A statistic went around Twitter last week attempting to describe the financial inequality at play in modern football.
It said that putting together a forward line comprising Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez, Real Madrid have spent a reported $380m. This figure was than the entire $308m that Ajax spent on transfers since it was founded over 100 years ago.
1. Gareth Bale to Real Madrid (£86m)
2. Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid (£80m)
3. Luis Suarez to Barcelona (£75m)
4. James Rodriguez to Real Madrid (£63m)
The bit that the numbers missed was the only bit we might not already realise – wealth inequality in modern football isn’t just an established fact, it’s an on-going process. The gap between a small group of elite clubs and the rest isn’t fixed, it’s growing.
In Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona have always been linked with financial dominance. But a year before Real’s landmark Galactico project began in 2000, both sides’ transfer signings made up 50% of La Liga’s total summer spend. So far this summer, courtesy the third and fourth most-expensive signings in football history, it accounts for 63% of the spend.
In the Premier League’s window of 1999, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City made up just 34% of the total summer spend (City were still in the second division). This summer has seen those clubs account for 55% of the figure, a mark they have consistently achieved since the late 2000s.
In France in 1999, the two highest spending clubs at the time (Marseille and Lyon) made up 46% of Ligue Un’s total spend, while Monaco and PSG made up just 16%. So far this summer, PSG and Monaco account for 65% of it.
Revenue growing with spending
Within Europe’s five most prominent leagues, only in Italy and Germany do a small number of elite clubs not regularly make up more than half of the money spent on new signings.
There are peaks and troughs, but the overall trajectory is well established: the financial grip of the elite few is tightening. And as the clubs’ revenue grows exponentially, allowing them to spend more, the concentration of talent around them also becomes more extreme.
In 2000, Real Madrid began trying to acquire a superstar starting line-up by signing one ‘big-name’ player per summer. By 2014 that looks restrained.
|The £100m mark|
Only three clubs in the history of English football have spent over £100m.
But Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United all now hover around that mark with more than two weeks remaining of this year’s summer window.
“Real’s Galaticos project was interesting and mildly terrifying, but it was Roman Abramovich’s acquisition of Chelsea which changed the whole feel of football,” Lead editor at SB Nation, Graham MacAree, told Al Jazeera.
When Jose Mourinho arrived at Chelsea in 2004, he was able to create a squad with two top-class players in every position and, subsequently, broke the record Premier League points tally.
“This lavish spending meant that other clubs were forced to spend vast amounts of money to compete. Post-2004, first Manchester United and then Manchester City followed the Chelsea precedent in aiming for two top players for every position and squad inflation set in.”
But the piling-up of talent didn’t end in the late 2000s. UEFA 25-man squad limits (2008) and Financial Fair Play rules (2013) created a saturation point for squad sizes so clubs like Chelsea began buying and developing youth, loaning them out for years before reselling them, added MacAree.
Certain clubs began to run a surplus of talent so they could send it out to other clubs for short-term influence and long-term profit.
Last week, Arsene Wenger accused Manchester City of having bought entire other clubs in order to store its talent overflow.
Certain squads are now filled to the brim. This, in turn, impacts clubs outside of the elite. Additional layers of talent have to come from somewhere and this summer Atletico Madrid (La Liga winners) and Southampton (seventh in EPL) have lost large quantities of talent to the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United.
Their plight indicates how high and low the search for talent now has to extend to satisfy the spending power of the elite. They are, evidently, able to strip league winners and mid-table sides of their talent.
The fans are generally unconcerned by the vast expenditure that is now needed to ensure that their teams win
“The only way that the hyper-inflated market in top football talent can be controlled is through initiatives such as UEFA’s Financial Fair Play system,” Dr Simon Parker, senior lecturer in Politics at The University of York, said.
“Fines and squad-size reductions imposed on Manchester City and PSG will only reduce the impact of heavy spending at the top of the pyramid.
“It won’t do anything to close the gap between the elite clubs and the footballing peloton which exists only to provide increasingly inadequate domestic competition.”
According to Dr Parker, a more level playing field would involve “massively reducing transfer fees and introducing caps on players’ salaries” but this would be opposed by all the powerful clubs and top players and lead to successful legal challenges, he added.
“The elite dominance of domestic and international football by a handful of global brand European clubs is set to continue.
“Their fans are generally unconcerned by the vast expenditure that is now needed to ensure that their teams win.”
In short, this summer won’t be the last of its kind.