This article appeared in German yesterday on the Capital.de website, for which I’m now writing a monthly column. I wrote it in English, they translated it into German, and the google re-translate into English is inelegant. So here is the original English version
“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
What does Financial Fair Play really mean? Fair Play is one of those constructions that have become so commonplace in our discourse that we scarcely think of its meaning. If called upon to define it we might say it has something to do with honesty and justice in a sporting context, but all too often it has become an adjective which we append to signify our approval, in the same way that we might use the word “democratic” to describe something we like, and “fascist” for something we don’t.
Fair Play is a concept given to the world by the English language, like the word football. The English words “Fair Play” have been adopted in almost every other language (judging by my search on Google translate) and the German anglophile, Rudolf Kircher who wrote a book on the subject in 1928, roundly declared “the words are untranslatable”. He argued that the concept is something that you learn as a child “that it is wrong to take advantage of the weak, and unmanly to ill-treat a beaten adversary”.
Actually the use of the term does not originate in sport, but is first found in Shakespeare, when a character in King John says “According to the fair play of the world, Let me have audience”. When the witches in Macbeth say “fair is foul and foul is fair”, words that might be spoken by a football coach determined to win at any cost, the word you should understand is “play”. The earliest use of the word in a sporting context that I have been able to find relates to cricket, in a memoir of the Hambledon cricket club written by John Nyren in 1832, including the rules of the game, of which one is “the umpires are the sole judges of fair and unfair play”. Not that this prevented one hard-done-by cricketer complaining that his defeat was attributable to the latter.
So how does this nebulous concept come to be applied to the finances of European football clubs? Certainly, if you read Article 2 of the Financial Fair Play regulations (as I encourage everyone to do) the stated objectives do not mention fair play or fairness, but rather emphasise the, shall we say, Germanic virtues of “discipline and rationality”. Whether discipline and rationality would benefit European football is an interesting debate that few seem to consider seriously. It has developed in the last 50 years in a higgledy-piggledy fashion to dominate global sport – why else are American investors so desperate to get a piece of the action? Despite persistent financial instability of the clubs, they almost never disappear as sporting entities. For example, of the 74 clubs playing in the top divisions of England, France, Italy and Spain in 1950, 72 still exist (2 French clubs were disbanded, one in 1965, the other in 1970). “Creative destruction”, a phrase used by Joseph Schumpeter to characterize the genius of the capitalist system, has served football very well. Why are we so sure that the heavy hand of regulation will do so much better?
But financial fair play? Really? What is fair about the fact that Bayern Munich can simply use their financial muscle to buy all the best players of their rival teams? Or that AC Milan’s dominance of Italy was created by Silvio Berlusconi pumping billions from his broadcasting empire into the team, but now no one else can do the same thing? Or that half of the €5.6 billion generated by the UEFA Champions League in the last decade has accrued to just ten clubs?
Whenever Financial Fair Play is mentioned the names of Roman Abramovitch and Sheikh Mansour are quoted- what they are doing to football, it is alleged, is unfair. Yet in reality they are convenient scapegoats for a political deal that UEFA has stitched up between football’s rich and poor.
The economic reality is that most clubs do not have a sugar daddy and a very large fraction are insolvent. According to UEFA 55% of clubs in Europe’s top divisions reported a net loss in 2011, 38% of clubs reported negative net equity, and 16% of club accounts reviewed contained a qualification expressed by the auditors as to financial viability of the company. This does not make UEFA look like a good housekeeper, so they want to impose tighter regulations. However, since almost all of the insolvent clubs are minnows, it might look as if they were doing the bidding of the big clubs. UEFA would not dare to restrict the freedoms of the established powers and by focusing on sugar daddies they are actually helping them by ensuring that no currently small club will ever pose a serious challenge. Voila, call it Financial Fair Play, and who could disagree?
This was Orwell’s point. The decline of English, he thought, was a political phenomenon. “Political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”, and if we allow this to go unchallenged we will indeed fall into slovenly thought. UEFA, with the support of many politicians, want us to use warm phrases emptied of their original meaning as camouflage for the pursuit of an agenda which has little to do with fair play and much to do with the exercise of power. But if we listen to Orwell, we need not be fooled. All we have to do is to ask what the words really mean.