Saturday, September 30

It’s fitting that so many clubs are now sponsored by cryptocurrency, as Susy Campanale worries the entire system is built on money that doesn’t really exist.

It is truly difficult sometimes to find sympathy for anyone involved in modern football. Club Presidents are one minute begging the Government for help to get through the pandemic after 18 months of empty stadiums, the next spending €100m on players like Jack Grealish who are, let’s be frank here, not exactly multiple Ballon d’Or winners. Lionel Messi can stand sobbing at a podium, dabbing his eyes as he says goodbye to his beloved Barcelona after 21 years, then smile as he joins the most soulless club on the planet, Paris Saint-Germain.

I am not naïve, I know that the age of the one-club man was over a long time ago and was an implausible ideal even at the best of times. I realise that the sport is now an industry that pumps out billions and needs to keep the money merry-go-round in constant swing. I am not the Inter fans who in a day went from adoring Romelu Lukaku to calling him a ‘sell-out traitor’ for leaving them for Chelsea, the club he had always wanted to prove a point at. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have to like what the game has become either.

All that out-pouring of anger and righteous indignation aimed at the European Super League project and what we end up with is ultimately not that much different. There are still only a handful of clubs, and that group is getting smaller all the time, who can afford the top stars. Everyone else is relegated to the role of talent scout, finding and developing new players to then sell them on at the increasingly ridiculous fees the band of back-stabbing brothers are prepared to pay.

In a way, this allows the football eco-system to work beautifully, as the smaller clubs can keep fleecing the giants for more and more insane transfers, sitting back and enjoying the bidding wars while putting money aside for improved stadiums and youth academies. The problem is when the group of big spenders gets so reduced that the whole system starts to collapse. You can’t have a bidding war of one or two parties; it is unsustainable.

There is also the fear that clubs like PSG can become a black hole in the transfer market, sucking all the greatest talent in and leaving nothing for the rest. This is the part of the issue that concerns me the least. After all, Paris Saint-Germain have been trying to buy their way to the Champions League for years now and got no closer to achieving it. They still haven’t realised that building football’s Harlem Globetrotters won’t work because the Globetrotters never played competitive games. They were an exhibition team, purely there to put on a show. No pressing, aggression or tactical nous required. You might get away with that in some sports, but football is definitely not one of them.

No, the real worry I have is that we’re only scratching the surface of what is really going on in the world of football and finance. Barcelona announced they have debts of €1.35bn and very little of it has to do with the effects of the pandemic. This is decades of astonishing financial mismanagement and Financial Fair Play evidently did very little to regulate any of it. All UEFA achieved with FFP was to clip the wings of clubs who wanted to build and allow others to become that horrible phrase we’ve heard a lot over the years in other areas of life: too big to fail.

I am afraid the whole system is built on a massive deck of cards that could buckle at any moment. It’s oddly fitting that so many cryptocurrencies are now sponsoring football clubs, because they too are dealing in money that doesn’t entirely exist. Chievo Verona went bankrupt this summer, not long after a scandal showed they were trading players with massive transfer valuations who never saw the pitch beyond Serie C. If you don’t think there’s a lot more of that going on elsewhere, then you had better buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Chievo’s is a cautionary tale in and of itself of the dangers of an over-inflated economy with nothing to sustain it, but a glance at the current status of the wider transfer market should be cause for concern for others. It feels as if clubs have agreed to be part of this massive scheme where they decide the valuation of money, they trade it, they print it and create it. Transfers aren’t cryptocurrency, they are pseudocurrency, the prices set by the entirely interdependent market who have it in all their interests to pump up valuations and share the spoils between them.

In one fell swoop, it was calculated that Messi’s departure wiped €137m off Barcelona’s brand value. Meanwhile, some wag decided to pick up the tissue Leo used to wipe his eyes in that press conference and try selling it for €1m. They may as well, money is seemingly meaningless in football now.

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