Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Ten
It was a summer of enormous transfers that confirmed what we already knew: football has entered its third age. It has gone from being a sport to being a business to being, well, what, exactly? Some sort of game for the mega-rich? A propaganda tool for oligarchs and the commodities industry? Something, anyway, in which it’s impossible for 11 men from Montevideo or Glasgow or Amsterdam or wherever to develop a style of football that multiplies their individual abilities to the point at which they can conquer the world.
Once romantics reflected gloomily on a world in which balance sheets vied in importance with league tables. Now we look back wistfully on those days. Arsenal, sitting on cash reserves of over £150 million, are openly derided. Up to a point that is understandable — fans who pay the highest season ticket prices in the world are quite right to demand that their money is spent on improving the football they watch rather than building up interest — and yet Arsenal’s achievement, competing with the best while making a profit, is remarkable. Besides which, the fact is that for them spending money still has consequences. They have worked hard to build those resources and would rather not waste them. They’re not like the sheikhs of Qatar or Abu Dhabi or the oligarchs of the former Soviet Union: their pockets are not bottomless.
As I wrote in The Guardian recently, football has become the preserve of a handful of superclubs (at times in the eighties you could look over the previous five seasons and see 17 or 18 different European Cup semi-finalists; over the past five years the total is nine). It’s true, of course, that there have always been teams with more money than the others and that they have tended to prosper, but this is different because of the nature of the wealth of the present breed of owners, for whom there are, effectively, no consequences. After Nottingham Forest had won a second European Cup in 1980, they could have become a major European force; as it was, they took on significant debts to build a new stand and wasted around £2.5m on Justin Fashanu, Ian Wallace and Peter Ward. The result was that they remained another provincial side who punched above their weight for a while before reality set in. A Paris St-Germain or a Manchester City, though, can waste £250m every year if need be — it matters only in so far as Financial Fair Play has any grip.
That means a mental recalibration. Football's tiers are more rigid than ever before and can be broken only by enormous investment where previously a clever manager and a decent crop of young players might have been enough. These days the occasional surprise team does emerge to play brilliantly for a few months but, as Athletic Bilbao, Shakhtar Donetsk and even Borussia Dortmund have found, the best players are skimmed off and they must begin again the wearying process of building. And of course Athletic, Shakhtar and Dortmund are doing exactly the same to the teams in the tier below them, and so on down the chain. That’s always been the case to an extent, but the modern distribution of revenues and the investments from the incomprehensibly rich have made the process happen more quickly than ever before.
There is a benefit, in that the best teams are probably better than any teams have ever been before; the quality of football in some games in the later stages of the Champions League is extraordinary, but the cost has been to render most domestic leagues less competitive (the Premier League this season, old certainties shaken by the richest three clubs all changing coach, is a happy exception). The gap between the top two and the rest in Spain this season could be embarrassing. Nick Harris looked at 14 leagues across Europe and found that in only one, England, were more than three teams priced at 10-1 or shorter to win the title. In many there were only two — and in Scotland, only one.
That is a worrying trend and it points in only one direction: some sort of superleague in which the superclubs clash on a regular basis. It may not happen soon, but the path is clearly marked. Perhaps that will deliver even better football, perhaps, if a regionalised pyramid can be organised, it can even stimulate the game in countries in which the league is moribund, but it’s hard not to feel that much of the game’s soul would have been lost.