What's the score with financial fair play?

Man in suit with football
Boardroom goings-on are have become just as important as what happens on the pitch
"If you generate €100m, you can spend €100m" Gianni Infantino, UEFA general secretary
  • | by Graham Thomas

Ah, welcome back, new Premier League football season.

There's nothing quite like the smell of tepid hot dog water, the sight of yellow high-viz jackets on mounted police, and the sound of massed, mumbling discontent to remind us you have returned.

Those experiences, of course, are for those who can actually afford to go to the stadia. For the chair-locked masses, familiarity comes from Jeff Stelling’s urbane Hartlepool charm, endless car ads, and the ritualistic first camera close-up of a glum-looking, roly-poly, topless and sun-baked Newcastle fan.

But the 2013-14 season is going to be different. You may find it hard to believe but our major football clubs have taken a collective vow of abstinence.

New rules - called Financial Fair Play (FFP) - have come in to all levels of the professional game for the first time. Greed is no longer good. Frugal is the new football fashion.

Or, at least, that was how it was meant to be. The sport’s governing body in Europe, Uefa, has been chipping away at the financial structure of the game for the past few years from its base in the ordered calm of Switzerland.

Concerned that many clubs have been living beyond their means - and were sent into meltdown when wealthy owners grew tired and moved on - the regulations were meant to make sure no-one spent more than they earned.

The painstaking process of clearing various legal hurdles has meant it’s a five-year process and FFP won’t be fully implemented until 2015. But 2013-14 will be the first season where clubs competing in European tournaments, the Premier League, the Championship, and Leagues One and Two, will all be monitored with punishments if they fail to comply.

In reality, clubs don’t have to break even. But they do have to keep their losses within strict limits and those limits are far tighter for clubs without sugar daddies.

The idea is not so much to prevent Arab sheikhs or Russian billionaires from pouring money into clubs, but to stop clubs from gambling when the sugar runs out.

For clubs playing in the Champions League or Europa League this season, the maximum allowable loss is £38.6m over the next three seasons.

For those only playing in the Premier League it is £105m over the same three-year period, whilst for clubs in the Championship it is £8m. But is football tightening its belt any more than during the recession, when its flabby excesses still all hung out? Is FFP working?

That depends on who you ask. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger called the rules "a joke" after Real Madrid made their reported £85m bid for Tottenham Hotspur’s Gareth Bale.

Manchester City have coughed up £72m this summer on three players - Fernandinho, Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo - while Tottenham themselves have belched £26m on Roberto Soldado.

But Uefa insist that overall losses in European football are going down for the first time and that, as a result of them getting tough on casino clubs, 41 of them have been excluded from European tournaments.

Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino says: "People see these signings and ask how it can happen with Financial Fair Play, but it's possible - if you generate €100m, you can spend €100m.

"The other thing which must be taken into account is that a club may have an agreement to pay that over five years, so the cost is €20m for the season.

"The problem comes is if a club doesn't generate €100m but spends it - then there will be disciplinary consequences."

But there are many others who choose to stand on the other side of the terrace (yes, kids, people did used to actually stand up to watch top football matches).

Dr Rogan Taylor, director of the Football Industry Group at Liverpool University, reckons Financial Fair Play is well intentioned but will only result in the big clubs shaking down fans around the world in the search for more cash.

He says:  "The pressure of FFP is to force the big clubs who want to do the big spending - and who have traditionally been able to fill the gaps by borrowing or going to their sugar daddy - to look to increase their commercial revenues.

"That sounds fine in theory, but where do they get the money? Well, they get it by effectively prostituting the relationship they have with their 300 million international fans.

"You sell those fans to your sponsors and you charge your home fans - those who can actually make it to Old Trafford, or wherever - as much for admission as the market can bear.

"So, you can see the irony. Uefa is seeking to understandably impose some kind of financial sense, particularly in the English Premier League, but it eventually heaps more pressure on the fan."

Most of the major clubs in the Premier League support Financial Fair Play and Arsenal have even suggested the regulations do not go far enough.

But having already got the super-rich behind them - Alisher Usmanov at Arsenal, Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, the Glazer family at Manchester United, and Sheikh Mansour at City - there are many who think they now want to pull the drawbridge up behind them by making investment unattractive to potential new owners at other clubs.

In the view of Rogan Taylor that would make the elite even harder to break into than it already is. "The clubs that don’t have incomes to compare with the biggest, for a variety of reasons, simply become locked in to their status - but then, they’ve been locked in for a while.

"We don’t expect Wigan or Aston Villa, or Stoke, or Sunderland, or Newcastle any more, to do anything serious except maybe get a good run in a cup competition."

All’s fair in love and war... but maybe just not in football.