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Rigged system sees super-rich picking the pockets of the rest


If Southampton had been able to hold on to its players and managers they would be challenging for the Premier League title rather than engaged in another relegation battle. Photo: Getty

If Southampton had been able to hold on to its players and managers they would be challenging for the Premier League title rather than engaged in another relegation battle. Photo: Getty

Getty Images

If Southampton had been able to hold on to its players and managers they would be challenging for the Premier League title rather than engaged in another relegation battle. Photo: Getty

In politics it is said that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. In sport when Manchester United fire a manager - which is rather often nowadays - the chain reaction is felt throughout football. And nowhere more, at present, than at Tottenham.

The reaction after José Mourinho was ousted from Old Trafford made it seem it was already a done deal that Mauricio Pochettino would be United's new manager next season. It was almost as if it was an embarrassing inconvenience that he had to play along with being Spurs manager for the next few months.

After all, if you're a film director and you're offered a Hollywood blockbuster with an unlimited budget, do you really want to continue labouring away on EastEnders? That was the kind of professional distance that was portrayed as existing between Manchester's nobility and north-London's perpetual also-rans. Never mind Spurs lead United in the Premier League and, by the reckoning of most observers, are the better team.

Money and power had spoken - or at least made some masonic gesture of interest - and that's all there was to it. Tottenham fans were outraged by the condescension shown to their club, and the club was angered that its press conferences were being turned into forums for the discussion of United.

In all this, Pochettino seemed rather coyly detached, almost amused, as well he might be. For he did not arrive at Spurs from another planet. Nor even from another country. He came from Southampton, the unglamorous club that, had it ever been able to hold on to its players and managers, would probably now be challenging for the Champions League rather than engaged in another relegation struggle.

Pochettino left the Saints at the end of the 2013-14 season with Southampton eighth in the Premier League and their highest points total for a generation. The Belgium international Toby Alderweireld, who was to join Southampton on loan from Atlético Madrid, soon moved to Spurs (in a transfer that Southampton disputed). The centre-back was followed a year later by the defensive midfielder Victor Wanyama, and the year after that by Paulo Gazzaniga, the reserve goalkeeper.

So Spurs have done rather well out of Southampton, not forgetting, of course, that in 2007 they also acquired Gareth Bale as a teenager from the same club. Yet Spurs haven't done quite as well as the league leaders, Liverpool. Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Sadio Mané and Virgil van Dijk all moved from St Mary's to Anfield. On top of which the injured Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, who moved from Arsenal, was another product (like Bale, Lallana and Everton's Theo Walcott) of the Southampton academy. Other illustrious graduates include Luke Shaw, the left-back who joined United in 2014 for £30m, then a world record for a teenager.

That's some side who have passed through St Mary's without ever being allowed to play together. Of course, it's the economic reality, the food chain of football, that smaller clubs sell to bigger clubs. Southampton have received something in the region of £166m in the last five years from Liverpool alone. It's the kind of money that keeps the lesser clubs going in the Premier League - but at the price of losing the talent that would have made Southampton title contenders.

You could say it was ever thus. Except it wasn't. There was a time when smaller clubs like Southampton were able to keep some of their best players and, along with Ipswich, Nottingham Forest, Derby and Aston Villa, make the kind of impact only Leicester, outside the Big Six, have managed in recent times.

Leicester's triumph in 2016 was deemed such a freak incursion that it's going to be turned into a Hollywood film. Given the overwhelming odds stacked against a club like Leicester winning the Premier League, it's a story certainly worthy of celluloid immortality or, failing that, a straight-to-online genre piece with blush-making football scenes.

The point is, though, why should economic might determine sporting achievement? What kind of message is that for the watching millions? Principles of loyalty, esprit de corps, self-sacrifice are not nearly so impressive when they are the preserve of only the super rich.

Manchester City are under investigation for overspending. There is talk that if, following exposure of private emails, they are found guilty, they will be banned from the Champions League. Given UEFA has shown little appetite for examining how clubs such as Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona can afford the incredible amounts of money they dispense on their star-studded squads, I wouldn't expect a forensic inquiry. But if City have been manipulating their budget figures then they should be severely punished, along with others among the entitled super clubs who make an already unfair system bend still further to their financial whims.

Unless the top six in England are going to be a self-perpetuating cartel that, in turn, pays deference to a suspiciously funded self-perpetuating top-six cartel in Europe, then football needs to reform its business model. Perhaps there needs to be a limit to how many players above a certain amount of transfer fee (say £30m) can be bought by one club, and a limit on the average wage.

At the moment, according to Sporting Intelligence, Barcelona's average first-team pay is in excess of £10.4m a year. That's about £200,000 a week. United's is £6.5m (about £125,000). Tottenham's is £3.5m (£67,000) and Southampton's £2.7m (£51,000). But is it success that brings money, or the other way round? In City's case you would have to say that money has bought success. In Southampton's case, the money has come from forgoing success.

Something is fundamentally and sportingly wrong about that picture. The problem is that football fans are so fixated on their own teams and their own relative setbacks and advancements that the bigger picture is seldom viewed for what it is: a rigged system for the super-rich.

Let's hope Pochettino stays at Spurs and that, should he guide them away from relegation, Ralph Hasenhüttl is not snaffled from Southampton. Football fans have had quite enough of being sneezed on.


Sunday Indo Sport