Europe is awash in both capital, and its evil twin brother, debt, and the football (soccer) club has become the vital expression of this relationship. What price the European Football League? The treasuries of European clubs have become the repositories of world capital, be it Russian (Chelsea); Qatari (Paris Saint-Germain) or UAE (Manchester City). In the Spanish case, there are domestic sources of royal and extravagant patronage and no one comes close to Real Madrid, the royal jewel in the Spanish crown.
This monumental injection of capital has seen footballers become the modern gladiators in a market that has made purchasing power the only standard, the sole measurement. Everything else – the commentary, the aesthetics, the skill – is subordinate to the purse.
The European Championship League final has seen as much a battle of financial accounts as it has with deft players of skill and stamina. It is the richest competition of clubs in the world, a titanic confrontation that pits contestants who are often striving in their domestic competitions as well. This year, it was Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, a first time Championship derby which ended, only in the last portion of the match, in Real’s favour. It was ‘La Décima’ – their tenth victory of the tournament, one they have often regarded as their own, an ancestral entitlement.
It did look like Atlético had the measure of their giant neighbours for much of the match, playing solidly while containing their more favoured counterparts. Real’s star striker, Cristiano Ronaldo, was held in check for a good portion of the contest, his star dimmed. His team mate, Gareth Bale, seemed to be somewhere else, as he has been at stages this season, including the El Clasico. But stamina proved telling, and the breach in extra time led to a flood, yielding a deceptively flattering 4-1 in favour of Carlo Ancelotti’s side.
The story behind the win is something else, somewhat less glamour and glitz and more cold sobriety and hard-bitten deception. The campaign to win their tenth title, one they have been waiting for since 2002, cost Real the equivalent of a billion pounds. In eleven seasons, the furthest the club got in the Champions League was the semi-finals. The club sports a debt of 590 million euros, something it wears more like a floral garland than a millstone. It demands, and often gets, special dispensations.
Such instances of erratic monetary behaviour are not exceptional, though Real does it better than most. This enables them to play the money game of the football transfer market, which has led them to breaking the world transfer record three times in 10 years. That particular circus of extravagant expenditure has become much like the contemporary art market – a matter of figures over substance; the auction market before the standard.
It is actually impossible to measure the value of something that is, as Oscar Wilde would have designated, useless. That may be part of the problem. Transfer fees are distorted, and when they are revealed, there are embarrassed confessions. This has been the case with the signing by Barcelona of the Brazilian star Neymar. Initially, the figure was £48 million. Then, it was revealed that the actual cost was a heftier £73 million (International Business Times, Mar 25). Corporations need their chips to perform, and they don’t want to be seen as reaping a poor dividend. Bale cost £91 million in the transfer deal between Real and Tottenham, a fee so staggering it would make any subsequent performance on his part poor.
Beyond such extravagant outlays come the dispensations offered such clubs as Real and their staunch rival FC Barcelona. Given the state of the Spanish economy, every bit of tax revenue would, surely, be chased with terrier-like enthusiasm. Not so the Spanish government, which revealed last year that the amount of unpaid tax owed by professional football clubs in the country’s top two divisions was a jaw-dropping 664,876,441 euros (The Independent, Aug 6, 2013).1
The figure sits uncomfortably with the European Union bailout package worth somewhere in the order of 100 billion euros. Unemployment hovers at a sore 26 per cent, with youth levels almost double that level. Priorities do determine choices, and Spanish football tends to be a priority over many others. The European Commission last December took note of this when it initiated an investigation of seven Spanish clubs, including Barca, Real, Osasuna and Atlético, for contravening EU rules prohibiting favourable tax treatment for them. Much of this is put down to the fact that such clubs are still owned by the socios – their own membership.
Various clubs were also investigated for receiving illegal state aid2 – Real over training facilities at Valdebebas; and Bilbao over money received for the construction of a new stadium. Others have also received cash assistance from regional governments, including Valencia. Given these links, it should surprise no one that the Spanish government has taken to battling the European Commission over such charges of illegality. Football, explained Spanish foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo, is “part of the Spanish brand” (Reuters, Dec 16, 2013). It’s football, or nothing.
What price the league, then? All in all, too much, itself an object, an aim, and one increasingly pursued like an addiction fed with impunity. Addictions, by their nature, resist reflection. In the case of the football giants, they get away with it, because they can. They are prima donnas of the pocket, demanding cheques and curtseys rather than curses and sanctions. But pots of gold do run out – eventually.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com