FOOTBALL.BLUE (3) - On paper
Below is an
English-language version of my new exclusive column for Football.Blue, a new
website presenting European football news to Japanese fans in association with
The Independent newspaper.
To many of us Brits, over on our island, the European Union can be a frustrating thing indeed. For me personally, the frustration derives from how it is patently such a wonderful thing in principle, yet often falls ever so slightly short of what it should be due to its hypocritically meddlesome, idealistically myopic nature. In football parlance, it is a bit like a deep-lying midfielder with the prodigious technical skill to glide past three opponents – who then loses the ball when needlessly trying to nutmeg a fourth, chastises a teammate for not passing to him 30 seconds later, then attempts to dictate his own ideas for tactical reorganisation over the manager’s head.
You see, where Western European nations basically spent two or three millennia at war with each other until the 1940s – and with Eastern Europe until the 1990s – instead we now have open borders, free migration, cultural and economic exchange. Coinciding with the growth of air travel, we now enjoy greater opportunity to understand and appreciate our neighbours than was previously even conceivable.
Yet it doesn’t always work quite so smoothly when immigration is not a perfect synonym for integration and responsibilities for rectification are undefined. Meanwhile, the principles of freedom and openness are challenged by the fact that membership is restricted to countries within the arbitrary geographical boundaries of ‘Europe’ (Morocco was refused membership for this reason in 1987). Countries that have willingly opened their borders to workers and scholars from the rest of the EU thus maintain control of overall immigration through much heavier visa restrictions on those from outside – for example, it is now much harder for skilled professionals from the United States or Japan to work in the United Kingdom, and for the UK to benefit from the qualities they could offer.
The single currency, too, is a brilliant idea on paper. Intra-European trade is fertilised by the absence of tariffs, of risks associated with rate fluctuations, and even of minor losses surrendered to banks during currency conversion. Tourism is enhanced as visitors not only cross national borders freely, but do so in the knowledge that the cash in their pockets will still be useful on the other side. However, the countries embracing this model have also had to surrender jurisdiction over fiscal policy to the European Central Bank – which is forced to attempt one-size-fits-all coverage for a vast variety of different national economies, cultures, and industry structures. When things go wrong, individual governments can no longer make adjustments to suit unique local circumstances.
Of course, the UK cunningly avoids some of this kerfuffle – Schengen, the Euro, etc – by pointing to the Channel Tunnel when it suits us to be part of Europe, and to the sea when it doesn’t. But the impact that the EU has had on our national sport has been deeply profound. In most cases, while preaching liberty and fairness, ‘Brussels’ has unwittingly catalysed the financial chasm which has grown to characterise European football over the past two decades.
The most obvious example is the Bosman ruling. Again, this began with a noble, and entirely correct pursuit of justice. Jean-Marc Bosman, an unremarkable midfielder at RFC Liège in the Belgian First Division, was out of contract and desired a move to French side Dunkerque. However, the latter were unable to meet the transfer fee stipulated by Liège, who thus refused to transfer Bosman’s playing registration and forced him to remain in Belgium on reduced pay. He took the case to the European Court of Justice, who in 1995 found in his favour that the football transfer system – which had allowed clubs like Liège to demand transfer fees or refuse transfers even for players whose contracts had expired – was in violation of EU laws on restraint of trade and free movement of workers.
But what the ruling failed to foresee was the impact on wages and youth development. Players on expiring contracts, like Edgar Davids and Steve McManaman, were able to use the carrot of a zero transfer fee and negotiate personally lucrative deals with new overseas suitors. Clubs today are panicked into offering improved salaries virtually every season to avoid their stars entering the ‘dangerous’ final two years of their existing contracts. Those who cannot afford to do so might receive little or no compensation for a player into whom they had invested years of coaching.
As an addendum to the Bosman ruling, the EU made it illegal for UEFA or national federations to impose the foreigner restrictions (typically three players per team; not unlike the J. League) that had previously been custom. Once more, this was perfectly grounded in European employment laws and there was no reason that sportsmen should not be granted the same freedom to ply their trade in other member states as anybody else. But inevitably English clubs, with their newfound television money, deduced that if they could offer nice salaries to as many grown-up overseas players on Bosman free transfers as they liked, then this might be a lot quicker and cheaper than investing in the training of local youngsters.
Fast forward to February 2015, and this television cash has now risen by 70% for the second straight three-year deal with the announcement last week that Sky Sports and BT Sport will pay a combined £5.136 billion for live domestic coverage of the Barclays Premier League. The EU is highly complicit here too. In declaring that the 15-year monopoly Sky held on live broadcast rights until 2007 was in contravention of European competition law, the EU paved the way for new bidders to enter the UK digital television market and vie for a proportion of matches. This, in turn, triggered an arms race for quadruple play (television, telephone, internet, wireless) packages as BT, essentially the British equivalent of NTT, and Sky used football as a means to expand into each other’s industries.
It all sounds brilliant, of course – loads of money comes flooding in to make English football better, while trading monopoly for competition sounds like a principle designed to bring better value to the consumer. However, the inflated bank balances have largely served to further clubs’ reliance on purchased talent and to inflate the gap between football’s rich and poor – from Premier League to Football League, player to fan, stadium to community. Meanwhile, the competitive viewer experience isn’t really competitive in the slightest. Sky and BT don’t show the same matches; they each offer a separate, exclusive set of games, meaning that fans now have to pay for two subscriptions instead of one in order to see everything on show. And these subscriptions are naturally getting more and more expensive to cover the vast outlay incurred by the two television stations in trying to outbid each other for the best fixtures.
It comes to something when UEFA has to fight the battle of responsible sustainability against the EU, as it has for the past ten years in trying to forge loopholes – such as the homegrown rules – to European law. But even Financial Fair Play can only be defined through percentages of income, rather than in absolute terms, meaning that Premier League clubs will be spending more rampantly than ever when the new television deal kicks in next year.
The latest rights contract represents a crossroads for English football, but also an opportunity. It is vital that the clubs, football authorities, and both national and European governments work together to ensure that finances are reinvested for the wider benefit of our game – and all its stakeholders from top to bottom.
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