Sure, Saturday’s victory over 10-man Spurs was sweet — it always is, when you beat your derby rivals — but these are difficult days for Arsenal Football Club. Arsenal are not my team, but I spent some quality Saturday afternoons watching them from the standing-only terrace on Highbury’s North Bank in the in the late ’70s and then from the late ’80s into the early ’90s, and — well, some of my best friends are Gooners. (They’re a decent lot the Arsenal fans, except for the occasional bad apple, like Osama bin Laden…)
But it’s hard not to feel sorry for my Gooner friends, because Arsenal Football Club is run as an excellent business — quite possibly the best in the league. And the last thing you want, if you’re a fan of any English Premiership football team is for your club to be run on sound business principles. That would be like being some spoilsport Canadian banker at the height of Wall Street’s giddy pre-2008 orgy of risky bets. Of course, it was in the golden years of Wall Street excess that saw a fortune amassed by John W. Henry of the Fenway Sports Group, which owns my own club, Liverpool, as well as some baseball team in Boston. But while his net worth may once have been estimated at more than $1 billion, Henry did not buy Liverpool in 2010 for the bragging rights; he bought it to run as a business, recognizing that the English Premier League may be the world’s most lucrative sports league. (NBC recently paid a whopping $250 million for the rights to air its games in the U.S. for the next three years, more than double the fee currently paid by FOX. English football is clearly big business in the minds of U.S. TV execs.)
If you’re a fan, though, your club being run as a business is bad news. Today, the only teams able to compete with Manchester United, the veritable Yankees of the English Premiership, are Chelsea and Manchester City — and both of those franchises are the playthings of billionaires who bought them for the bragging rights that go with owning a highly successful team in the world’s largest sport. Securing a fiduciary return on their investment seems to sit below winning titles on the order of priorities of Chelsea’s owner, the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. He has spent more than $1.5 billion on players and coaches, turning the West London club from an also ran into three-time English Premier League Champions and reigning champions of Europe.
The same appears true for Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the Abu Dhabi royal family, who bought Manchester City in September 2008, pouring more than $1 billion into assembling the most highly paid team in the league — which stole the title from their derby rivals, Manchester United, in the final minute of last season. (You wanted to hate them for buying the title, but the sight of their supporters rapturously celebrating the goal that made them champions for the first time in 44 years, during which they’ve had to suffer the taunts of their arrogant neighbors, it was hard to not to celebrate with them.)
This year’s league title already appears to be shaping up as a three-way contest between the two Manchester clubs, and Chelsea, even if it’s hard to pick a winner among them right now. United have cultivated a number of their own young players on the cheap, such as striker Danny Wellbeck, midfielder Tom Cleverly or Chicharito Hernandez, picked up for a mere $9 million from Guadalajara in Mexico. But their success has been built, more importantly, on spending upwards of $30 million apiece to acquire the likes of mercurial England striker Wayne Rooney and winger Ashley Young, as well as upward of $20 million apiece on the likes of Antonio Valencia, Nani, Michael Carrick, Phil Jones and even the portly Brazilian known simply as Anderson. Their title challenge this term, however, will be driven by two new acquisitions — former Arsenal striker Robin Van Persie, bought for some $35 million, but on wages of $370,000 a week, meaning that together with loyalty bonuses written into his four year contract he’ll cost the club closer to $100 million; and Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa, who looks a steal at $25 million from Borussia Dortmund.
Those acquisitions leave City’s manager, Roberto Mancini, green with envy, having been allowed a net spend just $50 million in the summer to burnish a squad assembled for more than ten times that amount. (City’s stuttering performances, particularly their ignominious exit from the European Champion’s League seem to bear out the idea that they may not win the title again unless Sheikh Mansour opens his checkbook in January, the next transfer window.)
Chelsea’s summer spending — particularly the $45 million on the sumptuously talented Belgian schemer Eden Hazard, and the $32 million teenage Brazilian wunderkind Oscar — has given the team a ridiculous embarrassment of riches (not that Abramovich is ever embarrassed by riches — just take a look at his yacht!) in midfield as those two combine with $30 million Spaniard Juan Mata in an interchangeable trident of playmakers operating behind striker Fernando Torres. Torres, who was acquired from Liverpool for a whopping $75 million in January of 2011, has been a spectacular failure in a blue shirt, never rediscovering the rich seam of form that made him the most feared striker in England in his first two seasons at Liverpool. No matter, though — it’s widely expected that Abramovich will simply get out the check book when the January transfer window opens and pay Athletico Madrid upward of $70 million for Colombian hitman Radamel Falcao.
And as much as you know it’s not sound business practice — heaven help Chelsea if Abramovich ever tires of the game and calls in his loans — that’s the kind of thing you want from an owner, if your club is to ever have a prayer of lifting the title.
