When European club directors gather in the chill of Switzerland tomorrow they may set in motion a revolutionary change: a cap on footballers' wages. The gathering next to Lake Geneva features a motley crowd of clubs. The new European Club Association unite giant names (Bayern Munich, Rangers, Barcelona) with some tiny ones like SS Murata of San Marino, who might well struggle to pay the air fare to get there.
The ECA's first general assembly brings together more than 130 members, at least one from each of Europe's 53 football associations. Hit by the global economic crisis, and irritated by heavy English spending, they want to curb football's spending on players. The ECA have gained their power fast. A little more than a year ago, the body did not exist. Europe's biggest clubs were then still united in the G14, a group that permanently squabbled with the football authorities. The G14 threatened to form their own super league, and wanted money for releasing players to national teams.
Then the clubs and the European football association Uefa suddenly made peace. A year ago this week, G14 agreed to disband. Their replacement, the ECA, instantly became Uefa's friends. With clubs and Uefa working together, their power grew. Now they intend to start using that power. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the chairman of Bayern Munich and ECA, has said when he and Uefa's president Michel Platini met last month, they cooked up the idea for a financial licensing system for clubs in the Champions League.
"The 32 participants would have to meet certain conditions," Rummenigge told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. "Only 50 per cent of the club's total revenues could be invested in wages." Such a cap would stop clubs spending money they did not have. Rummenigge thought the ECA's members largely supported a cap, "except the English". The English certainly would squawk. Most of the Premier League's big clubs - particularly Roman Abramovich's Chelsea - spend well over half their revenues on players. This heavy spending has helped English teams dominate the Champions League.
The ECA's proposals would let them continue to do as they liked in the Premier League (which is not Uefa's business) but no longer in European competitions. One ECA official suggests that any plans are still embryonic. However, Platini has indicated otherwise. He said in London last week that the ECA supported some limit on what percentage of revenues could be spent on wages and transfers. He is sympathetic to the plan. Uefa are talking of setting up a financial licensing panel as early as next month.
Clubs are keen to cap spending on players given the economic crisis. Only by reducing wages and transfer fees might they become profitable. The planned cap sounds egalitarian until you reflect on how it would work. No small club could ever rise again thanks to a rich benefactor. The ECA's plan may well die. Any cap on wages would be legally dubious and hard to verify. Nor may the ECA succeed in realising their other dream: a plan to ban international transfers of almost all players aged under 18, and to make players sign their first contract with the club who raised them.
A Uefa official admitted: "The European commission's position will be, 'That's quite a hefty restriction of freedom of movement. You're going to have to convince us of this'." Still, things are afoot. Football has struck its first blow against profligates and sugar daddies. firstname.lastname@example.org