The game's gone

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been a long-standing critic of big money in football.-AP

The blunt and even brutal fact is that both Manchester City and Chelsea, with their colossal wealth, Chelsea being bankrolled by the oligarch, Roman Abramovich, have utterly distorted the balance of the game. Not even mighty Manchester United can compete with such wealth, not even Liverpool, American owned, now, as virtually are Arsenal, who lag far behind the financial giants, writes Brian Glanville.

“The game's gone!” is a phrase you hear more and more frequently on the lips of ex soccer managers and from veteran football writers. As one who has been covering the sport, if that is what you can call it, I think I know what they mean. Relations between press and players have never been so distant. Press officers in their duties, it often seems, are trying to keep journalists at bay, rather than assisting them. When you read that Inter and Holland's Wesley Sneijder is graciously prepared to cut his weekly salary to a mere GBP190,000 if he were to join Manchester United, and that the ever rebellious Togo international Emmanuel Adebayor was being paid a mere GBP165,000 a week; and was to be covered GBP300,000 for missing Manchester City training, after coming back from a loan period at Real Madrid, you realise just how radically football has changed over quite recent years.

The latest monstrosity is the making of a contract between Manchester City and Ethiad Airways for GBP40 million, in exchange for renaming their Eastlands Stadium after the Airways, thereby neatly stepping round the new, coming, regulations, imposed at UEFA by Michel Platini, to limit the spending to remain within its actual earnings. The significant point being that City are of course, owned by the mega rich Abu Dhabi tycoons, Sheik Mansour, being the hands on charge, while the airline, whose owners have very little connections to Mansour and company, are also from Abu Dhabi! Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, had spoken out bitterly against the deal, which prompted brisk declaration of innocence from City themselves.

The blunt and even brutal fact is that both Manchester City and Chelsea, with their colossal wealth, Chelsea being bankrolled by the oligarch, Roman Abramovich, have utterly distorted the balance of the game. Not even mighty Manchester United can compete with such wealth, not even Liverpool, American owned, now, as virtually are Arsenal, who lag far behind the financial giants.

The current condition was recently emphasised by the death at the age of 64, of Mike Doyle, once the combatable captain of Manchester City, very loyal to the club — he was born just outside Manchester — and an opponent of the historic city rivals, Manchester United. For them Doyle almost had visceral hatred. The only contemporary equivalent would in fact be in Manchester United footballer Gary Neville, for many years the England right back, who never played for any other club. He was in trouble when United had beaten City in the traditional Mancunian derby, he ran to the City supporters' end and flaunted the United badge on his shirt. But these days they are emphatically the exceptions who prove the rule.

One should however, keep a historical perspective. If players in the English League are all now millionaires, it took a very long time indeed for them to reach anything like such financial heights. Indeed, they owe their wealth in no small measure to an obscure Belgian player, now outrageously, living in comparable penury, who bravely and persistently obtained from the English Court the so called Bosman Decision, whereby, at long last, European players could enjoy true freedom of contract, able to walk away from their clubs for free once their contracts ended.

So, at long last, players would have the whip hand. Let us dwell on the history. When soccer was officially suspended in 1915, early in the Great War there was a maximum wage, limited to GBP9 a week. That was actually quite good money then, when a factory worker was probably obliged to eke out his life on 30 shillings. You'd have to multiply like mad to assess what that means post massive inflation. But when soccer officially resumed in 1919, what did the League clubs do, but reduce the maximum wage to GBP8 a week and there it stayed, right up to the Second World War, which began in 1939.

By the time Jimmy Hill, a Fulham footballer and energetic head of the players union, the PFA, got his way, after a long and bitter fight with the Football League, in 1961, the then maximum wage was GBP20 a week, but even after his victory, players were still bound tightly to their clubs. One thinks of the marvellous, ambidextrous, winger, Tom Finney, who not long after the War played, as he always would, for local Preston North End, and was wanted by the Premier clubs at wages vastly in excess of what he was earning. His Chairman told him there wasn't a chance of his leaving.

Fast forward to 1992 and the highly controversial birth of the Premier League, which I promptly christened as the Greed Is Good League. Thought it's a virtual betrayal by the Football Association of its historical trust to hold the ring for each and every club, however humble. And it was more surprising that it was the then FA chief executive, Graham Kelly, called Kelly the Jelly, who did the deal, having previously and ironically been with the Football League, traditionally and even, sometimes, bitterly, at loggerheads with the Football Association. So, after the hugely lucrative TV deal with BSKY, the bigger clubs cast the lesser ones into outer darkness and it's abysmally hard for so many of them to flourish and sometimes even survive.

And the Premier League can be said, sometimes, to cut corners. Not in the erratic assessment of who are “fit and proper” owners. Richard Soudamore and his fellows blithely nodded when Thaksin Sinavatra came on the scene. But soon afterwards Sinavatra was forced out of Thailand, where he'd been President, accused of corruption and even, by Amnesty International of torture and murder.

Now, recently, we have the example of Carsos Yeung, who was allowed to buy Birmingham City but now faces trial in Hong Kong accused of money laundering running into millions, while the club itself is in the red for the sum of near GBP25 million! One fears for the excellent Chris Hughton, recently appointed.