The UEFA president is playing a dangerous game in trying to tame club finances.
Criticising Michel Platini is a little like criticising Nelson Mandela. It’s just not done. In the case of Platini this is partly out of loyalty to his superb playing career, partly out of respect for his undisputed love of the game and partly for his engaging persona.
However, events surrounding this season’s Champions League group draw raised intriguing questions about the direction in which the European federation’s president is leading the game and, beyond that even, what actually is UEFA’s purpose?
Platini came to power on a manifesto that promised the medium and smaller nations greater access to the levers of power and big-tournament presence.
Hence we now have:
* A European federation which appears to be locked suicidally into taking its Euro 2012 flagship to the recession-battered and politically confused co-hosting partnership of Poland and Ukraine.
* A Champions League whose groups are even more tediously unbalanced now the doors have swung open to the minnows of pot four. (Why not offer one slot to the winners of a president’s lottery featuring the champions of, say, Albania, Moldova, Liechtenstein and Andorra?)
* A Champions League with even more dead matches in the last two rounds which, in these recessionary times, may one day prompt a slumbering TV boss to demand some of his millions back.
* A proposal to ban from European competition all those clubs who cannot, in three years’ time, present a balanced accounts sheet.
It’s tempting to wonder whether Platini will ever truly be happy until the Champions League dumbing down presents us with a Final between APOEL Nicosia and Spora Luxembourg.
The books-balanced wheeze is the one which – if we do accept the promotional creed that the Barcelonas, Madrids and Manchesters really should be seen taking their football gospel to the lands of the minnows – must set alarm bells ringing.
And which cash-strapped minnows want such a system? Platini says: “It’s mainly the owners who asked to do something: Roman Abramovich [Chelsea], Silvio Berlusconi [Milan], Massimo Moratti [Internazionale]. They do not want to fork out any more.”
Do not want to fork out any more? More like cannot.
Abramovich’s vast fortune has taken a (comparative) bruising in the recession, while Berlusconi and Moratti have realised too late that the collapsed Italian financial model is not merely prehistoric but antediluvian.
And for Berlusconi to whinge about big spenders is the height of hypocrisy.
This is the man who, in the mid-1980s, turned Milan from near-bankruptcy into European champions by throwing at the club some £20million – which in those days equated to something like Florentino Perez’s £200m splurge at Real Madrid today, rather than a sum which now buys little more than a modest England right-back. Anyway, despite denials from his mansion at Arcore, all the signs are that Berlusconi is tightening down the hatches to sell.
As for Abramovich, the man then-Arsenal chief executive David Dein accused of “parking his tanks on our lawn and firing £50 notes at us”, is merely upset at being outspent.
UEFA is a highly successful administrator of competitions. That is its prime purpose. Yet it risks heading into ill-defined spheres which will not encourage thrift but criminality.
Has Platini forgotten the lessons from his own (French) backyard? How even powerful clubs such as Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne systematically diverted local government subsidies for their community and youth projects into slush funds which were used to pay under-the-counter transfer inducements? How clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain lured players through bypassing high tax rates with the artifice of (untaxed) image rights deals?
The more arbitrary, complex and ill-appointed the financial regulations the more the probability of loopholes.
Here we have not so much a loophole but a chasm. Platini says debt accumulated for stadia building will be acceptable. Prepare for a flood of high-price stadia redevelopment proposals…and who knows where significant slices of such monies will really go?
Who can police them? Certainly not UEFA, who are a sports federation, not a police force or one of the world’s multinational forensic accountants.
Hate them or despise them, the least that can be said about the likes of Abramovich, Moratti and Perez is that they put wonderful football teams on the pitch twice a week.
Does UEFA do that? No. Platini would say that it provides the competitive context. But for how long? Not for too many more years at this rate.
Fellow Frenchman Arsene Wenger may have been too cautious in thinking it could be 10 years before the big clubs create a European league. And not necessarily with UEFA’s blessing.
If that happened, the players will be outside the FIFA family and will thus risk missing the World Cup. On the other hand, turn that argument on its head. FIFA needs the likes of Messi, Rooney and Ronaldo at the World Cup. Could the big clubs go to Zurich over UEFA’s head?
Criticism of the direction of UEFA under Platini is hard to find. It’s as if everyone remains so mesmerised by respect that he is beyond question.
I yield to no one in my admiration of Platini’s will to do the very best for the game which gave him so much. My point is that, unnecessarily, he may be playing a far more dangerous game than he realises.