The Champions League group stages kick off this week – along with the inevitable debate on whether any club from outside the small elite group of wealthy “superclubs” can win the competition.
Ahead of his team’s game in Germany against Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger complained yesterday that a rich cartel of the continent’s wealthiest clubs – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City and Chelsea – are pulling away from everybody else.
A cynic might suggest that Wenger was getting his excuses in early after a traumatic summer in which Arsenal lost their two best players to richer clubs. However, Wenger’s comments will have struck a chord with fellow Frenchman Michel Platini. The UEFA president is keen to drive through his Financial Fairplay (FFP) proposals this season and believes he can persuade all clubs to accept and abide by them.
Platini has many critics in England but there is no doubt that FFP is motivated by a desire to see a more level playing field. Certainly, Platini is not motivated by anti-English feeling. In Monaco, he told me he was concerned about foreign ownership of clubs across Europe – an increasingly common trend emphasised by the recent purchase of Paris Saint-Germain by a Qatari company.
It remains to be seen whether UEFA will use its “ultimate sanction” and expel clubs from European competition if they fail to comply with FFP. After all, UEFA needs the biggest clubs (with the biggest players) to make the Champions League a viable proposition for sponsors and TV companies.
English clubs, notably Manchester City, have received a lot of attention ahead of the introduction of FFP because their accounts are public. That is not the case for a lot of Italian clubs who are privately owned. Internazionale are the best example of such a club; it is unclear exactly how much the Moratti family have invested in the club over the years. FFP may shed some light on this matter.
If Platini succeeds in controlling club expenditure and the flow of international money, he will have succeeded where most governments have failed in recent years. The global banking crisis demonstrated that money does not recognise national boundaries or comply with government regulations.
There is general consensus in the European game that FFP should be given every opportunity to succeed. However, if Platini and UEFA want a create a truly level playing field, they should re-assess the distribution of TV revenues and prize money from the Champions League. That is where the true inequalities lie.
Arsene Wenger may complain about Arsenal being unable to compete with Barcelona and Real Madrid, but his club received 29,983,00 euros for competing in last season’s Champions League. That was the 10th biggest sum paid out to Champions League teams – not bad for a club who failed to advance beyond the last 16.
In contrast, Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk received 21,288,00 euros despite reaching the quarter-finals and despite finishing top of Group H, ahead of Arsenal.
The gap between Arsenal and Shakhtar’s revenue is explained by what UEFA refer to as the “television market pool”.
Last season a total of 754.1m euros was paid to teams who took part in the Champions League. Of that sum, 413m was paid in fixed amounts (prize money and participation fees) and 341.1m euros was paid out from the “market pool” based on the commercial strength of the respective TV markets in individual UEFA countries.
The market pool explains why beaten finalists Manchester United received 53.197m euros in payments from UEFA last season while winners Barcelona got 51.025m euros.
After United and Barcelona, the other major earners from the 2010-11 Champions League were Chelsea (44,523,000 euros), Schalke (39,750,000), Real Madrid (39,288,000), Internazionale (37,982,000), Bayern Munich (32,562,000) and Tottenham (31,133,000).
In fact, the top 10 earners all came from the four leading TV markets of England, Germany, Spain and Italy. Every year, because of the formula employed by UEFA, their clubs get richer and the gap between the richest and the rest increases.
Taking some of that money away from the richest clubs and redistributing it to clubs outside of the top four nations would be the easiest way to level the European playing field. But the continent’s richest richest clubs – including Wenger’s Arsenal – will not agree to it. Not what you might call “fair play”.