Platini risks spoiling European diversity
UEFA chief's desire to level financial playing field goes against club traditions that work, writes Paul Wilson
Michel Platini is a romantic sort of chap, with his desire to see smaller countries represented in the Champions League and his daft idea that two extra officials will spot everything on a football pitch. But surely this notion that European clubs can exist on an equal footing is an impossible dream.
The UEFA president is attempting to introduce, for want of a better cliche, a level playing field in European competitions. He has plans for financial fair play intended to prevent clubs living beyond their means, and from the start of next season will begin to limit the amount of debt that clubs can run up, with the ultimate threat of barring teams from European contests if they have not brought spending down to an agreed level in four or five years' time.
That all sounds perfectly laudable, even if it has been received as an attempt to bring English clubs under European control. It is suspected that Platini is miffed at the way Chelsea and Manchester United used their wealth to bring about near domination in the Champions League -- it may not have looked that way last season but only Tom Henning Ovrebo's eccentric refereeing prevented a second successive all-English final in 2009 -- and is alarmed at the possibility of Manchester City doing the same thing. Platini is not necessarily as anti-English as people like to make out, he simply has a problem with this country attracting all the foreign investment. As head of a pan-European organisation, he would hardly be doing his job were he to stand back and allow one country to buy up all the talent and glamour.
Yet England has not been buying up all the talent and glamour for some years now; Spain has been doing that, even though the last Champions League final was contested by a German and an Italian club. A Spanish club did win the Europa League, if any significance can be attached to such a weird competition, but the English team Atletico Madrid beat in the final were hardly one of the Premier League's traditional powerhouses.
Given that a couple of French teams made it to the last eight last season, it seems unsafe to suggest the Champions League is in imminent danger of being dominated by anyone, and although the two big Spanish sides have been doing most of the high-profile recruiting this summer -- Manchester City are only in the Europa League and have not been buying from the top tier of players -- money alone rarely brings the immediate reward it promises. Real Madrid's recent history proves that, Barcelona's touch in the transfer market has not always been as assured as that of their stars and it cannot be said with certainty that even Chelsea are any nearer winning a first European Cup now than when Roman Abramovich first walked in.
There are all sorts of ways to shoot Platini's reasoning down and he will certainly have his work cut out trying to impose order on such an anarchic and anomalous landscape. Manchester United were saddled with debt against their will, which is not at all the same thing as Chelsea or City benefiting from an owner's largesse. German clubs forbid any sort of individual ownership so are already operating under different financial rules. Most French clubs play at state-owned or subsidised stadiums, and rarely have to borrow to build grounds or meet safety regulations.
Real Madrid have an ally in the Spanish government, Barcelona have more members than any other club in the world but do not deal in shares, and so on. European football, in all its dazzling diversity, is rather a wonderful thing to behold, and instinctively one feels Platini will bring the dead hand of the bureaucrat to something that actually works in spite of all its internal contradictions and inequalities.
Many years ago, when the UEFA boffins first had the idea of turning the respected but limited European Cup into a super league in all but name, Alex Ferguson complained about the fixture overload.
"Europe is supposed to be the icing on the cake," he said, "not a new bloody cake." The big clubs have grown used to the extra fixtures now, but the old attitude that Europe is a luxurious treat remains. Where is the fun in beating Real if you know they are operating under exactly the same financial constraints as you are? Who wants to see Manchester City in the Champions League if they cannot spend any more money than Arsenal? Would a billionaire be interested in taking them over on that basis?
Regulations are for domestic leagues; Europe should be exempt. No one cares if the icing on the cake is not level, it's an optional extra, it doesn't matter. What should matter is that Blackpool find it difficult to attract players for £10,000 a week. They are trying to do the right thing, a not at all unreasonable thing, and are being laughed at. They will not be in Europe any time soon so there is no need for Platini to take an interest, although if he really is in favour of breaking even, controlling inflation and reducing debt, he should have been photographed in a tangerine shirt by now.