Defending the indefensible – the Millionaire Footballer: a retort

It’s hard to have sympathy for the modern day Premier League footballer. Brash, cosseted, occasionally removed from both the average football fan and in deed reality, and of course overpaid.

In a recent article for the Football Pink, Harry Dunford made a cogent argument that modern footballers are indeed overpaid and that the notion that any top level footballer should automatically be a millionaire and are worth such inflated salaries is a myth. As he noted “In the Premier League alone, where the average wage is around £30,000 per week, how many players really put in a performance week in week out that demands that salary?”

He goes on to add that “This is of course scandalous, a player such as Glenn Whelan, for example, shouldn’t be paid £50,000 per week just because the state of football says the top talent are paid £100,000.” He’s not alone in holding this viewpoint. In fact, Irish football pundit Eamon Dunphy was moved to comment on Glenn Whelan’s earning prowess, sneering of Whelan that “He drives two Ferraris; I think he’s a very lucky lad to have 50 caps for Ireland,” Dunphy would later climb down on his pronouncements after Glenn Whelan went on to challenge Dunphy’s remaks by comparing his career to that of the former Millwall man saying:

I have played 50 times for my country, played at the European Championship finals, played in the Premier League for a long time, played in Europe for two clubs, played in an FA Cup final.

And in fairness to Whelan he has a point, he’s played over 200 games at Premier League level and played in Europe. He’s maintained a first team place under a number of disparate managers when many more overtly talented players have failed to hold down a starting place in the Stoke first XI yet, doesn’t it still seem strange that such an unglamorous footballer should own a Ferrari? Surely such cars are the preserve of continental superstars and not just a midfield workhorse in the Potteries.

btsky

Yet if BT and Sky are willing to pay £5.1billion to secure Premier League TV rights then who should share in this wealth? Harry suggests in his piece, not unreasonably that we all collectively drank the Sky TV Kool-Aid and have been “conned into paying for television subscriptions” which in turn funds the bloated salaries of average footballers. While we could collectively cancel Sky TV subscriptions this, however, ignores a crucial point, that while a British (or indeed Irish) Premier League fan may become turned off from “The best league in the world TM” football is now a truly globalised game, the overseas TV rights for the Premier League have now risen to almost £3billion. For every disillusioned fan in Manchester or Birmingham there are a legion of willing subscribers in other countries.

The viewership of the Premier League (and to a growing but still lesser extent La Liga, Bundesliga and other major leagues) is now global and so is the breadth of sporting talent that the Premier League can call upon – so are these players worth their wages? While Glenn Whelan may not be a marquee name he’s remained playing at a consistent level for a number of years in one of the most viciously competitive sporting meritocracies on the planet. Harry states that “players much further down the talent spectrum within the Premier League are still paid ridiculous amounts of money in relation to their talent” which put me in mind of Nick Hornby’s musings about the hapless Arsenal player Gus Caesar: “To get where he did, Gus Caesar clearly had more talent than nearly everyone of his generation… and it still wasn’t quite enough”. Gus Caesar turned out for Arsenal in the 80s when the majority of the players in the English top flight were British with a few Irish and the odd Dane or Dutchman thrown in. Today, because of the massive scouting networks pioneered in part by the likes of Arsenal and the huge wealth available to Premier League clubs, the talent net can be cast ever wider. Gus Caesar never had to compete against the best talent scouted in Africa, South American and Asia, not to mention all of continental Europe to get an Arsenal squad place, nor were Arsenal at the time richer than the likes of Juventus and AC Milan as they are now. But Glenn Whelan does have to compete in this modern reality, Stoke are signing players from Barcelona for God’s sake. There is an argument that even getting a squad place in a Premier League side has never been as difficult or competitive.

