The English Premier League—the most watched sporting competition on Earth—is in jeopardy of becoming a debt-ridden facade whose authorities would readily favour the superficial over its undoubted substance.
The EPL is a product of calculated marketing and saturated promotion, but it's very essence is the enthralling spectacle that football always has been. It's popularity has seen revenue increase exponentially and, with it, an elevation to status symbol for billionaires and corporations from around the world.
The title of this article may seem inflammatory. Why, after all, must two clubs with legitimate aspirations fail? It is not out of jealousy or malice that I believe these clubs must not realise their ambitions for as long as that ambition is resourced by disproportionate transfer fees and wages.
These absurd excesses are a profound disservice to two great clubs and football in general.
The two sides are not responsible for this culture and it is not to say, as a Liverpool supporter, that I do not look on enviously at the veritable fortunes of teams like them, and Chelsea, Barcelona, et al.
They, however, have eagerly become the personification of football's financial anarchy and their experiences have the potential to be a great influence on the future of football.
Just like Enron, Northern Rock, Dubai, or Lehman Brothers, football may need to suffer spectacular losses before change for the better can be heralded.
Being able to announce a £1 billion television agreement, as the Premier League is reported to be on the verge of doing, does not insulate it from reality or reason.
Neither does it demonstrate the league's health or sustainability—at least from the obvious perspective of it as a sport.
An incalculable viewership can not obfuscate the nonsense of a league's nucleus consisting of four clubs. That the league itself accepts that could surely conflict with any number of competition laws were it a conventional business.
If the global economy that brought about recession now requires extensive reform, so too does football.
There have been benefits that will endure beyond any of football's current anxieties. No one can deny that the league's infrastructure and high standards on the pitch, among other developments, owe much to the Premier League's financial revolution.
It would be a legacy anyone in love with the game would wish could negate the issues confronting football.
Unfortunately, the Premier League has lost or undermined principles and ideals that are as invaluable to it as Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba, and Cesc Fabregas: perspective, vision, competition, reason, so much of its financial integrity, even a sense of heritage.
It can not be ignored that these values have been adversely impacted by the Premier League's "progress."
There is a dangerous absence of an equilibrium between the advantages of global investment and the existence of footballing powerhouses, with the need for greater competition, balance, and stability—all glaringly essential to the viability of any sport.
Wages and transfers are overwhelming too many clubs, yet too many remain undeterred. Penalising clubs, placing them in administration—even soliciting cash injections—function only as "plasters" for an ever gaping wound that football has inflicted on itself.
Solutions or Bust?
The plight of Portsmouth, Crystal Palace, Notts County, and Cardiff City has brought the economic instability of English football and the frivolous attitudes that many clubs nonchalantly exhibit—not to mention the Premier League's reticence to all those "beneath it"—once more to the fore.
From soapbox columns to public displays of discontent among fans, from Liverpool to Manchester United and beyond, the problems that unquestionably beset football are being debated, deplored, and defended.
After all, goal-line technology should not be the priority if it is at the expense of more compelling matters. What should its relevance be when the future of football is being so grossly affronted by the inertia and indifference of too many who are able to influence the sport?
So many of the "solutions" that seem to be in constant circulation have to be judged to be impossible for as long as opponents like Richard Scudamore reign supreme without appreciable threat to their positions.
The tentative measures being taken by the eternally indiscreet UEFA chairman Michel Platini and FIFA president Sepp Blatter to control football's excesses cannot really be considered a decisive beginning—but the sport yearns for it nonetheless.
Scudamore can behold without concern the encroachment of American Football into Britain—not even remotely a threat to the game's hegemony—serving as a reminder of the vitality that stringent financial controls and equality bring.
Only four of the 32 NFL teams have yet to contest a Super Bowl, while 16 different franchises have appeared in it since 2000.
Admittedly, all NFL sides are able to allocate extraordinary sums of money to wages (in excess of $110 million) by virtue of flexible contracts, a lack of transfer fees, the franchise system that precludes promotion and relegation, and the large stadia that have epitomised the sport.
Even with the institution of an individual and overall salary cap in the Premier League, there would be a perpetuation of the disparity that has defined it over the past decade.
Teams like Stoke and Burnley would still not be able to lavish their players with the salaries that Manchester United and Chelsea can, nor even be able to absorb the expense.
The clubs of 30 years ago, constrained by modest resources or other factors, had the same pragmatism and modest ambitions that today's "lower-table" sides have.
Yet with the sheer demands placed on clubs desperately seeking to avoid relegation, increasing wages and transfer fees ensure that even a "lack" of ambition is not financially tenable.
There are many possibly solutions to the problem.
One radical option would be to create a wages "pool," using the combined resources of the Premier League and its constituents to engineer the potential for balance.
Teams would still be able to dominate, á la Manchester United or Liverpool in the 1970s and '80s, but it would be success not contingent on greater expenditure or the benevolence of club owners.
