Answer: We can, but we won’t.
Alas, the question that lingers in my mind after reading Gabriele Marcotti’s primer on UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations, rules which (basically) call for clubs who spend beyond their means to be punished by Europe’s governing body. The overriding principle: Your spending needs to be in line with your clubs’ revenue. You have a new owner who’s ready to jack a bunch of money into the club? That’s great, but you better have a corresponding revenue increase. Else, UEFA can ding you.
How can they ding you? Let’s get to that in a minute.
Marcotti was one of the first journalists to dig his teeth into FFP, and he’s one of the few who have doggedly followed up on the issues (including his discussions with UEFA officials last week in Monaco). That’s important context as it concerns the broader FFP discussion, a dialog that has seen people fall into two opposing but equally naive camps. The first: Financial Fair Play is a game changer, providing strict guidelines and corresponding punishments. The second: FFP is a non-factor that determined clubs will always fine a way around.
Surprise, surprise – the truth is somewhere in the middle. As Marcotti points out, UEFA (and, president Michel Platini) have put their credibility at stake with FFP. They’re not going to let people ignore the rules, with the organization insisting “it has closed all loopholes.”
But there also aren’t mandated punishments. It’s all at UEFA’s discretion, and as Marcotti highlights, part of the regulation gives UEFA flexibility if the governing body feels a club’s heart is in the right place:
If you read Annex XI of the FFP regulations (boring, I know), the suggestion is that as long as clubs are moving in the right direction and have some plan to reach break-even, they’ll be OK. Ultimately, it’s all at UEFA’s discretion.
That discretion includes punishment. Most of the focus from fans has been on the possibility of big spenders missing Champions League, but that’s unlikely to happen. There are various levels of punishment, from fines, to roster limits, all the way to exclusion from competitions. But as Marcotti describes it, that punishment is better thought of as the NCAA’s Death Penalty – something which exists but is unlikely to be a real possibility in the vast majority of cases:
So many have focused on exclusion from the Champions League as a punishment for violating FFP. And, sure enough, it’s the ultimate sanction. Not participating in the Champions League means a huge loss of revenue and, just as important to some of the vainer owners, loss of prestige. But I think that will only come down the road, if at all. UEFA will give clubs every chance to comply. And, to be honest, if somebody insists on overspending year on year, I think there’s another way it will be handled.
Back to the question in the headline. No, people are not going to shut up about Financial Fair Play because it serves as a spectacularly flexibly lightning rod to prod others about perceived problems with the club game. Club spending is out of control? FFP! Governing bodies are bureaucratic clods? FFP! Clubs are unstoppable behemoths who make the game more about money than soccer? The inefficacy of FFP! Even if we ask nicely, this won’t stop.
As of today, we have little idea of how the regulations will be enforced. We don’t know if that enforcement will bring about a meaningful change to the UEFA landscape. It sounds like most clubs are going to be fine, even an Aznhi Makhachkala or Paris Saint-Germain who may be able to argue that short-term expenditures will eventually be curtailed while increased wages will fall in line with an uptick in revenue they’ll expect through growth of their brands.
That explanation may be all UEFA needs or wants, and if they do take a more nurturing approach to FFP enforcement, three years of speculation will be rendered meaningless. But at least then we can get back to the games.