When one thinks of a league so financially dominant one might think of Serie A in the 80s and 90s, yet even that great era didn’t dominate as extensively. There was still greater wage parity between leagues at the time, for example the stars of Brazil’s great 1982 side, Zico, Socrates and Falcao did end up playing in Italy but as mature players who made a decision to leave their domestic game. Today such talent would have been snatched up after a season or two in the Brasileirao. The same is true of European league hierarchies; today a team like Newcastle United, who finished in fifteenth place last year, can snap up a player like Georginio Wijnaldum from PSV. That’s former European Cup winners PSV, Dutch champions who had the opportunity to play Champions League football this year but were out-muscled by a club that in recent years have more experience flirting with relegation than the Champions League. Thus, if even non-elite teams can afford to compile such an array of talent then shouldn’t the players should be recompensed accordingly?

The other main point is that if the players are not to be paid the “millionaire wages”, then where does or should the billions generated by TV deals and sponsorship go?

Should Roman Abramovich just start adding to his art collection? Should Real Madrid, rather than pay huge salaries to Ronaldo, Benzema, Ramos and Co. plan to build more theme parks in Abu Dhabi? Simply put, as football becomes more global in appeal and the elite clubs and leagues become better at generating revenue, then where does this money end up? From a personal point of view I would rather it would go to the athletes on the field who do the most to popularise the game rather than into the pockets of directors, shareholders or oligarchs. Football has always been a game of the masses and in particular the working classes which is where the majority of players still come from. For young boys and men growing up in areas of disadvantage, football offers the chance (albeit a very slim one) of reward and financial security. In a classist society where further education can still seem to be the preserve of the elite, professional football seems one of the only routes of class mobility, one of the only opportunities available to have the esteem of a community and wealth.

hills

When English football had a maximum wage up to 1961 it did not result in great investments or improvements elsewhere in football. The stadium disasters of the 1980’s at Valley Parade and Hillsborough both bear witness to a legacy of massive underinvestment in stadiums in those previous decades, club chairman certainly never gave any great thought to fan comfort or safety when they were paying their players £20 a week but still getting tens of thousands through the turnstiles.

In his piece Harry makes the point that while players like Messi and Ronaldo through their exceptional talent may be somewhat more justified in their massive salaries, but that this raises the bar so that other, lesser players expect far more commensurately. To go back again to the pre-1961 era just look at the example of Fulham’s entertainer chairman Tommy Trinder who publicly proclaimed that star player Johnny Haynes was worth £100 per week. Never adverse to some free publicity, when the maximum wage was abolished, Trinder duly gave Haynes a contract worth £100 a week. However, when teammates like Maurice Cook and Alan Mullery looked for improved deals they were told they could leave the club if they weren’t happy with the contracts that were a fraction of what Haynes would earn. Lest we forget football is a team sport, while stars like Messi gain the plaudits he doesn’t win trophies alone and it would hardly be fair if he earned several multiples of the salary of say Jordi Alba or Ivan Rakitic.

Perhaps the focus should not be less on the well paid, mostly working class young men of football, but on how despite their massive increase in revenue English football clubs in particular have failed to reduce ticket prices, or to improve pay for other workers at their clubs, perhaps issues like these are the more worthy targets of fan frustration. From my point of view, as a football supporter in a country with a much smaller league where many players are part-time and even the very few well paid professionals would not earn more than €2,000 per week, my concern is the ever-growing, cavernous wealth disparity between leagues. I read an article recently that referred to Anderlecht as “minnows” and had a friend’s brother ask me who Club Brugge were when they played Manchester United recently. I would never have traditionally viewed these clubs (who have competed in and indeed won trophies at high levels in Europe) as “minnows”. That is to say nothing of the likes of PSV and Ajax having the cream of their talent picked off by middling teams from wealthier leagues. In the last Forbes football rich list, West Ham and Newcastle were both in the top 20 richest clubs in the world but previous European Cup winners like Benfica or FC Porto weren’t anywhere to be seen.

For me that small minority of well-paid players who play in that small minority of super wealthy leagues deserve to share in the wealth that their endeavours creates. Their position in the game can still be tenuous with injury, capricious managers and the sheer level of unending competition from players around the world who want to take their place. Achieving a fairness and balance in the game is about a lot more than how much Glenn Whelan gets paid.

Originally poster on the Football Pink – August 2015

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