soccer needs a salary cap
Sports Online's John F. Molinaro recently returned from a British soccer marathon in which he saw eight games in ten days in London, including the grudge match of the year: Arsenal vs. Manchester United at Highbury Stadium.
Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich: is he trying to buy Chelsea the English Premiership title? (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Talk of a salary cap isn't limited to North American shores where the NHL and NHLPA remain at an impasse over a new collective bargaining agreement.
Across the Atlantic, managers of small clubs, fans and journalists are speaking out about the need for instituting a salary cap in English soccer, and for good reason.
In comparison to the NHL, England's Premiership league has little control over the spending of its owners: there is no entry-level system, no cap on rookie salaries, and no restricted free-agency. English soccer is the epitome of Bob Goodenow's "marketplace system."
It's not so surprising, then, that in the English version of football - unlike its American gridiron counterpart with its hard salary cap - success can be bought, and that is why many feel English soccer desperately needs its own salary cap to bring parity to the game.
The gross discrepancy in wealth between the top and bottom clubs has long been the clothespin upon which the Premiership has hung all of its shortcomings, foremost among them why Manchester United and Arsenal (two of England's richest teams) have won 11 of the last 12 league titles.
Only Blackburn Rovers, financed by a big-spending sugar daddy of its own, was able to break the Manchester-Arsenal duopoly when it won the crown in 1995. Now, a decade after Blackburn "bought the title," London-based Chelsea is trying to do the same.
The need for a salary cap was underlined in spades last week when Chelsea, affectionately known as the Blues, announced losses of 88 million pounds ($203.45 million Cdn) during the 2003-04 season, its first under the ownership of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
To put this pre-tax figure in perspective, it almost doubled Leeds United's previous record loss of 49.5 million pounds in 2003.
The 38-year-old Abramovich, the main shareholder in Russian oil firm Sibneft, wiped out Chelsea's 80-million-pound debt after buying the club for 60 million pounds in 2003. He has since spent roughly 200 million pounds on players and, according to a BBC report, Chelsea's player payroll for this season is a staggering 115 million pounds.
The result of this massive expenditure has been the metamorphosis of Chelsea into an instant power.
The Blues currently sit atop the Premiership standings, owning a comfortable nine-point cushion over Manchester United with 12 games to go. After finishing second last year, Abramovich's charges have been unstoppable this season, racking up an impressive 20 wins in 26 games with only one loss, and conceding a measly eight goals.
What's more, Chelsea is a candidate to pull off a historic "quadruple": the Blues will play Liverpool in the final of the Carling Cup later this month, they are still alive in the FA Cup, and they have advanced to the round-of-16 in the Champions League, European soccer's top club tournament.
Yet, even though the club is drowning in a sea of red, Chelsea supporters, soccer's equivalent of Toronto Maple Leaf fans, are blithely unconcerned. Before the club's game against Manchester City last Sunday, dozens of fans outside Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium were asked if the disastrous fiscal state of the team worries them.
The unanimous response was that they don't give the slightest damn. Furthermore, the overwhelming sentiment was that, should by some miracle the title evade Chelsea's grasp this year, they believe Abramovich should spend more on new players next season.
This win-at-all-costs mantra is hardly surprising coming from Chelsea fans, considering their team last lifted the championship trophy in 1955.
Sports Online's request to interview Abramovich about Chelsea's record losses was politely turned down by the club. Several English reporters chuckled when they heard this, saying that Abramovich has not given a single interview to any member of the English media since he bought Chelsea.
As a result of this "code of silence," questions have arisen as to why Abramovich, a man who had no previous interest in soccer outside his native Russia, suddenly appeared out of nowhere two years ago to buy the club. It was suggested by more than one veteran English scribe that his purchase of the club was nothing more than a diversification of his commercial interests outside of Russia.
Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon, however, assures that the Russian - who the club admits only began to follow the sport shortly before purchasing the team - is committed for the long haul.
But Abramovich's silence suggests otherwise, which is all the more reason for a salary cap: to prevent someone such as Abramovich, who might not have the best sporting intentions, from simply "buying" the title and once purchased, walking away from the game.
In 2005, with their club on the brink of winning its first league title in 50 years, long-suffering Blues fans are singing chorus after chorus of "Chelsea, flying high up in the sky" at the top of their lungs every weekend in the stands of Stamford Bridge.
But what happens in five years if Abramovich loses interest in his soccer plaything and grows tired of writing off Chelsea's losses as tax breaks? What happens if he walks away from the game after his mad spending spree causes salaries to skyrocket through the roof and puts the league in an even greater state of competitive imbalance?
And what happens if Roman's empire crumbles and lies in ruins because of an obscene wage bill - a predicament that a salary-cap system could prevent?
From which song-sheet will Chelsea fans be singing from then?