Instead, of course, Liverpool now suffers in the grip of an icy austerity, imposed by the Fenway Group after a giddy start in which they made the mistake of bowing to sentiment by appointing Kenny Dalglish, a legendary player and coach of a generation earlier (and clearly out of touch with the requirements of winning in the modern game) to coach once again, and then allowed him to spend more than $100 million on utterly mediocre British players Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson — and $32 million on the outrageously talented Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez (although that deal was in the works before Kenny took charge). The club will be lucky to retrieve much more than a third of that $100 million by selling on players who have nothing to offer, and new manager Brendan Rodgers was allowed a net spend of just $30 million on strengthening a squad far too weak to compete for the Champion’s League spot (the top four teams in the league also get to play in this extremely lucrative elite league’s midweek games). The depth of Liverpool’s plight, and the skittishness of the owners, was highlighted when we lost out on USA striker Clint Dempsey on the final day of the transfer window by bidding a paltry $5 million — on the grounds that he was already 29 years old, the same age as Van Persie on whom United spend eight times that figure. He went to Spurs for $10 million — and Spurs is also a sound, profitable business.
Today, Liverpool regularly starts three teenagers and another four players in their early 20s; we’re not going to compete for honors any time soon, but are becoming accustomed to the outrageous exploits of Suarez giving us the ability to beat any of the top teams on the day. Freed of the expectation of making the top four, and on the understanding that Rodgers’ achievements will be judged over a few seasons, there’s a certain freedom from pressure which can make Liverpool fun to watch, right now. Others are noticing, too — which is why Manchester City are now reportedly eyeing a massive bid for Suarez in the January window. The club insists we won’t sell, and Suarez says he’s happy at the club. But if City offer $80 million or more, you never know. Because if you’re not a top club, in this economic environment, you inevitably become a “selling club” — one that’s forced to part with its top players in order to balance the books. Selling Suarez for that amount may well be a good business move. But it would be a disaster in footballing terms for a team with no other credible goal threat.
Which brings us back to Arsenal. Despite regularly qualifying for the Champion’s League and having won the Premier League three times in the past 15 years (Liverpool’s last won a league title 22 years ago), the Gooners have become a selling club. Last summer, they watched as their talismanic goalscorer Robin Van Persie opted to make $370,000 a week at United rather than half that much at Arsenal. Besides, at United he might actually win something; at Arsenal he’d gotten used to seeing the club sell his most talented teammates every year — Alex Song the same year, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri the previous year, and so on. This past summer Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger — who prefers to cultivate teenage players inside the club and slowly introduce them to the first team over the option of buying established stars — splashed some cash for Spanish playmaker Santi Cazorla, German forward Lukas Podolski and French striker Olivier Giroud. Cazorla has been excellent, and Podolski and Giroud have started to deliver. But they’re not Van Persie — as opposing fans take great delight in reminding Arsenal fans every time they miss, by repeating the Gooners’ erstwhile chant “Robin Van Persie, he scores when he wants” but changing the second phrase to “he would have scored that”.
Arsenal remain very much in the hunt for the coveted fourth Champion’s League spot, which appears to be a wide open race currently led by the likes of Everton, West Brom and West Ham, but probably more likely, in the end, to pit Arsenal against Spurs. Even as young stars like Jack Wilshere make their mark on the first team, Gooners can’t help worrying how long they’ll stay at the club. Arsenal is an excellent business, after all. CEO Ivan Gazidis insists that having paid down the debt incurred to build its mammoth Emirates Stadium, it will have plenty of cash to splash in the years ahead.
But the fans have heard too many such promises over the years.
There is, of course, the great hope of the Union of European Football Associations’ Fair Play rules due take effect in around 2016, which require teams to break even financially, and effectively cap salaries in order to do so — a move that would start to limit the power of billionaire trophy-owners to reshape the established order, as Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour did. And the English Premiership clubs are trying to come to some agreements of their own on salary caps and break-even requirements — with the league’s collective earnings through TV rights next year due to top $7.5 billion, the owners, being capitalists after all, are waking up to the idea they may not want the lion’s share of that revenue going into the pockets of players (who are employees, after all) and their agents. But they’re having a hard time reaching agreement, precisely because different clubs have different demands based on what works best to the advantage of their particular ownership model. And the implication of UEFA’s Fair Play rules are not yet resolved.
For the next few seasons, at least, money will largely decide the outcome of the English Premier League. Arsenal thrashed Spurs on Saturday, but the sad reality for Gooner fans is that the erstwhile Premiership champions now meet their derby rivals as peer competitors. Both clubs are well-run businesses, and each recorded a healthy profit last year, in the region of $80 million. Manchester City, by contrast, recorded a net loss of $300 million. But they won the title.