For the love of money

Observations on football

I don't know what the Brazilian footballer Kaka, who plays for AC Milan, is worth. I do know it is comic that he turned down a reported salary of £500,000 a week from one of the world's richest men to join Manchester City, a club owned in effect by Abu Dhabi. But we all know that if Sheikh Mansour consistently spends his fortune on the Manchester club, it will, in a few years, be one of the best in England and the world, because in football money buys success.

Last year, Kevin Keegan was criticised for correctly saying that the English Premier League had become dull and predictable because only four teams could realistically win it. Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool buy or produce the best players and finish in the top four of the league each season, which then garners them entry into the European Champions League, itself an increasingly cynical machine for making money in which a tedious swathe of pre-Christmas games eliminate almost none of the major club sides. They get richer, because of television revenue and corporate sponsorship, buy better players, and so on.

Compare this with American football, where last year's hapless Miami Dolphins, who won only one of their 16 games, suddenly became a team that won 11 games, won their division and reached the play-offs. Such dramatic turnarounds are standard for the National Football League, an organisation that constantly tinkers with its rules in an obsessive quest for "competitive balance". Its crucial tools are a league-wide salary cap and the annual draft, a procedure whereby those sides that have just had the worst seasons get first dibs on the next generation of superstars.

The NFL can do this because it doesn't face competition from another league. It recognises that self-interested players and rapacious team-owners are out to screw every advantage they can from the system, and it counters this with a rulebook that would be legally unenforceable against an external competitor. Its members live with this because none of them is relegated, and they all get a slice of the ever-growing pie.

As a result, all 32 teams get to live in hope. NFL fans say that any given team can win on any given Sunday, but fans of the Premier League can say that as well. The NFL's real selling point is that a team that has very little chance on any given Sunday this year could be a major force next season.

Some say that this is much ado about nothing. Between 1976 and 1988, the old Football League was dominated by Liverpool and Everton, with only Nottingham Forest in 1978 and Aston Villa in 1981 prising the title away from Merseyside. During that time, average gates in the top division slumped from nearly 30,000 to fewer than 20,000. Now, in spite of vast increases in the price of tickets, the figure is above 35,000. It's hard to argue that football in England, as a product, isn't healthy. But three years ago, it was hard to argue that about banks.

European football, with increasing inequality and decreasing mobility, echoes the recent failings of the western version of the free market. Football can't rectify the problem without concerted international agreements hurting the richest and most powerful people involved. They don't do it, for the same reason that Europe's squabbling nations won't set sensible fishing quotas or carbon emissions limits.

The NFL is not perfect. For instance, successful teams in which fans have emotionally invested get broken up because their salaries, on renegotiation, don't fit under the cap. But its carefully regulated structure, with capital on the one side battling a powerful players' union on the other, has created a more level playing field than a freer market could have achieved.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling