The end of last season saw dreams realised for the two rich men of the Premier League: Sheikh Mansour and Roman Abramovich. Manchester City won the league in its final minutes, whilst Chelsea won a similarly close final in the Champions League. Both were significant steps in the trajectory of the two clubs’ most recent eras. After crashing out of their first Champions League campaign last season, Manchester City will be hoping the period between league success and european success will not be as long as it was for Chelsea (seven years).
Meanwhile, Paris Saint-Germain are a few steps behind but hope to emulate the two English clubs. New owners Qatar Investment Authority took the latest step over the past few monthes with a second summer of big spending. Chelsea and Man City will remember fondly the heedy days of player rumours and big sums being bandied around. Last summer PSG signed Javier Pastore and Mohammed Sissoko among others. This season Ezequiel Lavezzi and Thiago Silva have joined them, again among others, and Lucas Moura will come in January.
Most signiticantly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has signed. This is important as much because of his status as the first superstar at the club (the first ‘galactique’ if you will) as his (in my opinion overrated) talent on the pitch. As Manchester City have found, top players only go to clubs above a certain threshold. As for the prospect of Parisian glory, the French league is of a lower standard than the Premiership, so winning that is a realistic ambition, but success in Europe will be hard for PSG.
In 1995, Blackburn Rovers were able to ‘buy’ the Premiership with the help of local business man Jack Walker. The British transfer record was broken with the signing of Alan Shearer for 3.5m. Compare that with Manchester City. It seems forgotten that City spent a lot under the thai Thaksin Shinawatra, spending about £45 million in the summer of 2007 and more the next summer before Sheikh Mansour took over. Even a bottomless budget is not enough to create a squad full of superstars. City tried and failed buy John Terry and Kaka. They first built up a squad of good premier league players, many of which have now left or are not first team players, like Roque Santa Cruz, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure and Craig Bellamy. Progression attracts better players who usurp the earlier signings.
Chelsea will tell Man City the hard work has only just begun. When Roman Abramovich bought the club, he was starting from a higher position – Chelsea were already in the Champions League – and shortly afterwards Jose Mourinho led them to two titles in a row. Since then, the era of blue dominance has failed to materialise and Abramovich has been forced to abandon attempts at cost-control. In the last two seasons the net spend was £87.3 million and £58.2 million respectively and this summer they have bought Marco Marin, Oscar and Eden and Thorgan Hazard, hoping to improve on last season’s lowly sixth position.
Since Mourinho, the club have lacked stability, the precursor to sustained success. Managers have come and gone, and the squad has aged without the necessary regeneration. The club is only now producing first team players in the likes of Daniel Sturridge and Ryan Bertrand. Arsenal, with a long-term manager and good youth system, have kept in touch with the top on a far lower budget.
Winning the Champions League is not the best indicator for quality of a club. Few would argue Porto were the best team in Europe in 2004, or that finalists Monaco were second best. However, despite the luck involved in the knock-out stages of the competition, it is telling Chelsea have only just managed to win it. PSG go into this year’s tournament as outsiders.
These three clubs are in differing stages of their attempts to enter the group of clubs football followers would consider to be historically elite, probably containing Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool, AC Milan, Jueventus and Inter Milan. Their intense spending shows that money does not go too far these days, even during a European-wide recession.
The Financial Fair Play Regulations will make it even harder for clubs to invest large amounts for long-term success. The commercial and infrastructure of big clubs gives them automatic advantage. The argument for FFP is that it is not good for clubs to spend more than they make, on the grounds of sustainability (Malaga have had severe financial difficulties this summer after their owner pulled the plug) and fairness. I support these proposals. However, one consequence may be less change at the top, as the already well established elite group have the youth systems, stadia and commercial power to make enough revenue to improve themselves and continuously outspend the others in the transfer (and manager) market. This is an outcome for which we should be prepared.