Wenger seems de­feated by the money game – Ken Early

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Ken Early

Last Thurs­day, in his press con­fer­ence ahead of Arse­nal’s match against Bournemouth, Arsene Wenger said some re­mark­able things that re­ceived lit­tle at­ten­tion, thanks to the pow­er­ful anaes­thetic ef­fects of the phrase “Fi­nan­cial Fair Play”.

Wenger has al­ways been one of the big­gest ad­vo­cates for FFP, for three main rea­sons. The first is an un­der­stand­able re­sent­ment that clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City could sud­denly leapfrog Arse­nal sim­ply be­cause they were taken over by bil­lion­aires.

The sec­ond rea­son is that clubs who avoided spend­ing money they didn’t have were bet­ter equipped to cope with fi­nan­cial shocks; they would al­ways avoid go­ing the way of Leeds United or Portsmouth. Wenger’s pre­dic­tions about foot­ball’s fi­nan­cial fu­ture have tended to err on the side of pes­simism. In 2002, for in­stance, he said that Manchester United had over­paid for Rio Fer­di­nand, who, de­spite cost­ing a then-record £30 mil­lion, turned out to be one of the best-value sign­ings in Pre­mier League his­tory.

The third rea­son, more per­sonal to Wenger, is that clubs should live within their means be­cause liv­ing within your means is good for you.

“It is a sat­is­fac­tion for a club to live within its nat­u­ral re­sources,” Wenger said in 2009, dur­ing the course of a com­plaint about Manchester City’s oil-fu­elled spend­ing. Wenger coined the term “fi­nan­cial dop­ing” to de­scribe the su­gar-daddy spend­ing at Chelsea and sim­i­lar clubs.

Nat­u­ral re­sources

Of course, as the big­gest club in the big­gest and rich­est city in West­ern Europe, Arse­nal have more “nat­u­ral re­sources” than most clubs, and it might be more “sat­is­fy­ing” for them to live within those or­ganic pa­ram­e­ters than it would be for smaller clubs in poorer cities to live within theirs.

From this per­spec­tive his en­thu­si­asm for FFP could ap­pear self-serv­ing, a fact that did not es­cape crit­ics who of­ten used to point out that the new rules would have the ef­fect of cal­ci­fy­ing the ex­ist­ing hi­er­ar­chy of clubs and pre­vent­ing new chal­lengers from get­ting in­volved.

They sel­dom point that out any more be­cause it is clear that the rules have no such ef­fect. With Ney­mar and Mbappe now in the Paris Saint-Ger­main front line at a com­bined cost of nearly ¤400 mil­lion, it is dif­fi­cult to see what ef­fect they have at all.

Wenger has been think­ing about this too, be­cause on Thurs­day he ap­peared to re­pu­di­ate the prin­ci­ples that have gov­erned all of his pub­lic state­ments about money in foot­ball since he came to Arse­nal.

“I al­ways did plead for [FFP]. To­day, I am not con­vinced that we can main­tain it. At the mo­ment, it looks like we have cre­ated rules that can­not be re­spected. There is noth­ing worse than when you cre­ate rules that are not re­spected.

“Foot­ball is maybe only at the start of a huge fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment. It has be­come the most pow­er­ful sport in the world. It means do we have to open the door com­pletely to investments? Maybe we are at the cross­roads and we have to think, do we open it with com­plete freedom to in­vest­ment for peo­ple like the Chi­nese and Amer­i­cans, who want to invest here [in Eng­land] ? If you want to re­main the best league in the world, that is cer­tainly the way we have to go.”

The man who has al­ways man­aged his club as though the foot­ball boom was about to go bust is now say­ing that the age of mas­sive out­side in­vest­ment might only be beginning? The scourge of fi­nan­cial dop­ers is now say­ing, in ef­fect: if you can’t beat em, join em?

There is a sad­ness to see­ing Wenger aban­don prin­ci­ples he has de­fended so long, not least be­cause you get the sense he feels de­feated by what has hap­pened to foot­ball. For years he tended dili­gently to his profit-and-loss ac­count on player trans­fers, as though his care­ful fi­nan­cial stew­ard­ship was as big a part of his legacy to Arse­nal as the three Pre­mier League ti­tles. But if nine fig­ure trans­fer fees are the new nor­mal, what’s the point of trying to be prudent?

Con­nec­tions

One of the rea­sons we will miss Wenger when he is gone is that he is one of the only peo­ple in foot­ball who tries to make con­nec­tions be­tween what hap­pens in the game and what hap­pens in the rest of the world.

Back in 2009, when City were the Gulf-owned club that was set­ting the pace for foot­ball in­fla­tion, against the back­drop of an enor­mous and wors­en­ing world re­ces­sion, Wenger said: “The im­pli­ca­tions (of City pay­ing £100m for Kaka) would be dis­turb­ing for the mar­ket, an in­fla­tion­ary trend in a de­fla­tion­ary world. We live in the real world. City are in a dif­fer­ent world. At the mo­ment, Eng­land loses 3,000 jobs ev­ery day. You think that has no con­se­quence on our game? It will have.”

You could see this as yet an­other ex­am­ple of Wenger’s ten­dency to ex­ces­sive pes­simism: English foot­ball seems to have emerged from the cri­sis and re­ces­sion un­scathed, the TV deals and club turnovers have gone up, the sta­di­ums are still full.

But just be­cause the bad thing hasn’t hap­pened yet doesn’t mean it never will. Wenger’s prediction is com­ing true in a more round­about way than he could have an­tic­i­pated. The af­ter­shock of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis is one of the main rea­sons why Bri­tain ended up vot­ing to leave the EU. Brexit will af­fect English foot­ball as much as it af­fects ev­ery other part of the UK econ­omy that trades with the out­side world – per­haps more, ow­ing to foot­ball’s de­pen­dency on skilled for­eign labour.

And the world most peo­ple live in is as de­fla­tion­ary as it was in 2009, while the world of foot­ball is more in­fla­tion­ary than ever. It may still be too soon to un­der­stand the long-term con­se­quences for the game. There’s one prediction Wenger should still feel con­fi­dent about.

The con­se­quences will come.

But if nine fig­ure trans­fer fees are the new nor­mal, what’s the point of trying to be prudent?

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