Like baseball in the U.S., soccer in
Europe could become too rich for its own good.
During the European soccer championship this past June, the television cameras often panned the crowd for famous faces. Cheering on their national teams were prime ministers and monarchs, movie stars, supermodels, and sporting heroes. The face that really set tongues wagging, however, belonged to a boyish billionaire by the name of Roman Abramovich.
The 38-year-old Russian oil baron is the talk of the soccer world - and may even offer a glimpse of its future. In July 2003, Abramovich bought Chelsea, a London club, for an estimated $233 million. He then set about building his own personal dream team, blowing a further $223 million (so far) to recruit top players from across Europe. Overnight, "Chelski," as the British tabloids christened the club, went from pauper to powerhouse.
European soccer, like major league sports in the United States, is no stranger
to owners with very deep pockets. AC Milan, for instance, belongs to Silvio Berlusconi, the megarich prime minister of Italy. Traditionally, bankrolling a soccer club is less about making money - few ever make a profit - than it is about having fun, building a public profile, and hobnobbing with powerful people. Yet Abramovich, whose personal fortune is estimated at $13.32 billion, has redefined what it means to be a wealthy owner. In a sport where clubs purchase players, rather than trade for them, he behaves like a cross between Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Imelda Marcos. Pundits constantly speculate on which player he will buy next, and for how much. His aides warn that he might one day spend up to $200 million to purchase a single star. "If I feel we need to buy any particular player to get the results we want," Abramovich has said, "I'll just spend more money."
As well as making rival clubs nervous, the "Russian Revolution" at Chelsea has reignited the debate over the power of money in soccer. At a time when the sport is more popular than ever, fans increasingly ask the question: Is the beautiful game in danger of selling its soul?
Like major league baseball, European soccer has changed profoundly in recent years. Pay TV deals have pumped vast sums of money into the game, helping to modernize stadiums and pushing up salaries. In England's top league, the average payroll has more than doubled since 1999. Many clubs are now listed on the stock market, and the top-tier clubs - Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United - have become global brands, selling shirts and other merchandise all over the world. Last year, Manchester United racked up annual sales of $314 million, compared to $280 million by the New York Yankees.
And with the cash comes social cachet: In England, soccer is no longer seen as the preserve of the lager-soaked blue-collar male. It is hip and trendy. These days, the middle class flocks to matches and discusses team tactics at dinner parties. Politicians and novelists flaunt their passion for the game in the media.
Nowhere is the gentrification more apparent than at Stamford Bridge, the home ground of Chelsea. Rioting hooligans are now a thing of the past. Instead, up in the private boxes, the glitterati sip champagne and nibble sushi. Bankers and lawyers, families in tow, rub shoulders in the crowd. Not long ago, Tatler, the magazine for the posh set, ranked attending a Chelsea match higher up the social ladder than watching the horses at Royal Ascot.
But there is a downside to moving upmarket. At some clubs, ticket prices have rocketed beyond the reach of many fans, approaching the equivalent of more than $100 for the best seats. In English stadiums, where assigned seating has replaced standing on open terraces, the atmosphere has lost some of its raw, primal edge. Crowds are less vocal than before. "It's not as mental as it was," moans John Barry, 38, a lifelong Chelsea fan. "It's all a bit polite now."
As well, the games are less competitive. The top European leagues are dominated more than ever by a handful of rich clubs. In England, London-based Arsenal went undefeated last season. Year after year, the same old heavyweights line up to collect the major trophies across Europe.
And on the rare occasion that a smaller club does defy the odds to win a champi-
onship, the asset-strippers are never far behind. Last May, Porto, a financial middleweight from Portugal, stunned everyone by winning the UEFA Champions League, the elite tournament for the top clubs in Europe. Within weeks, though, the continental giants moved in to cherry-pick the team's best talent. Barcelona bought Anderson Luis de Souza Deco, the midfield maestro. Chelsea hired the coach, Jose Mourinho, and bought defenders Paolo Ferreira and Ricardo Carvalho. No one expects Porto to win the Champions League again anytime soon.
