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Is the Football Transfer Bubble About to Burst?

In one incredible day, three Premiership clubs turned what had been a relatively quiet transfer window on its head. With over £130m spent on new players in the space of around two hours between 9pm and 11pm, it delivered a hammer blow to the argument that an era of austerity and financial management was beginning to edge into football in England.

With the upcoming implementation of the new UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations at the beginning of the 2011/12 season, it was believed that clubs were beginning to prepare for them by curbing their spending and cutting large earners from their wage bill. Instead, it seems to have served to create the most incredible and volatile transfer window in history.

The deal to bring Fernando Torres to Chelsea from Liverpool was in the region of £50m and makes him one of the most expensive footballers in history. Whether or not it can be argued that there is some value in that deal, it is an incredible amount of money. If we add in the signing of David Luiz from Benfica, Chelsea splashed out almost £75m in the space of about 30 minutes late on Monday night. All this came only hours after the club announced losses of £70.9m for the previous season.

And if the Torres deal seemed overly extravagant, the £35m deal to bring Andy Carroll to Liverpool from Newcastle is surely the most overpriced transfer in history. He cost well over twice what Newcastle paid to sign Alan Shearer fifteen years ago. Almost £10m more than Wayne Rooney cost. You could have signed arguably the best striker on the planet – David Villa – and had a couple of million left over.

It is crazy that the British record transfer is for a player with only 80 senior matches under his belt and with only one international appearance to his name. Indeed, he cost more millions than he has scored goals in his entire career since making his senior debut five years ago.

However, Liverpool are hardly a club to worry about in this situation. Despite spending over £58m on new strikers in one day, when you factor in the sales of Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel, they have a net spend of only £1m. Whilst the fees that they have been paying are over-inflated and simply obscene, financially they have spent almost nothing.

Chelsea are the club that are under most scrutiny today. £75m spent despite announcing huge losses seems almost unthinkable to the average person. Chairman Bruce Buck announced recently that the club were on course to meet the regulations once they are implemented.

The club slashed the wage bill by around £20m in the summer by selling and releasing the likes of Deco, Joe Cole, Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Ballack and Juliano Belletti, but given that Fernando Torres is on a reported £175k per week, that increases the wage bill by over £9m per year.

We can assume that David Luiz must be on fairly decent wages. If we conservatively assume that he is on around £60k per week, which is likely to be on the low side given that he is a Brazilian international signed for over £20m, we can add another £3m to the total.

That means that the two new signings have increased the wage bill by a minimum of £13m. If we include the wages from their only summer signing, Ramires, who is earning a reported £4m per year, this takes it to £17m. In other words, they have almost completely cancelled out the savings they made in the summer.

So, where is the savings likely to come from? Under the new regulations, injections of money from owners will be limited to €15m per year (around £12.8m). So we can write off that much from the deficit, making it a far more manageable £58.1m to cover.

Success naturally leads to more money – it is a general rule of not only football, but business in general. However, last season Chelsea won the double. So realistically, no further domestic success would be possible, and to budget on achieving that feat every year would be highly unrealistic.

They only reached the last 16 of the Champions League, which would have led to a large fall in revenue, given that they have become accustomed to reaching the semi-finals at least in recent seasons. The loss of two home games, plus the additional revenue that comes from success in this competition would potential help to cancel out some of the losses, but relying on continued success in this competition is a risky proposition.

Finishing in the top four of the Premiership is an absolute minimum for Chelsea to even think about meeting these new regulations. Without the Champions League and the money that comes with it, Chelsea would be in severe problems.

However, another problem they will now face is how the new regulations deal with player transfers. Chelsea cannot simply write off the spending from this transfer window as a simple lump sum payment now. Rather, they must amortise the fee over the course of the player’s contract.

Therefore, given that both Fernando Torres and David Luiz have signed five year contracts, the transfer fee would be split evenly over the period of the contract. In other words, they must mark down a cost of £15m per year for the next five years for these transfers.

This adds another £15m each year that Chelsea must try and cover in order to break even and fulfil UEFA’s new regulations.

Chelsea are hoping that they have cut the deficit by recent changes, including having increased ticket prices by over 10% over the summer, reduced bonus payments for the players, a new deal with Adidas that will increase sponsorship payments from around £10m per season to around £20m per season, and increased income from TV revenue.

However, the bright point for Chelsea is the question of whether UEFA will actually stringently enforce the regulations. Currently, the likes of Chelsea, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Barcelona would all fail under the regulations. Would UEFA really ban them from European competition? Would they have a Champions League without a number of the biggest names?

Even if they do enforce it, there are a number of caveats built in. For the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons combined, clubs can overspend by €45m so long as it is covered by an injection of equity from the club’s owner. For the next three year period, they can overspend by another combined €45m, then €30m for the next three years, then €15m, and only then must clubs actually break even.

In other words, clubs do not actually have to break even for another 14 years. They can continue to make losses, albeit steadily reducing losses all the way until 2025. And to add to this, if clubs can show that they are heading in the right direction and moving toward breaking even, UEFA would reduce the sanctions.

As far as I can tell, that is a major get-out-of-jail card. For example, if Manchester City replicate last year’s losses of £121m in the first year of the new regulations, but cut this to a mere £110m in the second year, they could avoid being banned from Europe because they have cut their losses and are moving in the right direction. No matter that they have lost a nine-figure amount – they are trying hard.

The new regulations are a good thing in so far as they look to curb the spending in football which have risen to even more unbelievable levels in an incredible couple of hours on deadline day. However, there are other problems with them that will be explored at a later date.

Chelsea face a major battle to meet these regulations and their long-term plan of breaking even by 2010 has clearly failed spectacularly. Whether they can continue to look to cut their costs without sacrificing success on the field is unknown, but they have to try to fulfil the new requirements or risk the wrath of UEFA and Michel Platini.

Again, whether he would follow through with his threats remains to be seen, but can the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City take that risk. Surely not, which means that the 31st January 2011 could be marked down as the final peak in the ridiculous bubble that has been seen in football over the past decade.


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