I’m often accosted as a Chelsea fan with the fact that the last 15 years of success has largely been due to the deep pockets of Russian billionaire owner Roman Abramovich. His purchase of the club in 2003, and subsequent billion-and-a-half pounds of investment, transfers and renovations have brought Chelsea, a mildly successful if not massive club, into the forefront of world football, winning a slew of titles, FA Cups, League Cups and even two European trophies.
For many, Abramovich represents the worst of football, a ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em’ mentality means that no matter how good you are, you lose to the man with the most money. This, coupled with his vast wealth in comparison to the poverty in his native Russia, has made him a deserved hate figure.
That ire has largely been displaced onto Manchester City, who suddenly became the country’s richest club overnight in August 2008 under the ownership of Emirati Sheikh Mansour, who immediately spent £30 million on Brazilian superstar Robinho, and nearly shocked the world by signing Kaka, one of the world’s finest players, six months later.
While their rise to the top hasn’t been so neat as Chelsea’s, their outlay has been even greater, attracting world class talent from around the globe, winning two titles and an FA Cup, most notably from under the nose of Manchester United in the last minute of the 2011-2012 season.
The biggest complaint about these clubs lies in three major points; firstly, that they remove the challenge aspect from football, so that any club can be successful with a major benefactor. Secondly, that there is, or should be, a moral, meritocratic aspect to football (i.e. if you’re good enough, you’ll win trophies, and become famous), which Chelsea and Manchester City, both enriched through oil, have not earned. And thirdly, that this unearned wealth of the club has soured football, in contrast to clubs like Manchester United or Liverpool, who have earned their money through their past success and sponsorship, a sort of ‘good money vs. bad money’ argument.
Notwithstanding that Chelsea were the first ever English team to qualify for European football by winning the league in 1954 (but were blocked by the FA who didn’t approve of the Cup), or that City won the league in 1937, there is a tradition of accusing these clubs of having no ‘history.’
Of course, all these points are ridiculous. Football doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and nothing happens without precedent. Money is hugely influential in today’s game, but it has been growing in influence for over a century. In 1888, Birmingham City went from a mere football club to a limited company with a board of directors, even then football came from a kick in the park to an entertainment industry. Down the road, Aston Villa signed Scottish striker Willie Groves from West Bromwich Albion for £100 by 1893, a British transfer record.
At the time, the average yearly wage for a worker was £42, the average house price around £90. Despite investigations of Villa’s apparent poaching of Groves, he immediately fired Villa to the 1894 League Championship, their first title, from which they leapt to even greater heights, winning four titles and three FA Cups before the turn of the century. How much of that was due to their greater spending power than anyone else?
This is what fans forget (or willingly refuse to know) when they imagine a pre-Abramovich golden era where the millions didn’t matter, or they forget steel magnate Jack Walker’s purchase of Blackburn Rovers 11 years previously. They forget Rupert Murdoch and his takeover of British media through Sky money that has drenched the Premier League in wealth and ever-growing greed years before the Russian came in, or Liverpool signing Kenny Dalglish for a British transfer record, or Nottingham Forest spending over double that record signing Trevor Francis for £1 million in 1979.
While it is undeniably true that money is a huge impetus for clubs to suddenly become world class, this has to happen for the good of the competition. The mediocre La Liga and the dreary Bundesliga are the most obvious signs of what happens when one or two clubs grow too rich for the league, and Ligue 1 is not far behind, when the team at the top can cherry-pick the best of the native talent.
While the Premier League is also fairly monolithic, the likelihood is that six, rather than only one or two teams, realistically can challenge for the title (maybe not Spurs). Since 2009, when United won the third of their consecutive titles, no club has managed to retain the league. Leicester City miraculously saw off the millions of Manchester City to win it the year before last, though unfortunately that is unlikely to be repeated.
The moral revulsion for football is deeply ingrained in society. While all football fans are the same people wearing different colours, football fans will often generalise (United fans are all plastics, Millwall fans all hooligans), thereby creating a moral high ground. This morality also extends on to the football pitch, a team that is rich should play football the ‘right way.’ Usually, this means attacking, expansive football to justify the expense of the players.
But football is not there to entertain. Clubs are businesses, not circuses. They have to turn a profit. Alex Ferguson understood this all too well. Entertain when you can, grind wins out when you must. On a smaller scale, so do Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce. West Brom recently bought Irish striker Shane Long from Southampton for £12 million. Not a huge outlay, but one which should contribute enough goals to keep them in the Premier League, and awash with TV money, for at least another year.
At the other end of the scale, Manchester United have spent nearly £200 million on a raft of players, aiming for Champions League, Premier League and domestic cup challenges. If they don’t entertain, but still win or at least challenge for all four trophies, then the ends have justified the means.
The global brand grows, shirt are sold, and the Glazers turn another year of profit. This is another reason why the Pogba transfer was excellent business- he sold enough shirts, gave enough exclusive interviews, started as many hashtags and was bet on enough times to be worth £89 million. Every criticism of his fee on Twitter justifies it.
Finally, the ‘good money’ argument. It is true that United don’t have one massive benefactor, but they are a commercial behemoth. Sponsorship is equally as damaging to football as any owner. This creeping commercialisation will become clearer this season, as clubs can now add an extra sponsor logo on their shirt sleeves, in addition to the one on the front of the shirt.
Sponsorship, though, is often also seen as ‘good money,’ the club has built its brand, like Manchester United and Liverpool, through their previous success, instead of the get-rich-quick schemes of a benefactor. But look closer. United recently signed a £750,000,000 deal with Adidas to make their kits, a company which still own sweatshops in the Far East, not to mention their extreme environmental damage. AIG, United’s previous sponsors, were key architects of the 2008 credit crunch and the massive global recession that followed, which is still affecting us.
For many years, Liverpool were sponsored by Carlsberg, though alcohol has far more lives than Abramovich’s oil dealings, while current sponsors Standard Chartered were recently accused of money laundering from Iran. This is not to say that Abramovich is blameless, nor is it to pick on United and Liverpool as the only instigators. Daniel Levy, often held up as a shining example of a British club having a British owner, bases his company in the Bahamas to avoid Britain’s laughably low corporation tax.
However, it is to show that even the two greatest, and most easily recognised, clubs in the history of English football are not innocent of ‘bad money’ dealings, and it would not be a stretch to say that each club’s sponsor is guilty of hiding something (Stoke, for example, with Bet365). Realistically, there is no ‘good money’ in Premier League football. Each club needs a kit maker, there are many that don’t base their massive factories in Asia.
Chelsea and Manchester City are not blameless for the financial consumption of football, but they are far from the instigators. Either football needs to kick money out (unlikely), fans need to boycott games en masse (unlikely), or more FFP-style legislation needs to be passed to prevent one club from spending more than another is worth (you can guess where I’m going with this).
There is no good money, it all comes with severe moral implications. It is time to take stock of our beautiful game, and realise that since the Victorian age, it’s always been about the richest man winnng, but once in a blue moon, you might get another Leicester City to restore your faith.