ICAEW.com works better with JavaScript enabled.

Financial Doping

Football clubs' finances have been thrust into the spotlight by record transfer fees and rising debt levels. Is it time for tougher financial regulation?

The £80m transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United to Real Madrid has dominated the sports pages this summer.

What many find galling is that Real Madrid reportedly had debts of €500m (£429m) and that the Ronaldo purchase was financed by further borrowing.

For some, transfers like this are a form of cheating. Uefa president Michel Platini says they are a "serious challenge to the idea of fair play and the concept of financial balance in our competitions."

There are also concerns about the game's long term financial stability. In April Alan Keen, chairman of the UK's All Party Parliamentary Football Group, said financial instability was a fundamental vulnerability of English football.

Foreign acquisition

The growing concern about debt levels has coincided with a wave of investment in Premier League clubs from foreign owners, which started when Abramovich bought Chelsea for £140m in 2003. Six years later, by the end of the 2008/9 season, nine clubs were under foreign ownership.

Wealthy owners have been accused of causing transfer fee inflation and enabling their clubs to achieve debt levels that some feel are unsustainable.

"English clubs have to operate under company law and we have stock market listing which requires us to be transparent. European clubs often don't have the same level of scrutiny as us so we could be disadvantaged" - Spurs FD Matthew Collecott

Deloitte's Annual Review of Football Finance (2009) points out that the top four clubs in the Premier League's final table - Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal - are those with the highest debts. In 2008, their aggregate net debt represented almost two thirds of the league's total net debt of £3.1bn.

Matthew Collecott FD at Tottenham Hotspur admits that spending by the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United has made his job more difficult. "We are all operating in the same market-place so when someone pays £80m for a player it resonates throughout the sport."

However, he is sceptical about the need for further regulation. "English clubs have to operate under company law and we have stock market listing which requires us to be transparent," says Collecott. "European clubs often don't have the same level of scrutiny as us so we could be disadvantaged."

West Ham finance director Nick Igoe also has doubts about salary capping. He thinks rates based on a ratio with turnover could increase the gap between rich and poor clubs.

Defence tactics

The Premier League robustly defends the financial integrity of the game. Spokesman Nick Noble says financial controls and reporting requirements "go above and beyond UK standard accounting practice".

The annual accounts and directors' report must be accompanied by a material transaction report, all independently audited. Clubs applying for a Uefa licence must provide comprehensive financial projections and explanatory notes.

The Deloitte report points out that debt is not necessarily a bad thing for clubs as long as it is sustainable and repayable within existing operations. It suggests that significant debt is best invested in long-term beneficial assets such as stadiums.

Uefa has yet to be specific about the exact nature of any further financial regulation. But Platini told the European Parliament in February that "we are currently looking at the idea of limiting, to a certain degree, a club's expenditure on staff - salary and transfer fees combined - to an as yet undecided percentage of its direct and indirect sporting revenue".

The global financial crisis has clearly forced a rethink on opposition to financial regulation on ideological grounds.

It seems that it is only practical complexities that are stopping Uefa from imposing tougher controls.

Read the article in full (PDF 189kb/3 pages)