Unlike the hegemonic professional leagues of North America, there
is real competition in the footballing world. Some sort of squad
spending limit is a futile concept when applied to an individual
country or division within a country. If salaries were limited in
England then there would be a mass emigration, probably lead by
foreigners, with Englishmen right on their heels. The bosses in
Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Turin, Munich, and every other city in
Europe and around the world would rub their hands together with
glee as they bolstered their squads with players eager to sign.
Roman could go home, buy a club in Russia, or maybe somewhere warm,
in a strong league, with good tax breaks for foreign investors,
and then sign another squad of world class talent.
The whole idea is just laughable. Before proposing a European
big money club cap, or even a global spending system, consider
how much trouble the puny little NHL is having, with no real
competition, in terms of finances. Sure people would, I hope,
rather play in Prague or Davos or Stockholm, with a real
atmosphere, than in Buffalo or Carolina, but they want the fat
Now think of the immense scope and scale of football around the
world. All those vested interests. All the variety. A rule requiring
all clubs to live within their means, varying as they are, would
be a useful suggestion. Limiting squad sizes, as has been put forth,
would not allow big clubs to keep, in effect two full teams, freeing
up quality players for smaller clubs, presumably on somewhat smaller
salaries. The so called 'home grown' rule that FIFA is discussing
would also curtail buying.
These two proposed rules would, however, concentrate transfer fees
in country and in larger, more expensive purchases from home and
away as the same money fills fewer spaces, with higher salaries
Indeed, there are dual issues of players' salaries and transfer
fees to deal with, a salary cap would not preclude even larger
transfer fees, and a transfer cap would balloon player salaries.
A local total spending cap is simply ludicrous. A global cap is
impossible ... Unlike the complete
artificiality of North American professional sport, football is a
global game. The tide of glory ebbs and flows around all
different areas of the globe. Even the big money concentrated in
Europe cannot stop that over the long term.
What keeps European soccer competitive is the fact that it does
operate on Bob Goodenow's "Marketplace System." Clubs are financially
rewarded for success on the pitch and financially punished for failure.
Remember that the bottom clubs, in all European leagues, are demoted
and the top ones from the league below are promoted. Entry into
the Premiership brings with it vastly increased revenues, and within
the premiership itself, a top six finish is rewarded with lucrative
European competition, especially for the top four, who are rewarded
with entry into the cream of European soccer, the Champion's League.
This is the weakness of the NHL. When a club performs miserably on the ice they are in fact rewarded with top draft picks, and can just "concentrate on next season". European soccer clubs do not have this luxury, and this keeps them always focused on the present and motivated. While this may seem like a vicious circle for teams stuck in the bottom, it offers hope to up-and-comers and acts as a powerful motivational force, especially for teams on the brink of a promotion of some kind.
What Roman Abramovich has done for Chelsea is give them a (huge) push up the ladder, but if Chelsea wants to stay at the top, they will have to hold on themselves.
While Roman Abramovich's deep pockets may currently have the English premier league off balance, it is not the case that salary caps should be imposed to level the playing field.
You're absolutely right John. I admit to being a fan of the Premiership. I'm a bigger fan of the England team rather than one club, since I was quite young and unattached to one club before moving to Canada.
As a neutral, I watch the "big" games which normally involve Chelsea, Arsenal or Man U., in hope that one or all of them will get knocked off in "upset" fashion on any given Saturday on Sportsnet. Gone are the days when an inspirational manager such as Brian Clough transforms a club like Nottingham Forest into European Champions with average players and solid coaching.
One of the big three clubs will win the title with great players they've purchased through wealth. That's hardly suspenseful for fans. It's not a lot different in Spain or Italy though. I believe a salary cap should be enforced throughout the European leagues.
As you mentioned, NFL football is a prime example of how this system works because the league is now full of competitive teams.
Thanks for writing this article. I hope the message rings loud in the UK.
I must agree with your assessment of the state of English soccer, and the need for greater controls over salaries. I've become a EPL fan over the last year or two, and it is apparent that there is a big void between the top two or three clubs and the rest of the pack. Let's hope that there is some mechanism for saner heads to prevail for the good of the game. Keep up the good writing on the game of soccer. There are a rapidly growing number of fans over here who are turning on to the game!
Thanks again - and keep up the insightful writing.
The article raises good points about Chelsea, Leeds and Blackburn, but the issue can only be addressed successfully on a larger scale. It is impossible and therefore futile to consider a salary cap on English soccer alone, because English teams compete in Europe on the pitch for Champions League and UEFA trophies, and off the pitch for players.
Whenever discussing player transfers and or player salaries for
any team in Europe, the Bosman Case and its repercussions must be
included. If the English teams were the only ones to operate under
a salary cap then they would be unfairly handicapped in their quest
for European glory. In fairness then, the article should be rewritten
as "European Soccer Needs a Salary Cap."
John F. Molinaro is a reporter for CBC Sport Online
whose chief love is international soccer. John won a CBC.ca Award of Excellence
for his work on Sports Online's Euro
2004 web site.