If you haven’t been following football recently, you wouldn’t perhaps know that Manchester City, having been one of the dominant forces in English football for the past decade, have been charged with around one hundred breaches of the Premier League’s financial rules. Such an indictment is a symptom of perhaps one of the most pressing crises afflicting football — the unending flow of money.

A Story About Money

Supporting City before 2008 was not the easiest thing to do. Since the Premier League was founded in 1992, the highest position they had secured was eighth in 2004/05. They wallowed around in mid-table mediocrity, even getting relegated to the First Division (confusingly the second tier of English football) in the 2000/01 season. Manchester City were not a force in English football. In fact, they were barely even an afterthought in the grand scheme of things — especially when compared to their rivals, Manchester United. Then, the Abu Dhabi Group, led by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nayhan — a member of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family, took over. The money poured in, and City haven’t looked back since.

The first season (2008/09), proved quite disappointing. Manchester City finished tenth despite having broken the British transfer record to sign Robinho for £32.5 million. Since that first season, however, their lowest ranking has been fifth the following season. They have also won six of the 14 titles available in that time, coming second a further three times. Prior to these titles, the only time they had finished top of the first division of English football was back in 1968. In short, this is not a story of a club competing at the top of the table for a while, but one about a club propelled to success by an influx of money.

But this story is not just about Man City. Football has become a more expensive sport, particularly the buying and selling of players. Out of the one hundred most expensive transfers of all time, only three were made over twenty years ago, and not one ranked higher than number 30. The additional spending on transfers means teams need more revenue to stay competitive, hence the need for rich owners/investors or price hikes. Given the comparative financial strength of the two clubs, you would think that buying a football shirt from Arsenal would be cheaper than from Wigan Athletic, given that the latter have financial problems to contend with. Yet an Arsenal shirt costs £70, whereas the Wigan shirt comes in at just £47. Now factor in that more Arsenal shirts are likely to be sold than Wigan shirts because of Arsenal’s global fanbase, and it doesn’t quite add up. Unless, of course, you consider the costs of running a top Premier League Club — like transfer fees and wages.

More Money More Problems

Left unchecked — which has so far been the case — these problems will fester. More clubs will become dependent on lucrative takeovers to survive in the top flight, needing to invest in star players to stay competitive. This gives academy players less chance of making it into the starting eleven. As a result, potentially great players will be consigned to comparatively mediocre careers at lower-league clubs, having been denied the chance to play for the club they have supported most of their lives. To ensure enough profit is made, owners will seek to raise ticket, merchandise and food prices — pricing out many loyal fans as a result. One only has to look at the furore over the price of a season ticket at Fulham FC to see how this could play out. Players may chase wages, not care for the reputation of the club or league they end up in, and seek opportunities to move when a better deal comes along. The whole product of football, its entertainment value, will inevitably be the casualty.

These problems, while serious, are not insurmountable. As salaries spiral out of control, a salary cap should be introduced by every footballing federation and association worldwide. Players should not be moving just for the sake of money. Love for the club, the project or the fans must be a part of the equation. A player should be at the club because they want to be there and not because their financial advisor says so. I find it quite hard to believe that Cristiano Ronaldo was motivated to swap Manchester for Riyadh by a strong affection for Al-Nassr. Rather, that immense pay packet ($75M per year) arguably clinched the deal. Capping players’ salaries is not just about cutting costs for clubs and their fans, it’s also about injecting football with some passion and intensity. We need games where every player fights tooth and nail for the club every time they’re out on the pitch.

Wages, however, are only part of the problem. Transfer fees have skyrocketed too. Fans are fastly becoming desensitised by the sheer amount of money players move clubs for. One of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League, Aaron Ramsdale, has turned out to be a ‘bargain’ at a mere £24 million. You could buy a one-bedroom flat in London for that sort of money! If transfer fees were banned and contracts either seen out or mutually terminated in the event of abysmal performances, the costs for clubs would drop dramatically. Players would need to be invested in their club’s projects for the long term. Big teams wouldn’t be able to poach wunderkind players as soon as they burst onto the scene — as Borussia Dortmund did with Erling Haaland. Crucially, leagues may end up being more competitive at lower prices for fans. Surely a win-win.

You might say that this article has been an exercise in idealism. There is scant chance of any action being taken, and solving football’s financial issues won’t bring back the beautiful game. But if FIFA and the powers that be were brave enough to take bold action, we could at least progress towards a new type of football culture; one that truly puts the fans first.

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