UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin has touched the third rail of European football. Over the weekend, he publicly revealed his support for a wage cap, saying that it was a measure that his organisation would be willing to consider to combat growing financial disparity.
Of course, in doing so – or at least in admitting his intentions – he has made a raft of powerful new enemies. Even the vaguest mention of a wage cap is likely to send the clubs on the right side of the dividing line into a lobbying frenzy; turkeys generally don’t vote for Christmas.
Ceferin isn’t naive. While he and everybody else not guided by big club partisanship sees the merit in attempting to balance the playing field, he evidently also recognises that by tabling such legislation he’s inviting the risk of a breakaway. If, for instance, non-conforming clubs were barred from entering the Champions League, the breakaway scenario which the game has feared for decades would tool up and come marching down from the horizon.
The timing is strange, too. UEFA is locked in a pattern of appeasement with its biggest member clubs, with various concessions already being made over continental seeding. And, with that mood likely to continue, it seems far more likely that we’ll be discussing the introduction of historic wild-cards than a wage-cap.
Even so, it’s fun to dream: novel to consider what real competition would actually look like. While a ceiling on spending would obviously alter current transfer habits and prevent certain clubs from trying to spend their way to the top of their domestic leagues every twelve months, perhaps the biggest benefit of such a measure would be in the recolouring of a fading culture.
Teams don’t really develop anymore. Not naturally, anyway – they’re not allowed to. At the end of each season, millions of supporters speculate over how their teams can improve. What, they wonder, is needed to occupy a particular position or capture a certain cup? The answer – always, always, always – is presumed to lie in the transfer-market. Increasingly, the value of organic measures such as coaching improvement and youth player promotion is being lost to blunt consumerism. It’s not necessarily the fault of any one club, because they are all inspired to be financially aggressive by one another, but it’s still a mentality which is distorting the shape of modern football.
Why? Because the ability to spend money is not a sporting virtue. While we were forced into accepting that this is a business many years ago, there’s no obvious reason why more effort shouldn’t be made to challenge that truism. The ability to lasso commercial partnerships is obviously a skill and the sensible management of a club’s finances is in a supporter’s best interests, but success on the field is now determined by the ability to drag an important player from one team and transplant him into another – and, though scarce exceptions do exist, it’s largely defined solely by that ability.
The great irony is that the current era is generally identified as the age of the manager – a time in which tens of thousands of words a week are written about the minutiae of coaching philosophies and the illusory power of personality. But really, it’s never been less important: good coaching remains an obvious imperative, but alongside the capacity to simply outspend competitors it’s a distant second. Though we all play along and contort our opinions to suit the context, it’s faintly absurd that, in England for instance, most of the elite clubs are presented as “needing” to spend nine figures every transfer-window. Manchester City have already parted with £80m on two excellent players and yet that is only described as a “good start”. Across the city, Manchester United will either spend over and above £150m or face a mighty sulk from their manager, the implication being that he can’t be expected to do his job properly without that level of support.
Neither are wrong to employ their particular approach, but the attitude is illustrative of a continuing erosion. At the top of the game, management doesn’t really seem to matter – or at least, not nearly as much as it should. For the sake of debate, we pretend otherwise. We talk of Manager X doing Y and Player W doing Z, but only because it’s more interesting than the truth. The answer to almost every question football now poses in relation to success is answerable in the same way: it’s about the money. Over any considerable timescale, teams win if they’re rich and lose if they’re not.
So, no matter how unrealistic a wage-cap would be, it’s appeal is obvious: it would rebalance the game at a time when any realistic assessment would deem it out of control. Many different sports are profitable and there’s nothing inherently wrong with the financial growth of any of them. However, when the ability to spend money between July and September has so obviously become more important than anything which occurs when competition is in-season, the sport is no longer really a sport at all – not in the traditional sense at least, not in a way which allows the training cones, the whistles, and the five-a-side practice sessions to matter as much as they should.
A UEFA-enforced salary cap is politically impossible, at least without provoking a mutation in structure, but it’s something for which there should be far more support. It’s only when you consider what it could reclaim that you realise just how much has been lost.