Football commentator Stuart Hall is often credited with having coined the phrase, ‘the beautiful game’.
He is said to have used it first in reference to the Northern Ireland footballer Peter Doherty, when he was playing for Manchester City.
When Manchester City won the Premier League on Sunday, they did so having spent around £1.5bn in four years and having recorded a loss of just under £200m in the past year, most of which was bankrolled by the personal wealth of the club’s Abu Dhabi based owners.
Sheikh Mansour is now four years into his ten year plan to transform Manchester City into a club that is capable of dominating European football for many years to come.
When UEFA’s new financial fair play rules come into effect, which certain football clubs are likely to challenge in court, clubs will be required to break even on their balance sheets, with a couple of years grace during which they will be able to record a maximum loss 45m Euros per financial year.
Clubs like Manchester City may be able to reduce their annual operating losses significantly through enjoying substantial increases in European prize money and television income, or they may find a way of introducing more of Sheikh Mansour’s money into the club as a form of income.
But what happens when these clubs fail to reach the final stages of the Champions League, or when their wealthy owners withdraw their financial support, which they will, at some stage? And in the meantime, what happens to the rest of the clubs?
Whilst some supporters are luxuriating in the temporary glory delivered by their club’s debt fuelled successes, others are lamenting their club’s rapid decline from former title challengers to relegation strugglers. They simply cannot afford to keep the pace any longer.
Ordinary football clubs, those without billionaire owners, but who are fortunate enough to have large supporter bases spread throughout the world, are in a slightly better position than the majority of others who struggle because of these limitations.
Getting their globalisation strategy correct is important. Ensuring that it compliments their youth development strategy is absolutely critical. But there is still no guarantee of success and there is still an unbridgeable chasm between their financial standing and that of the wealthy elite.
Billionaire owners, unevenly distributed television income, ridiculous transfer fees, astronomical salaries, enormous debts and uncompetitive leagues are crippling football. Only the elite will be able to compete. The rest will just be there to make up the necessary numbers.
Football clubs firmly embedded in their local communities, with long and enviable histories, were once the heart and soul of the game. The ones which just happen to be ripe for billionaire exploitation are transforming themselves into debt fuelled global juggernauts. Heartless machines that have lost touch with their histories in order to fire a stranger’s ambitions.
If the global financial crash of 2008 is anything to go by, this is just another massive bubble waiting to burst. But it won’t just be a financial crash.
It will be a sociocultural crash falling swiftly on the heels of a psychological crash, the type that results from realising that you have nowhere to fall when you have spent the preceding years subconsciously distancing yourself from your historical identity (and for no other reason than to satisfy someone else’s temporary drive for publicity and self-promotion).
It is a very subtle form of exploitation that UEFA’s financial fair play rules may be powerless to prevent.
The correction process will be brutal.
It will see many clubs disappear from their local communities.
It will see others hanging on, but with a depressing realisation of how good things used to be – before their glamorous transformation, the very thought of which they just could not resist.
The beautiful game is rapidly facing up to the fact that it is actually the unsustainable game.