As far as I can tell, Financial Fair Play was brought in for two reasons: to stop clubs bankrupting themselves, and to stop rich owners buying success. The obvious examples of Leeds United and Portsmouth are plain to see, with both teams still suffering the after-effects of not achieving that which their spending required. With Portsmouth, it is perhaps a slightly different story, with multiple owners and apparently crooked behaviour. Leeds’ ownership has been opaque until the stewardship of Massimo Cellino, which has hardly been a great success. The fact that he was deemed a “fit and proper person” to run a football club, despite previous convictions for fraud, is a matter that the FA and the Football League need to take very seriously. Presumably, money exchanged hands. That’s what normally happens.
Rich owners buying success…we have two prominent examples of that in the Premier League: Chelsea and Manchester City. Both have established themselves at the zenith of English football. Like Blackburn Rovers before them, they have spent heavily in order to succeed, and it has worked. It is understandable: the gap between Manchester United, Arsenal, and the rest was growing larger. Liverpool have not been a serious title contender for years (discounting last season’s Luis Suarez-inspired run). The only way to ensure a regular spot at the top of the Premier league is to regularly qualify for the Champions League, and take advantage of the money, kudos, and increased global support that it brings, and the only way to do that is to spend, spend, spend, because the top four teams are so far ahead of everyone else.
Liverpool have dropped out of regular Champions League spots, and have suffered. Which other teams have managed to stake a regular place at Europe’s top table, where the plates are golden and the wine is very expensive? Everton managed it once, and dropped out at the first qualification phase. Gareth Bale-inspired Tottenham managed it, sold Gareth Bale, and have been out of it since. Aston Villa came close, three years in a row, but the spending required to attain such a height was unsustainable, and the wheels fell off very quickly.
So what we have is a large separation between the Champions League regulars (plus Liverpool) and everyone else. My concern is that Financial Fair Play helps to maintain this division. I’ve already illustrated how hard it is for teams to break into the Champions league places, and now that spending and wages are limited, it’s even harder. Man City and Chelsea bought their way into the top four, but that route is now closed to everyone else. Each season, a team, or a couple of teams, threaten to break the glass ceiling and qualify for the Champions League, but it almost never happens. This year, it is Southampton, and for a while, West Ham. Both teams are now outside the top four with no realistic chance of breaking back in. West Ham have slipped to 10th, Southampton 6th.
The likelihood with any over-achievers is that their best assets will be purchased by the big clubs, and Southampton are a prime example of that, with Lambert, Lallana and Lovren joining Liverpool and Shaw joining Man United. Villa suffered a similar fate, with Milner and Barry moving to Man City, Young joining United, and Downing moving to Liverpool. That, right there, is one hell of a midfield, and it all left in the space of two years. This is the inevitable fate of any team that tries and fails to break the oligarchy at the top of English football.
Of course, fans of German or Spanish football might find this a little hard to take, such is the dominance of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid (with the temporary addition of Atletico Madrid…which I suspect will last until Diego Simeone gets a bigger job and all his players are sold). I can only sympathise. If I find it irritating that English football is totally dominated by a cabal of huge clubs, they must be really rather annoyed with their state of affairs.
The Champions League is part of the problem. It is a massive cash cow for UEFA and the clubs that participate in it. Once you start to qualify regularly, such is the advantage that you enjoy over the rest of your domestic league that you really should qualify for the rest of the foreseeable future. Only huge cockups (like those that routinely seem to take place at Liverpool) could prevent that.
So now, not only do smaller clubs have the disadvantage of not receiving large purses from UEFA, they also have the disadvantage of not being able to spend in order to get there. One of the punishments for failing to adhere to FFP rules is disqualification from European competition, a particularly harsh penalty that has been applied to Malaga recently for failing to pay their wages and taxes on time. You would have thought that allowing them access to the European bonanza would help them to pay their wages (although a quick glance at the current La Liga table shows that Malaga are in no danger of troubling the Champions League places, but they could still qualify for the Europa League).
It seems, then, that FFP might be able to stop some of the more extreme examples of clubs bankrupting themselves, but it does so at the cost of increased polarisation of some already heavily polarised leagues. I hope that a more equitable solution can be found.