons, these again must be covered by the owners. ALSO, there are some crazy rules around wages and wage increases each year. Sanctions in the Premier League are a points deduction. 
  3. The Football League – Clubs are permitted to make a loss of £5m in a season, of which £3m must be covered by shareholders. Sanctions for breaching this will result in a points deduction, UNLESS you get to the Premier League, in which case new FFP jurisdiction kicks in, so in reality you’ll just get a quick slap on the wrist and a small fine (bonkers!)

Phew. I put that as simply as I could, and it’s still bloody complicated. FFP is designed to protect the big clubs. They generate more revenue and more profits, and can therefore spend more money than other clubs before suffering the consequences. How can a team consistently try and break into European football if the clubs above them are essentially allowed to spend more money than them? How can you compete when a team like Manchester United can drop £80m on a player like Harry Maguire and then another £66m on Bruno Fernandes? One of those signings alone would swallow the entire budget of most Premier League teams, let alone two, and the fact they can sign them both without breaking FFP just seems crazy.

And then we come to the Championship. How is a team meant to compete once they get promoted to the Premier League if they have been forced to spend well below the means of their Premier League counterparts and even the relegated teams who can use parachute payments to fund their attempted promotion? Most Championship clubs appear to last one or two seasons in the Premier League before being relegated; unless you are Bournemouth and you broke FFP to get promoted, the ‘plucky little Bournemouth’ routine isn’t going to fly here. In fact, just looking back through the last few years since FFP came into effect, at least one recently promoted club every year has boomeranged back to whence it came. Normally alongside Hull City. (Seriously, Hull gets relegated from the Premier League all the time – three times in ten years. Don’t worry though guys, you were the European City of Culture – somehow! – once.)

And this is the issue with FFP: it was brought in to protect the status quo. After Manchester City became the world’s richest club in 2008, it seems like all the traditional big clubs became worried. What’s to stop another club becoming Manchester City, and just throwing money at their team until something sticks? They needed to protect themselves. The damage had already been done in that City were now part of the Big Boys Club, so they couldn’t undo that, but they could make it almost impossible for anyone else to join them. So that’s what they did, essentially pulling the ladder up behind themselves with the help of UEFA.  Almost to prove my point, UEFA have handed Wolves a punishment for not breaking even; the crime, the club was reviewed all the way back to the clubs Championship income. So despite spending way less than the other clubs in European competitions the new comers have suffered. Fair? Yeah right!

So we’re now stuck in limbo. Yes, there are clubs that occasionally manage to upset the applecart by doing better than they should be allowed to (Leicester and Wolves), but it feels like the most uphill of battles to break into that elite group and then, crucially, stay there. This is the reason why you see clubs yo-yoing between leagues (looking at you, West Brom). Obviously there needs to be some sort of Financial Fair Play, but it needs to be designed in a way that levels the playing field. How that would work is anyone’s guess; there could be a salary cap (including bonus and signing fees), that a club is not allowed to exceed (similar to the NFL), with potentially a separate cap for youth players; and very defined rules on when a youth player stops being a youth player, as we know that clubs (ahem, Chelsea) will try and find a workaround. I am still awaiting the FA’s call, but maybe UEFA should get in touch with me as well? 

We all want competitive competition but the current FFP set up is killing that. We need change and we need it soon.

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