Financial Fair Play: Is it Really That Fair?

Despite its title, UEFA’s Financial Fair Play system has been an insult to the integrity of soccer and has created problems that could significantly affect the beautiful game in the long run.

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By Carmen Gomez-Vollalva

When the governing body of European soccer, UEFA, implemented a system to control the vast amounts of money that were becoming ubiquitous in the sport in 2011, it seemed like a great idea. Called the Financial Fair Play Regulations (FFP), they promised a way to protect the financial interest and longevity of smaller teams while preventing financial doping from richer sides. However, more than a decade later, FFP is still grappling with the problems arising from investment immensity. In fact, many fans have argued that FFP has done more harm than good, as its regulations have slowly tarnished soccer’s values rather than preserving them.

One of the key reasons UEFA instituted FFP was the increasingly high amount of debt racked up by teams all over Europe. This debt was particularly problematic for smaller clubs that were spending frivolously to chase success and found themselves drowning in financial problems. To prevent this, FFP forced clubs to balance their books by punishing teams that were spending way more than what they earned. However, these regulations created an entirely new problem. Already financially restrained because of their low incomes, most teams toward the bottom of the soccer pyramid become stuck in their place with no hope of climbing out. If they want to splash the cash, they have to rely on the unlikely chance they will have enough success to cover their debts. Otherwise, they risk being slapped with detrimental sanctions or point deductions by FFP that seriously endanger their future. Meanwhile, bigger clubs do not have to worry about these consequences because their history and success provide a large, stable financial foundation. In essence, FFP’s laws only serve to restrict the already-limited potential of smaller teams, failing to paint the picture of financial fairness it was designed for.

FFP has been equally terrible at the other end of the spectrum. In the majority of cases, wealthy owners of big teams have found loopholes in FFP laws to avoid punishments that limit how much money they can spend. Most recently, Chelsea’s chairman Todd Boehly was exposed for exploiting contract lengths to spend over $1 billion on players in one year. Because transfer fees are amortized over the course of the player’s contract, Boehly signed young players on extremely long contracts so Chelsea’s accounts could technically avoid violating FFP. UEFA would eventually realize this a year after Boehly made his first signing and amend the regulations so that clubs can only amortize transfer debts for up to five years. But, the amount of time it took for the committee to be aware of this mistake—especially given the rise of cutthroat conglomerates and state-run owners—is very concerning. As aforementioned, this is only the most recent controversy. Three years ago, Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City was banned from playing in European competitions due to allegedly breaching FFP regulations and refusing to comply with the investigations. But after five months and a lawsuit, the English club walked out relatively scot-free, with an overturned ban and a measly €10 million fine, as the incompetence of FFP enforcement reared its ugly head again.

Last but not least, fans are starting to see the consequences of this unregulated money affect not only their clubs in the boardroom but also the players on the field. Player transfers with giant contracts are now commonplace, and these paychecks are handed not just to hardened veterans but to inexperienced youths. Inevitably, this will shift soccer’s young talents to prioritize money over club passion and loyalty––benefiting players, but proving detrimental to team performance. For example, Chelsea’s squad, where the majority of players are under the age of 25 and have astronomical paychecks, just suffered their worst finish in the Premier League in seven years. Their domestic competitors at Manchester United are also suffering currently and just sparked controversy when their manager Erik ten Hag publicly criticized the highest-paid player, the young winger Jadon Sancho, for lack of effort in training. In France, fans of Olympique Lyonnais openly berated their players after a 4-1 loss to PSG that saw them fall to last place in the league. What made soccer a unique and unifying sport was the core belief that a club’s servitude to its fans should always come first above all else. Unfortunately, these values are slowly dying due to the increasing influence of money, and it is undeniable that the handling of FFP had a part to play in it.

To conclude, the FFP regulations set by UEFA have been a giant mess that have detrimentally impacted European soccer. From restricting success in smaller teams to failing to earnestly address the issues of debt and financial doping, it is clear that this current version of FFP is not the direction that the administration of the sport wants to be heading in. UEFA must consider removing FFP altogether, as the organization has shown repeatedly with their inept handling of rule-breaching clubs that financial parity is not important to them. On the other hand, if UEFA are truly serious about these goals, then they should amend their rules so that a level playing field is provided for teams and stricter jurisdictions are implemented that will enforce said laws. However, given the many corruption scandals UEFA and its supervising organization FIFA have found themselves in, it is unlikely that any significant amendments will happen. For now, the soccer world can only patiently wait in the hope that the consequences of these actions do not escalate to the point that they uproot the beautiful game as we know it.