‘When you see De Bruyne, who played three or four matches, gave us a big profit, there are other players who – maybe – don’t play a single match for Chelsea and we sell them at a profit… Chelsea did fantastic work in this level: Romelu Lukaku, De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, young Thorgan Hazard, Lucas Piazon. Not all of them will have a career at Chelsea, but all of them are important in this new financial organisation.’ – Jose Mourinho.
My reaction was that this was a startling admission from Mourinho of the sort thing we all suspected goes on but no-one in football ever talks about. And yet none of the main newspapers have produced an opinion on it. Perhaps in their better informed circles, this wasn’t even news.
But this practice, if widely adopted, could be as significant for the future of Financial Fair Play (FFP) as the inflated sponsorship deals, enjoyed by clubs like Manchester City, which have attracted media attention in the last couple of weeks.
I wrote an article last year about big clubs stockpiling and effectively spread-betting on (mostly foreign) teenagers. I named Chelsea as probably the worst offender, and my figures actually undershot. There are actually 24 players (not 12), aged roughly 16 to 21, currently on loan.
It is now clear that this strategy was deliberately timed to coincide with FFP. Basically, Chelsea will continue loaning out twenty-odd teenagers every year and, when they have turned enough heads during their loan spells, sell them at a profit on their initial investment.
Kevin De Bruyne was a perfect example. Signed for £6.7m at the relatively old age of 20, he completed loan spells at home-club Genk and Werder Bremen, where he won the Bundesliga Young Player of the Award for 2012-13 and put himself in the shop window. De Bruyne made 9 appearances for Chelsea over two years before being sold to Wolfsburg for £18m. Chelsea almost tripled their investment, and they barely had to go to the trouble of actually playing him. Lucas Piazon has scored a handsome 11 goals in 21 league appearances for Vitesse Arnhem this season.
As an attacking midfielder, a position in which Chelsea have plenty of options, don’t be surprised if they soon cash in. Romelu Lukaku is probably wondering if he will have a Chelsea career after Mourinho eschewed his services this season.
There are three issues with this practice. First, you might say it is harmless if a player doesn’t mind uncertainty or moving around a lot. This might be true for De Bruyne and Lukaku who have been regulars in their loan spells, but in many cases this doesn’t happen.
Clubs take players but have no stake in them, and no interest in their value. Sometimes the parent club even subsidises the player’s wages. Manchester City’s Enock Kwakwa made one appearance during his loan spell at Strømgodset last season. Obviously, this defeats the point of the buy-to-let transfer policy, but if clubs are loaning up to twenty players a season and most are playing regularly, so what if one or two are neglected?
Second, this practice is basically lowering the age when players sign for big clubs, as they compete to snatch up promising talents before anyone else and before the fee rises. Teenagers are encouraged to shun education and uproot their families without any commitment from the club to develop them.
If players endure a couple of barren years during the loan stage, because their temporary club has no incentive to play them, they could end up discarded and under-developed at only 22.
Finally, this system can lead to unfair advantages for feeder clubs in weaker leagues. Vitesse Arnhem have drawn this sort of criticism for having four Chelsea players on loan. This is maybe a bit whiney. Clubs loan players to others below them all the time to help with a promotion push or a relegation battle.They’ve rarely been accused of corrupting competition.
However, compete just consider that big clubs start supplying smaller ones with entire first XIs. Everyone else then has to with a team that’s benefitting from disproportionate financial muscle. Maybe feeder clubs will ditch their identity altogether and become ‘B teams’. This is all speculative; the loan system has been around for ages and the ‘loan XI’ scenario hasn’t happened, but now under pressure from FFP, things might start to change.
Forgive the speculative and sometimes over-dramatic tone of the piece, but seemingly harmless practices can soon escalate with ruinous consequences. Financial Fair Play has good intentions, but will it ever work? Will clubs really stop spending money they don’t have to gain an advantage? Probably not.
On the evidence so far, FFP has only encouraged the increasing exploitation of the loan system as a way to sidestep its regulations. The full extent of this will become clear in the next few years.
If you want to hear more on the relationship between money and football from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, The Guardian’s David Conn will be speaking to the York Union on Monday 24th February. Follow the link for details and tickets.