If you ever want to forget that England is half a grey island with collapsing house prices, watch football. This week, English clubs will try to provide three of the semi-finalists in Europe’s Champions League. In football, if nowhere else, the English still rule.
But as the national anthem warns, the Queen’s enemies are always up to “knavish tricks”. Inevitably, the chief enemy in the popular imagination is a long-haired Frenchman: Michel Platini, president of the European football association UEFA.
Platini is something of an anti-globalisation protester. English clubs, which live off foreign capital and foreign players, incarnate global capitalism. So the media are always reporting Platini’s latest anti-English dodges: He’ll stop clubs buying young foreigners! He’ll tax their transfers, cap their salaries, hound the sheikhs and Russian oligarchs who bankroll English football! Platini’s pal, Sepp Blatter, head of the global football authority Fifa, will allow only five foreign players per team! That would dethrone the English.
In fact, all this talk overestimates Platini. Most of his and Blatter’s plans will never happen. The others will barely hurt the English, and may even help them. Here is an unhysterical guide to future changes in football:
The 6+5 rule. Fifa wants each club to field at most five foreign players, alongside six nationals. As even Platini recognises, “6+5” will never happen because it offends a basic principle of European law – the free movement of labour. Quite simply, you can’t stop a French footballer from working in England. The European Commission also dislikes Platini’s proposed ban on foreign transfers of under-18-year-olds.
A salary cap. Platini wants to stop clubs from spending more than about half their revenues on salaries. Logically, club owners should be delighted to cut costs. Weirdly, though, their European Club Association has rejected a cap. Moreover, UEFA admits the cap would be “frighteningly difficult to administer”. And a cap would help English clubs anyway, because they have the highest revenues.
A “luxury tax” on large salaries and transfers. Platini recently dispatched UEFA officials to the US to find out how American sports distribute revenues so fairly. The officials flew home with stacks of documents, and egalitarian ideas like the “luxury tax”, but also with the sense that what works in America will prove trickier in Europe. The US, after all, is a single country, and its sports clubs are mere “franchises” of its leagues. That makes new rules easy to enforce.
By contrast, Europe is fragmented, and its almighty football clubs love slapping down pesky regulators. A tax would be a nightmare to administer, because some clubs don’t declare salaries and transfer fees honestly. This tax is not a priority for UEFA.
A squad cap. Each club, no matter how rich, could only employ about 25 professional players. (Liverpool now have 62.) Such a cap may happen. However, it would barely trouble English clubs. Already they can only register 25 players for the Champions League, yet they rule the competition.
A tougher licensing system. This will probably happen. Clubs playing in European competitions will have to keep proper accounts, and pay salaries and transfer fees promptly. However, such rules would hurt certain feckless continental clubs, not big English ones, which tend to pay on time.
Platini is realising his own powerlessness. He told me last September: “The English television rights are very, very, very, very, very significant, so the English league is the richest, so players go there. How to equalise that?” He pondered, then admitted: “Legally it’s impossible. Financially it’s impossible.”
Yet the media keep reporting his impossible dreams as imminent projects. The reason is “action bias” in journalism. Things that won’t happen are boring and don’t get reported. It’s more fun to act as if they might happen.
English rule in football will eventually collapse. However, it will be ended not by some puny regulator but by something now unforeseen.