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It’s football Jim….but not as we know it

 In most industries, news of a massive investment is seen as a good thing – a vote of confidence in the sector and the harbinger of good and profitable times.

 

So why was it that the news that the Abu Dhabi United Group had bought Manchester City, the Premier League soccer club, left so many people feeling so uncertain and unsure.

Perhaps it was the sentiment expressed in the opening interviews and communiqués which cast such a depressing shadow. Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim, who fronted the deal, spoke of his determination to make City a Top Four club within three years and splashed out a small fortune of the Brazilian player Robinho just to show the world he was serious. 

He went on to make it clear that there were no financial barriers to achieving that goal and hinted that all of the world’s best players were now city targets.

As you will all know by now, these guys are serious players. Abu Dhabi United Group is reported to be worth between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion so the few hundred million they splashed out on a team which shares a home market with the current English and European champions may be seen as small change. 

“We have deep pockets,” Dr Al-Fahim told journalists as he set out his stall in Manchester.
And maybe that’s where the problem lies. Whereas in most cases having deep pockets is something to be welcomed and celebrated, in the context of football, this rule may not apply. 

When Roman Abramovich took over Chelsea his money created a seismic shock felt across the world of football and proved two things – that you can buy success but not love.

Now, as Manchester City fans don their Arab headresses in tribute to the man who changed their universe, the football world is reeling again and wondering where the aftershocks will leave it. What’s for sure is that those shocks will be felt in a number of ways. 

First, such a public flaunting of pocket depth and clear statement of intent to snap up the world’s top talent will lead to further inflation in the transfer market. It’s quite simple. When somebody tells you they’re loaded you put the price up and the knock on effect is that all prices go up. You can argue that it means more money coming into football but inflationary impact means that the only real beneficiaries will players whose salaries will soar to new levels. 
Inevitably this will increase the gap between the clubs which have rich benefactors and those which don’t, marginalising other Premier League clubs and ultimately making the gap between the rich and poor impossible to bridge. 

Talking to die-hard football fans after the Manchester City announcement you got the impression that this is what they found hardest to take. While they had grown used to the Abramovich effect over the years, the arrival of a new financial force in the game, and one which dwarfs he spending power of Abramovich, changes the rules once more. Maybe it’s a step too far.

Football fans are football fans for a number of reasons. Of course they love the game, its fluidity, its moments of exhilarating excitement and sublime skill. They love its personalities and the dramas which surround them. They love having something to talk about at work and in the pub. But mostly they love their club and live in the hope that one day that club might rise up to join the giants. If you are football fan it is this hope which keeps you going. Now this might have been an exercise in futile self-delusion through the Abramovich years but most fans kept the faith. The question is whether the City acquisition is of such an immense scale and impact that it spells the end of hope and whether significant numbers of fans will simply fall out of love with a game which they can no longer relate to and which they don’t feel has room for them.

The other key issue is one of competition. Logic suggests that if the Premiership becomes less competitive it becomes a less compelling spectacle and will eventually begin to lose audience and share of mind and becomes less commercially attractive, creating problems for the future.
So maybe the solution is to reconfigure football’s future somewhat along the lines suggested many years ago by Alex Fynn, a figure whose theories have tended to be dismissed by those in power within football but who may well come to be proved a real visionary.

The notion of a European League has often been dismissed as pie in the sky thinking, not least because real fans continue to relish the matches against their historic domestic rivals. That, the argument goes, is the fare real fans want dished up week in week out with European football saved for special occasions.

The arrival of a bunch of super rich foreign owners has to be an indication that football has changed so much, so fundamentally, that consideration for the traditions of the game are not even close to top of the agenda.

Since the Premier League was formed, the world has moved-on. It may turn in the same way but so much else has changed, economically, politically and socially. The new owners are part of the change. They represent a new world order and in it the connection between clubs and their traditions is being stretched gossamer thin. 

They will think of the future, unencumbered by the past, and it would surprising if that future didn’t include a European or even World League in which the cash-laden super clubs funded by the Big Swinging Cheque Books of the cosmos compete within their financial peer group, leaving national leagues to be more competitive, interesting and engaging.

That would leave the owners free to develop their global superbrands to what they see as their full potential and, with the right financial and commercial structure, could event give them a decent return on their money after a while. 

Separating the sheep from the lambs in this manner could be the way of ensuring the long term future of club football by creating a new focus for the super clubs and re-invigorating competition for the rest. It might also keep disenchanted football fans in love with the game, possibly supporting a Super League and another in the national league.

Sorry. Did I just suggest that a real fan could support two clubs? Even in this rather surreal football world of silly money and sillier marketing ideas, that’s simply a step too far. There’s more chance of a European Super League.

 

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