For now, soccer remains unpredictable enough to be entertaining. In every league, the underdog can still defeat the richest club. What's more, fans of lesser teams still get excited about striving for lesser goals. Finishing high enough in the standings to qualify for European cup competitions is now the Holy Grail for many. Toward the end of the season, some of the most gripping matches are played at the bottom of the league. That is because, across Europe, teams pay a very heavy price for finishing in the cellar: banishment or "relegation" to the league below. Nevertheless, the powers that be in soccer are starting to worry that too much talent is concentrated in too few hands. If the elite clubs continue to monopolize the best players and the top trophies, will fans begin to lose interest?
A more pressing concern is that clubs can overstretch themselves in an effort to keep pace with the super-rich. Teams across Europe are mired in debt. Chelsea was $148 million in the red when Abramovich came to the rescue. With no sugar daddy to save them, other clubs have gone into meltdown. Two years ago, after spending a fortune on players, Leeds United reached the semifinals of the Champions League. This year, the club almost went bankrupt. After finishing at the bottom of the FA Premier League, it sold all its stars and was relegated.
Chelsea fans are alive to the risks. On one hand, they are grateful to Abramovich for his largess. Before every home game, they sing "Kalinka," a Russian folk song, in his honor. They also taunt rival clubs by singing, "We're rich and we know we are." But beneath the bravado lurks a nagging doubt: What happens if Abramovich loses interest and turns off the tap?
"Chucking money about is not the same thing as feeling loyalty to the club," says Mick Dennis, a 26-year-old Chelsea fan. "For me there's a question mark over Abramovich's commitment in the long term - and if he moves on, we're stuffed."
These days, loyalty is rare in European soccer. With so much money sloshing around, it's every man for himself. Top stars roam the continent like mercenaries, hawking their services to the highest bidder. One day, a player professes undying love to his club. A month later, he is slipping on a rival jersey with a big smile on his face. The richest clubs often try to poach each other's players. Last summer, when Real Madrid went after Patrick Viera, Arsenal's formidable captain, the president of the Spanish club, Florentino Perez, underlined how venal soccer has become: "There are no players that are not for sale," he declared. "The only problem is the money."
To bring some stability, and to bolster competition on the field, soccer authorities have taken steps to curb the wheeling and dealing. Since 2002, clubs in the FA Premier League can only sell players in January and during the summer break. New rules may limit the size of team rosters, partly to prevent rich clubs from hoarding all the best players. Another rule change under consideration would make it harder for owners to indulge in reckless spending. For its part, the European Union may clamp down on tax breaks and other hidden subsidies that inflate the war chests of clubs in Italy and Spain.
Meanwhile, soccer clubs across Europe are trying to put their houses in order. That means trimming wage bills, signing players to shorter, performance-related contracts, and making greater efforts to nurture young talent instead of buying established stars. (Not unlike what many sports teams in America have had to do as revenue flattens.)
Yet the gulf between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. Unlike American sports leagues like the NFL and NBA, European soccer is built on the winner-takes-all ethos of the free market. Draft systems, salary caps, revenue-sharing, and other measures that level the playing field in the U.S. are anathema here. Instead, the rules help the rich get richer. For example, the more successful a team is on the field, the more TV revenue it gets. Last year, Arsenal pocketed $37 million for reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League. By contrast, Leeds can expect to see its annual earnings fall by the same amount now that it is playing in England's second league.
Some experts think the richest teams will eventually break away to form a pan-
European "super league." This exclusive club would be able to attract the top players and pay them the top salaries. It would also take the lion's share of TV and sponsorship money. To compete in such a league would take big bucks, which is why the free-spending Abramovich could be a harbinger of things to come.
These days, the media bristles with rumors of billionaires lining up to buy soccer clubs. Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister of Thailand, reportedly has his heart set on Liverpool. Vladimir Potanin, another Russian oligarch, has been linked with Manchester City. And Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, recently increased his stake in Manchester United to more than 28 percent, fueling speculation of a takeover bid.
In the meantime, all eyes are on Chelsea. Can Abramovich parlay his millions into a major trophy this season? Whatever fans think of him, the message from the bookies is clear: Don't bet against it.