The Big Big Big change to football that is lurking just around the corner

By Tony Attwood

Football clubs, and to some degree football fans, tend to dislike change.  I thought of this in writing a recent entry on the  Anniversary Files on the Arsenal History Society website  which celebrates the first penalty shoot out in England, which took place 50 years ago.

That first penalty shoot out (which was not called a penalty shoot out – it was called the Settling Rule) took place in 1970 after Hull and Man Utd drew 1-1 in the Watney Mann Invitation Cup.  The clubs involved were the two top scoring teams from each division of the previous season, excluding those who had qualified for Europe.  The first player to miss a penalty in a penalty shoot out in England was Dennis Law.  The media were most certainly not impressed.  Lots of muttering about new-fangled ideas and mucking about with the rules.

Of course one type of change is welcomed by fans, and that is the getting rid of the players now deemed “utterly useless” and bringing in replacements who cost huge amounts.  But generally speaking, football doesn’t do much in the way of change.

And even when it does it tends not to make much difference.

In 1981 the points system was changed from two points for a win to three points for a win, to avoid clubs playing games and settling for a draw.  In 1980/81 season there were 118 draws in Division 1.   The following season under the new rule there were 121.

Worse, clubs that went one goal up in a game increasingly tended to become more and more defensive, to hold onto their one goal lead, and thus get three points, knowing that a single goal against would lose two of those points.

Similar disappointments have occurred with the offside rule.  True, when the number of players needed between the attacking player and the opponents goal was reduced from three to two in 1925 there was an extraordinary explosion of goals.  In the final season of the old rule the top scoring team got 76.  In the next season that shot up to 102 goals.  But slowly clubs worked out ways of playing the rule, and eventually the rule was changed again to just one opposition player being needed to avoid the off-side and total goals have continued to decline.

And so football has become wary of changes, and thus the notion of introducing a salary cap have not had much of an airing.   But the Corona virus has changed that.  So many clubs are in financial difficulty with just a few seeming to have as much as they could possibly want no matter what the rules say, there is a real move to bring that in.

The big mover in this is reform is the German League President Fritz Keller who has drawn up a five point plan for sustainability in football, including what is known as “upper salary limits and sensible economic regulation of football.”

This move is being discussed across Europe, where of course it will need EU approval.  But assuming that goes through (and the EU has long since agreed that sport is a special case requiring special rules and regulations which differ from those in business generally) England could follow.

Of course being outside the EU England would not have to be part of the move towards salary caps unless Uefa stipulates that the salary caps apply to all European clubs.  Which is why a Uefa diktat is increasingly likely.

What is encouraging Uefa and the proponents of the idea is the fact that year after year it is possible to predict which clubs will win the main leagues.  We tried the prediction game in 2018 predicting the winners of six leagues:

  • England: Manchester City
  • Spain: Barcelona
  • Scotland: Celtic
  • Italy: Juventus
  • Germany: Bayern Munich
  • France: PSG

We got all six right.  We repeated the game in 2019, with the same predictions.  Obviously we were wrong with England, but elsewhere we have not done so badly.  Which raises the question, if it is that easy to predict the winners of six leagues before they kick off, is football really competitive?  The answer is no, so the question is what to do about it?  Salary caps is the answer.

In this sense, the new offensive from Germany is to interesting.  The DFB Ethics Committee Chairman Thomas Oppermann stated that the introduction of a salary ceiling “could be permissible under German and European law”. Because, according to a justification, the upper limit aims to “counteract the loss of equal opportunities (…) and promote fair competition”.

Of course cynics and those who have watched the actions of various English clubs will say that it would not work since clubs will work around it, just as Manchester City have done with transfer fees.

Which is true, except that if, as a result of the pandemic, the super wealthy teams are left with weaker and weaker teams to play against, as clubs start to go bankrupt, no one benefits.  A Pyrrhic victory indeed.

Curiously the technical victory of Manchester C at CAS has strengthened the desire of the majority of the clubs to bring in a salary cap and possibly a transfer cap.  Which would mean that in their victory, Manchester C’s ability to spend will be cut to the same size as that of other clubs.

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said, after the CAS decision that the court “did not do a great job” when it let Manchester City off the hook on the technicality of time-barred evidence.  And he is Chairman of Executive Board of Bayern Munich so he has a certain influence.

A salary cap, properly organised, works in many major competitions in the US.  Manchester City’s great victory (as some of their fans who have written to Untold have expressed it) could be the cause of their greatest defeat.  It seems a momentum for change is building fast.



3 Replies to “The Big Big Big change to football that is lurking just around the corner”

  1. The NBA, NHL and NFL have been using salary caps for years. They have usually come about only after a large disruption like a lockout or a strike or a perception of large scale business losses.

  2. Hi Tony,

    You wrote, “Curiously the technical victory of Manchester C at CAS has strengthened the desire of the majority of the clubs to bring in a salary cap and possibly a transfer cap. Which would mean that in their victory, Manchester C’s ability to spend will be cut to the same size as that of other clubs.”

    What ‘other clubs’ are you suggesting MCFC’s spending will be cut to if a salary cap is introduced? Personally, I’d like to see a sufficiently low salary cap so that a club like Burnley have an equal chance of getting the financial doping that comes with Champions League qualification.

    Tony, why was the CAS judgement in MCFC’s case a technical victory and not simply a victory?



  3. Will having a transfer and/or salary caps work in the EPL? The jury is still out but here are some salient points to consider:

    1) The Big clubs will find ways around such legislation or perhaps even ignore it, at the risk of being sanctioned a la Manchester City.

    2) The sweet FA cannot be relied on to back up EUFA or FIFA or even the EPL.

    3) There will be some fallout but rest assured the top 4 EPL clubs may seriously consider a European super League instead of playing in the EPL.

    4) The lesser players on each team will suffer as their compensation packages will be reduced as the ¨stars¨ package is adjusted to keep them at the club.

    5) The top 4 will likely transfer players to their subsidary clubs in countries that don’t have transfer caps. Once there they can be carefully moved to avoid the rules.

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