Resource pooling would release assets that could facilitate the further development of clubs and their infrastructures, and directly or indirectly assist the lower leagues.
There are two major obstacles: would the traditional "Big Four" ever be prepared to consent to their being dispossessed of a once unassailable financial superiority? Would FIFA, et al., even be able or willing to establish it as universal policy?
Whatever measures are proposed to improve competitivity and security, the occasional shock wins and climatic relegation battles should not leave the Premier League's officials contented.
The mercurial Kevin Keegan once opined the league had become "boring," bemoaning its "predictability." Equally predictable was Richard Scudamore's response. He dismissed Keegan's contentions, using viewing statistics and the many "battles" below the top four as proof otherwise.
It was a simplification that was more dismissive of the need to address the league's deficiencies than it was of Keegan's criticism.
Restrictions could flourish in conjunction with other proposals, and even be justified by them. They range from placing similar caps on transfer fees (ideally an overall budget), Sepp Blatter's "6+5" rule, and to the use of the "designated" or "marquis" concept, whereby players are exempted from any restrictions.
To further consolidate the rewards of finishing in the top four, three to four marquis berths could be allocated to those clubs that qualify for the Champions League. Further, should a Champions League side fail to qualify, they could conceivably "trade" for or "loan" a temporary berth from another club and return it should they qualify again.
Arguably, without a system of restraint and restriction, there can be no impetus to redress the glaring under-representation of British footballers at some clubs, driving a number into effective "exile."
The culture of excess has created a culture of pressure and impatience, and it has condemned too many prospects to the periphery.
Arsene Wenger's conviction that merit must be the overriding factor in selecting a player should be commended, but it's a false assertion to make when a club has no incentive to develop and nurture players like Mathew Upson, Stephen Warnock, Carlton Cole, Scott Sinclair, or David Bentley.
Players have been burdened, and sometimes inhibited, by layer after layer of obstruction.
The unfettered conveyor belt that has processed inordinate numbers in and out of the reserves and academies, and depleted league after league of its most capable and valuable assets, is inextricably linked to the league's uncontrollable debt.
It is damaging clubs and players alike.
What would have happened to Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, and Jamie Carragher had they had to endure Cole and Bentley's top four experiences had Gerard Houllier confined them to the reserves, sent them on loan to various clubs, and had them as substitutes at 21?
Indeed, what would have happened to Fergie's '90s generation?
If Houllier and Ferguson had been able to fill their squads with expensive and established alternatives, or congest their academies and reserves, what would have happened?
The benefits of reform—of consigning £80 million transfer fees and astronomical wages to history—could cascade through football's many tiers, potentially altering the most negative aspects of the game.
Money has certainly been a bane as much as a boon for the sport since the inception of the Football Association in the late 19th Century.
Clubs were able to generate significant profits as early as the first few decades of the 20th Century. Their frequent lucrative tours of the United States and Europe contrasted with the imposition of wage restrictions and the treatment of players as virtual club property.
The inequality frustrated some players. A number of clubs felt obliged to appease their squads by illicitly paying them wages in excess of what was allowed by the FA.
Inevitably, a few were inspired to seek their fortunes abroad and even to engage in corrupt activities—most notoriously a scandal arranged between Liverpool and Manchester United players in 1916, and similar match fixing in the 1950s and 1960s, orchestrated by Jimmy Gould.
The 1950s also witnessed a spate of departures abroad, encouraged by Manchester United's Charlie Mitten, who convinced some to accompany him to Colombia to play in a rebel league.
The fleetingly spectacular shift in power became known as the El Dorado period.
One club, Los Millonarios, fielding highly-paid stars who left the country by the mid 1950s, dominated the league. Today, it is a perennial underachiever and hasn't won a league title since 1988.
The early 1960s proved to be one of the most pivotal decades in British football history.
After yet another surge in departures—including Denis Law, Joe Baker, Jimmy Greaves, and Gerry Hitchens—and a campaign instigated by Jimmy Hill, the maximum wage was abolished and footballers accorded rights they had long been deprived of, and long deserved.
As British transfer fees increased inexorably, surpassing £1 million for Trevor Francis in 1979—equivalent to almost £4 million in 2008—and £15 million in 1996 for Alan Shearer—equivalent to more than £21 million in 2008—now so too were wages.
Tabloids reported in the late 1990s that Chelsea's Brian Laudrup, who had been acquired from Rangers via the newly-implemented "Bosman ruling," was earning more than £50,000 per-week (approx' £75,000 in 2008).
By 2009, £80 million had been spent by Real Madrid on Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo, while Kaka and Zlatan Ibrahimovic enjoyed a monthly wage of more than £650,000 at AC Milan and Inter Milan, respectively.
The tantalising rewards of success in football became the basis for the collapse of numerous clubs, most dramatically Leeds United and Fiorentina—the latter of which was reconstituted briefly as Florentia Viola after its expulsion from Serie A and 2002 demise.
