Cleaning up football?

There is a good old sceptical expression: "People who think they have invented hot water." An adage which seems highly apposite in the present case of the report on European soccer issued by a body known as The European Sports Review: Initiated by European sports minister among them Richard Caborn (who?) the British incumbent, latest in a long line of ineffectual mediocrities. And this is what the report so memorably says: without salary caps, "the richest clubs will acquire all the best playing talent by simply paying more money to players."

Wow! How long did that take these numbskulls, under the aegis of a Portuguese ex-minister, Jose Luis Arnaut. But when he and the deeply unimpressive Portuguese President of the European Union, Jose Barroso, had to meet Tony Blair; guess what: he had flown to Iraq. Even poor old put upon Caborn, who intended to accompany them back to Brussels on the Eurostar, had to get off the train before it could even reach the Channel tunnel, to participate in a vote in the House of Commons. The word being that though Blair, to his embarrassment, of having initiated the report, now doesn't want to do anything with it. Neither does his arch political rival, Gordon Brown.

Not that the hearts of those misty eyed people who compiled the report were not in the right place. Of course soccer in the major European countries, notably England and Italy, is awash with money, salaries vertiginously high, in sharp contrast, all too often, to the entertainment provided on the field, while transfer fees are hyperbolically high. But what do you practically do about it? Of course, anybody but a Chelsea fan would accept that the colossal sums of money poured into the club by their Russian billionaire, the so-called oligarch Roman Abramovich, has radically and dismally distorted English football. So much so that, when Chelsea lose in a major competition, such as this season's FA Cup and European Cup, there is a sense of relief bordering on joy in the English game at large.

But what do you effectively do about it? Salary caps? Who says that above all, in these post-Bosman days, and don't forget it was through the courts of the European Union that this freedom of contract came about, could it be made to work? It would surely be challenged in those same European courts but above all, how could it be imposed and administered? There are, you might say, more ways of killing the cat; or paying the player.

Yes; wholly agreed that wages and transfer fees have gone berserk. UEFA, who, themselves are involved in the report, certainly have a case. That Michael Ballack, transferred from Bayern Munich to Chelsea, will be paid not only �130,000 a week but another �25,000 a week on top of it for his so-called image rights, seems the stuff of fantasy. Nor is Ballack the most highly paid player in the world. Television money — aside from Chelsea and their Oligarch — has been largely responsible for clubs being able to pay this sort of money; and the new deal achieved by England's Premier League, bitter opponents of the report and its suggestions, guarantee that the massive stream of money will continue for many years at least to come.

The report also wants to impose a payroll tax on clubs, European regulations on transfers, and "a minimum number of home grown players." Which raises a hollow laugh, for was it not the European Union itself which for years battered away at UEFA's very proper desire to limit the number of foreign players from the European Community, permitted to any one club? For a long time the late Artemio Franchi, the Italian President of UEFA, a skilful and subtle diplomat, somehow, most ingeniously managed to keep the European Unity at bay.

Now and again he had to compromise, allowing a greater participation of European Union players from abroad in foreign clubs, but when he died, there was no one in UEFA with the same skills and ingenuity. I was certainly among those who supported him fervently.

But the walls came down as in law they inevitably had to do, since his and UEFA's claim then that soccer should be made a special case, exempt from the law, that all workers in the Union had the right to ply their trade in any of its members.

A bit late for UEFA to start lamenting the fact that young native born players have been put at a serious disadvantage by the flood of foreigners brought into the game. Not least in England, where Arsenal have often been known to field a full team of foreigners with another five on the bench.

Comparisons are indeed odious by and large, but perhaps they are worth making in this context. Footballers' earnings at the upper levels may seem grotesquely high, but compare them with those of pop and rock stars, let alone film stars, or with top athletes in American baseball, basketball and grid iron football and they can seem almost commonplace.

Our old friends market forces is to be blamed, or at least to be cited. You may say the pendulum has swung and may even feel that it has swung too far, but until Jimmy Hill and his players' union won a bitter battle with the Football League in 1960, the maximum wage in English football was �20. No great sum, even if you assess what that would be worth, post inflation, today. And even after it had been abolished, many a League club treated its players with extreme parsimony.

As for freedom of contract, which the Bosman case achieved, I have always been in favour of it. For so many years, professional footballers in England were bound hand and foot to their clubs.

There was no escape from their contracts, as one of the greatest of all English wingers, Tom Finney, found out in the 1950s, when Palermo wanted to pay him infinitely more than the pittance he was earning at Preston North End. How many great players were reduced to penury, when they were obliged to give up the game?

A peculiarly fatuous initiative of the recent report is that the owners and directors of clubs should be subject to vetting, to see whether they are suitable, a kind of moral examination. What a joke! The father of the present, Russian, co-owner of Portsmouth, who has allegedly put up his son's money, cannot leave Israel for fear of arrest. Ex-safe crackers have owned English clubs.