Transfer Trickle Down Economics Cannot Level the Playing Field

The transfer window reveals that the story of contemporary football is a novel without a hero.

Matt Hill, Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The transfer window has closed. It proved to be a dull 30 days 18 hrs. To pass the time, journalists reported on the activities and comments of other journalists who were also passing the time. Once in a while something related to the transfer window was reported. Television coverage of the final day presented segments with player and club representatives talking on cell phones in passenger seats of nice cars moving slowly.

With pupils dilated from boredom, the events of the final hours were excessively blinding. Idle chatter began to cohere, producing a frequency of consistent information. The final few hours were off the hook, seeing Chelsea spend £75m and Liverpool £57.8m.

The aftermath raised questions about the structure and purpose of the transfer window’s current form and the conditions it imposes, which in this case lead to radical behavior. This has brought about the numerous reminders that the sums of money thrown around are absurd and signal a crisis in the sport. This is true, but has become one of those unresolved arguments that are relevant but out-of-date, a little like Marxist studies. It was refreshing, if contentious and flawed, to see Martin Samuel’s take in his post-window analysis.

Samuel argues the benefit of uncontrollable spending. Billionaire owners such as Roman Abramovich and Sheik Mansour have provided a stimulus for a benificent trickle down economics. Sports and politics have fused again in a resurrected Reaganomics. If this doesn’t signal a serious problem in the sport, then nothing will.

Offset by irony, the apology is not purely ideological. Samuel takes UEFA to task for its inability to level the playing field, which has created a void for the wealthiest clubs, serving solely their own interests, to haphazardly drive the movement of capital to clubs otherwise neglected by the governing body.

Samuel takes the example of Edin Dzeko’s £27m transfer fee and follows its diffusion through world football.


If UEFA is not going to do their job, then the wealthy clubs will do it for them, and in process call UEFA’s bluff. Clubs’ usurpation of the role of wealth distribution is what Samuel calls “genuine financial fair play”.

Nice touch. And in some sense not incorrect. Every sector of big business has its own power game and turf war, with spectators who can only watch it take place.

Despite irony’s aim to add perspective to the issue, measured support of a transfer tricke down effect is flawed. Following Abramovich’s power spending on its cathodic course toward need, shows trickle down at its most beneficent as well as sentimental. The midnight deadline on the 31st becomes an example of the window’s arbitrary and inhibiting regulations. Poor, sad sack Wigan was denied £10m from Newcastle for Charles N’Zogbia, arguably Wigan’s best player. Here, free market distribution becomes a moral form of welfare.

First, the act of filling the void as the arbiter of unintended fairness is not commendable, even if one considers wealthy clubs to be doing more to spread wealth than UEFA. Instead, it is a symptom of UEFA’s apparent inaction.

UEFA certainly could do more, but it may not be in their interest to do so. The revenue generated from the Champions League, for example, squares their interests with the wealthiest clubs. In collusion, they make money for each other. Samuel’s version of financial fair play is a false competition between powers attempting to present themselves as benefactors.

If UEFA’s lack of action reinforces the growing gap between rich and poor clubs, the trickle-down economics that has stepped in has hardly done better.

Take Benfica. In the last two transfer windows, the club has received one largesse from Real Madrid (Angel Di Maria) and two from Chelsea (Ramires and David Luiz). With all this money, does anyone think that Benfica is better off than before?

Benfica clearly has an eye for talent that should increase their stature in European competitions. Benfica has sold all three players for three times their original fee. If the club was a financial firm, it would be revered in the field. But it is a football club, or more accurately, a selling club, and selling clubs seldom win trophies.

The business and economic side account for only part of the effects of trickle down redistribution. It addresses the structures and interests that govern the flow of capital. No owner or stakeholder, despite the dominant rule of exchange value, should ignore the significance of the social aspect. Within and underneath the economics is the inevitable influence of the experiences and relationships of players. A social and communications network from local supporters attending games to overseas fans dragging their sleep deprived bodies out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to watch games live from the pull out sofa. If player twitters contribute anything, it is the tiny but frequent manifestations of social relations. But the social aspect is left out of economic considerations, because they are undesirable and difficult to quantify.

The January transfer window for the Barclays Premier League broke two records (highest league transfer and highest English transfer) and had six players move for fees above £20m. The next highest transfer fee was £6m. There were only three of these.

More exceptional, and buried in a footnote to this transfer window, is Matt Hill’s departure from Wolverhampton. Hill was the only player released from his club in the transfer window. He was a member of the Wolverhampton team that earned promotion, but his playing time, already spare, was further reduced. In January of last season, Hill was sent on loan to QPR. This season, on loan and injured at Barnsley, his contract with Wolverhampton was terminated.

In an interview following his departure, he talks about a difficult period marked by injury and transition. Now healthy and settled at Barnsley, he’s optimistic and ready for a new challenge. But when it comes to the hard reality of the Championship, he addresses it from a fantasy land.

“The Championship is funny in terms of results, but it’s important that we try and get a run together and then you just never know. Blackpool is a shining example of what you can achieve so hopefully we can emulate that.”

An owner acting as a shadow manager is compelling, especially when it’s Roman Abramovich, a man from the new Russia. A billionaire with a thin bio, he remains at distance, even when ruthlessly decisive or when his intentions are directly imposed. Then you see his gentle and warm face and wonder even more.

How Fernando Torres will fit into this Chelsea lineup will be a meaty story for some time. Chelsea’s formation is narrow, ineffective, and needs a wide player not a third central striker. Who will be supplanted? Who will pout? Who will leave? Who will make a viable striking partnership?

But no one wants to hear that a Championship player can only imagine his team’s promotion through the miracle of Blackpool. A small team with a half-built stadium has become the template to emulate, a faint hope capable of being grasped only if inflated by fantasy.

Blackpool’s promotion and success this season has nothing to do with redistributed wealth of any form. Blackpool is the rarest of events. The club is a moment of the harmonic convergence of collective wills, personality, belief, dreaming, and a heaping of good fortune. Their survival in the Premier League is anything but secure, and this miraculous arrival on the scene could prove to be a footnote to the season as well.

Matt Hill’s vision of Barnsley as another coming of Blackpool, reveals the depressing and universally accepted circumstances shared by a  majority of clubs and fans.  In truth, no one is going to rescue Barnsley. There is no guarantee  a dwindling sum of money will find its way into the club’s pockets. The club is on its own, which is almost always not enough. Blackpool is the model that proves promotion can’t be done unless fantasy becomes fact. A neutral or devotee as far away as California gets what Hill is saying. No one wants Blackpool to be relegated after witnessing the wildest desires being planted into the world through celebratory hard work every weekend. The connection is not built through sympathy, but through identification of everyday struggles and hopes lying on a shared horizon. It feels good to root for them.

Like the real harmonic convergence, which signals a new beginning free of warfare and suffering, the rare confluence of things that is Blackpool becomes a sign for all the economically disadvantaged clubs and their supporters who hope that football’s imposed structures of separation will be dissolved, a sign as fleeting as Blackpool’s run in the Premier League may be.

2/3/11

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