Last night, immediately after the final whistle which saw Bayern Munich lift their fifth European Cup on the back of Arjen Robben’s goal in the 89th minute, I made the mistake of tuning into a popular British sports talk (hint hint) radio station. Mere minutes after play had ended at Wembley stadium, one of the commentators grimly declared that Bayern’s win over Dortmund, a team with half the Bavarian club’s wage bill, was the result of financial fair play forever cementing the dominance of historical footballing giants. It’s over. Kloppo’s BvB had lost. The little guy will never win.
It was such an absurd claim I actually rewound the tape as it were (you can do this on certain radio apps) and listened to it again. Sure enough, that’s exactly what he’d said: Bayern beating Dortmund was a sign the minnows were forever shut out of the European party, thanks to FFP.
I wondered where this line of reasoning had come from, and then I recalled Martin Samuel’s interview with Michel Platini published the day before, in which the Daily Mail writer bombarded the UEFA president with questions about the supposed side effects of FFP, that the rule which forbid spending in excess of turnover (within certain limits) would forever seal the dominance of a handful of clubs and shut out the rest. The idea here is that the only way to muscle into top spots was to spend a whack of money, which invariably means excessive financial losses. Without the ability to do that, smaller teams are screwed.
This is a bold claim. At the very least, it suggests that money spent on wage bills and transfer payments has a very strong causal relationship with winning trophies, whether at the domestic level or in Europe. Samuel’s been making this argument for years now, and, alarmingly, Platini had a woeful time defending FFP from these accusations. Perhaps this was a case of Platini rarely answering his critics, I don’t know.
It shouldn’t be that difficult to defend FFP from these claims, really. The 2012-2013 Champions League provides an excellent case study, in fact.
At nil-nil in the Champions League final, Dortmund had created several great chances with shots on goal to boot. Both Roman Weidenfeller and Manuel Neuer had to be completely on their game to keep the game scoreless in the first half. Both sides had seven shots, with Dortmund edging them out on shots on target (5-3). Even with the score at 1-1, it was a close contest almost to the very end. The winning goal came in the 89th minute from a sumptuous back-heeled pass from Frank Ribery into the path of Arjen Robben, who feinted and slotted home to win it.
Keep in mind that as of 2012 Dortmund spent €80 million on wages to Bayern’s €158 million. So did this individual moment of luck, good fortune, and great talent that led to Robben’s goal arise because Bayern’s players are paid more than Dortmund’s?
What was the role of Financial Fair Play when Bayern beat Barcelona, a team with the highest wage bill in professional sport, on an aggregate score of 7-0 in the semifinals?
How did financial fair play allow Dortmund to top one of the hardest groups in the Champions League with 14 points, one more point than Bayern in their group?
How, with the over €150 million difference in wage bills, did Dortmund manage to beat Manchester City 1-0 in the group stage?
What effect did FFP or wage bills have when Lille beat Bayern Munich 1-0 in the group stage? How did Malaga come so close to beating Dortmund in their quarterfinal match with FFP in place? And ditto for Dortmund beating Real Madrid 4-1?
The answer is that football is not a game of measuring stacks of bills. Despite the money spent on players, and the relationship between higher wages and better talent, football is a game. It has to be played out in ninety minute chunks with guys running around on a pitch kicking a ball. It involves a mixture of luck and skill, and in individual games, luck tends to play a bigger role. That makes quite a big difference in a tournament like the Champions League.
Even then, money doesn’t necessarily always have a one-for-one relationship with skill (insert endless Andy Carroll/Fernando Torres jokes here). Much of Dortmund’s talent was developed at the youth level, and peaked before wages could be negotiated to reflect “true talent.” No doubt wages are efficient in football, but they’re not deterministic.
Of course teams with a higher wage bill tend to win more over time; there’s been quite a lot of good work done to prove this. To that end, you could criticize my analysis on the grounds that the sample size from the tournament is too small. If you played these games a million times over, chances are the teams with the higher wage bills would win far more often. And you’re right. But the point is, in the Champions League, games aren’t played a million times over. That’s what makes the damn thing so exciting. That’s what football is. It’s teams trying to navigate their way through random variation and talent gaps for an unlikely shot at glory. It’s effing brilliant.
Ethan Dean-Richards wrote about this for Counter Attack on Friday. His words were in my mind when Bayern Munich scored the opener with an assist from Arjen Robben. The camera immediately cut to Mario Goetze, and the commentator mentioned his stone-faced expression. The announcer was clearly interpreting this to be diplomatic stoicism. Goetze had transferred to Bayern presumably for more money. They were his team now. The gods of lucre had decided.
When Guendogan scored Dortmund’s equalizer from the spot, the camera once again cut to Goetze. He was up, fist-pumping, celebrating, looking genuinely happy that his team had scored. The announcer didn’t say much about it. Perhaps because he lacked the ability to explain why a player who was leaving Dortmund could celebrate for the team he was still a part of, defeating his soon-to-be employer.
Because money doesn’t change the feeling of a player has for the team they’ve spent their entire life with. Because money doesn’t make watching your friends and colleagues get back in with a chance to win Europe’s biggest trophy any less wonderful.
Money’s influence on football is often odious, nefarious, corrupting. We should always maintain vigilance over its ill-effects on the game, particularly in the areas of match-fixing or agent exploitation or third-party player ownership. But football in the end is still football. It’s still Juergen Klopp attempting the impossible against his major German rivals. It’s still amazing last-minute clearances from Subotic, and shots off the face of Weidenfeller. It’s still a game of underdogs versus favourites. It’s still why Arjen Robben scoring a fantastic goal in a major final is something to be celebrated (well, I sure did).
Talented teams are often built on large piles of unsustainable cash. They are however also sometimes built on good player development, shrewd buying, and excellent coaching. The spectrum of talent at the top is very narrow, and the differences between an elite, world class once-in-a-generation talent and a good forward are ever-shrinking. As long as this is the case, FFP won’t “cement” anything in regards to trophies. Don’t let anyone tell you different.