Under Peter Ridsale, Leeds challenged for the Premier League and advanced to the semi-final stage of the Champion League.
Their acquisitions of Rio Ferdinand for £18 million, Robbie Keane for £12 million, and Robbie Fowler for £11 million caused a sensation, while 66 percent of its turnover was allocated to salaries alone.
The club began to disintegrate, and within a year of Ridsdale's acrimonious departure Leeds had been relegated. Leeds are only beginning to stabilise after a second relegation to the third tier of English football.
Now imperiled Portsmouth has its very existence in doubt after years of compulsive spending and inflated wages during Harry Redknapp's prosperous tenure.
Football has often produced moments that could be interpreted as miraculous, but even a miracle should not be allowed to expunge football's authorities of guilt and blame.
That is, should those in power be resolved to countenance complicity. Some in the Premier League evidently wish for Portsmouth to survive this season, at least so the club can be relegated and become the responsibility of the FA.
Who will be next? If there is one certainty, it is that there will be more.
If Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Manchester City believe they are immune because of their vast wealth, they may not be.
They will likely remain financially resilient for years, but these clubs have already been affected. The list of managers at Madrid and Chelsea illustrate that. Manchester City will be no different. With tremendous investment has come tremendous instability. That in itself cannot be sustainable.
What should be most worrying for Manchester City is the possibility that they will not be able to mitigate that instability as the other two clubs have managed to thus far.
Not being an established club, with a pre-exisiting platform to build upon, may present a great impediment should the owners not be committed to the theoretical prospect of a decade-long project. They could be liable to be the Premier League's version of QPR should the impatience of Chairman Flavio Briatore be adopted.
Scudamore: Visionary or Villain?
Perhaps the most prominent advocate of this culture is the repeatedly aforementioned Richard Scudamore, who has been the most senior figure in the EPL since 1999.
He is perhaps most noted for the infamously proposed addition of "Game 39" to the league's schedules. The extra matches were to be played abroad—a suggestion that even Sepp Blatter described as an "abuse of association football."
The motivation was arguably an attempt not only at understandably seeking to exploit the league's international composition and popularity, but another untenable "innovation" to counter spiralling debt.
It is ironic and lamentable that Scudamore has seen fit to convey such a contemptuous attitude to the various aspects of the game that have actually contributed to the global popularity of the league and football in general for more than a century.
In his rebuke of a salary cap, Scudamore saliently acknowledged that it would have a negligible affect on the league and its smaller clubs. That, however, was in response to Michel Platini's suggestion that wage expenditure be limited to a maximum of 60 percent of a club's turnover.
It was a rebuke that by implication affirmed his acceptance of debt—be it to banks or investors. He has since argued that debt "per se isn't so bad" and that it is in itself a pre-requisite to success in football. To a degree, he is correct.
That sentiment, however, appears so hollow since his adamant denial that the Premier League was even indirectly culpable for Portsmouth's seemingly impending collapse.
Scudamore has been as culpable in the transformation of the Premier League—a project that quite possibly saved professional football in England from an extinction of sorts—into a porous sanctuary of greed, recklessness, and fiscal myopia.
He has become a figure of derision for many, but his contribution to the league and his relationship with modern media has had its moments.
His ability, among other nominal attributes, to harness the marketability of the league and establish it as a dynamic and credible brand has been impressive. Never before have fans from around the world been able to have such an intimate connection with the clubs they support.
In Scudamore's defence, it could be justifiably argued that the apathy of UEFA and FIFA this past decade has inspired and emboldened some of his strategies.
Premier League clubs have also long been fearful that any measures to control the league's finances could drive away players and investors to Spain and Italy. Any suggestion that Scudamore has exploited those insecurities would be utterly conjectural.
Ironically, fears of an exodus of the league's players have been renewed with the increasing parity between the Pound and Euro, and the advent of the 50 pence income tax threshold.
I personally am hopeful, but not optimistic, that the experiences of Manchester City since the arrival of Thaksin Shinawatra and of Portsmouth will result in the Premier League one day being compelled to introduce more stringent regulation of prospective investment:
To provide far more complete transparency and vetting. If necessary, utilising non-partisan committees representing as many of the sport's authorities as practical, along with representatives of relevant national and regional political bodies.
To ensure a club is never reduced to becoming a vehicle for an owner's business or political agenda.
Most importantly, to make investors accountable should their ownership amount to little more than negligence and incompetence. Whether that is through prosecution, bans or suspensions, or fines, et al., they must not be impervious to the repercussions of their actions (or inaction).
George Santanya once wistfully observed that "those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat".
Those who endured the decline of Los Millionarios, the effective dissolution of Fiorentina, and the relegations of Leeds, Chester City, KFC Uerdingen, Celta Vigo, Real Betis, and Nantes (among too many others), can attest to that.