Football

Chelsea & City should heed Malaga lesson

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Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 (©GettyImages)
Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 (©GettyImages).

Malaga have been gripped by a crisis of cash and confidence - and they say Financial Fair Play has made their situation unsustainable.

The La Liga side are haemorrhaging money and players - Santi Cazorla, Jeremy Toulalan, Solomon Rondon, Joaquin, and Nacho Monreal all look set to quit - along with their oil-rich Sheikh owner.

Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nassar Al-Thani - a member of the Qatar Royal family - bought the Andalusian club in June 2010 for €36m. The billionaire Qatari's arrival ushered in a period of lavish spending, as Malaga were transformed from La Liga also-rans to Champions League qualifiers.

Cazorla, Toulalan, Rondon, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joaquin were all signed for large sums, with fat long-term contracts - contracts which now threaten to strangle the club as the debts pile up.

According to reports, Malaga's debt pile stands at €90m and Sheikh Al Thani reportedly wants no part of it any more. Whether he's lost interest, or just lost his appetite for bankrolling the operation is not clear. What is certain is that he's put the club up for sale, citing impending Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations as the reason for a swift 'internal restructuring'.

How far FFP is just an excuse - surely they knew the regulations were immient after all - is unclear. But it's plain to see that FFP stands to have a large effect on Europe's clubs.

The regulations are supposed to level the playing fields, forcing clubs to balance their books. It is designed to curb the excesses enjoyed by Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour and their successors, and it seems to have struck an early blow, scaring off the Malaga owner. Could this be the consequence of FFP - the retreat of the mega-rich benefactor?

Michel Platini will surely hope so. The Frenchman has long eyed the luxuries of the Premier League with the steely glare of austere disapproval - football's very own Angela Merkel.

As Germany and the Eurozone look to get their own balance sheets in order, Platini hopes the spend-what-you-earn philosophy will rub off on the continent's football clubs.

Unfortunately, as Arsene Wenger pointed out this week, football operates in its own financial bubble, and it doesn't look like changing. Total transfer spending may be down in the Premier League compared to previous seasons, but Manchester City are yet to act, and surely will, while Abramovich has reaffirmed his commitment this summer with £65m spent so far.

If Platini has his way though, this kind of extravagance could soon be a thing of the past. FFP has many exceptions, qualifications and the regulations are by no means perfect, but they will make teams think twice about that new £45m striker.

And Sheikh Al Thani seemingly wants no part of it. Malaga qualifed for the Champions League for the first time this year - exposing them to the FFP regulations - but after such success, the Malaga owner is still keen to sell. With such huge wages, and mountains of debt, reaching the FFP requirements looks a challenge and buyers are proving hard to find - an Albanian oil consortium the latest to reportedly pull out.

After following the model set out by Chelsea, and replicated by Manchester City, Malaga have found themselves swamped with debt, after years of spending more than their earned.

And Malaga are not the only Spanish club struggling under a mountain of unpaid bills. Getafe, who play in the shadow of their Madrid neighbours, have Bernabeu-sized debts after the Team Dubai business that bought the club turned out to be a huge scam.

Since Abramovich took over Chelsea have run losses into the tens of millions of pounds each season. Likewise, Manchester City since Sheikh Mansour's 2008 takeover.

Neither of these clubs find themselves in anywhere near the trouble that Malaga are currently trying to extricate themselves from - the Premier League behemoths are global brands, with stable income streams and huge commercial shirt and stadium deals. But, despite the commercial pretensions, they are still at the mercy of a single rich owner.

Manchester United and Arsenal have chosen different models - Arsenal's the most religiously committed to balanced budgets, but United's is similarly cautious.

Sir Alex Ferguson's side have the obvious handicap of massive interest repayments and the Glazer regime in general. Sucking cash out of the club has affected Ferguson's transfer window manoeuvrability - but they have spent wisely in recent seasons and have been consistently competitive.

Arsenal on the other hand, have been overzealous in their commitment to frugality. Living beyond your means is ill-advised and potentially damaging, but a lack of ambition and courage in the transfer market has cost Arsene Wenger trophies. Things may be different this summer though, as Arsenal have been among the most active in the market.

But the Malaga case is a warning for the likes of Chelsea and City, and a potential lifeline for Arsenal. It would be a nightmare scenario, a worst-possible case for Chelsea or City, but a possible case nonetheless.

For the past ten years, neither English club has run as a profitable business. But football clubs aren't businesses after all - or at least they haven't forced to be. The primary objective of a business is to make money, the primary objective of a football club to win matches.

So far, Chelsea and City have proven adept at the second objective, not so at the first. Arsenal, champion accountants, are experiencing a painful trophy drought.

Striking a balance is key, and perhaps FFP holds that key. By forcing clubs to take more hard-headed business decisions, the regulations place the emphasis on balance sheets and not benefactors. Chelsea and City should heed the Malaga lesson - ultra-rich owners can lose interest just as quickly as they arrived.

Topics:
Arsenal
Football
Manchester City
Chelsea
Premier League
Manchester United
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