It’s always about the money

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There are a set of conditions in society that have long been extant but which are becoming more and more prominent in recent days, with so many out of work and (finally) so much time to pay attention to things that often slip beneath our notice. One is the treatment of people of color in this country. Another is the almost literal hand-to-mouth existence of so many (and, again, especially people of color.) As we’re still in the very short pre-season period before things get underway again, I thought I’d kick things off with a little examination of the undercurrent to that set of conditions and how it interacts with football and beyond.

Most of you who are regular readers are aware of my political inclinations. They match those that embody the existence of our club. I used to tell people that I like my football the way I like my politics: Red. That perspective is usually attached to clubs like St. Pauli, where they’re willing to cut loose a solid player because he expresses personal viewpoints that conflict with those of the club. But I grew up a Liverpool fan and those philosophies are still part of our traditions, as frequently expressed by the man who revived the club, Bill Shankly. It’s almost a measure of cosmic symmetry that the club’s most successful era on the pitch, the late 70s through the 80s, was one of the roughest times for the city of Liverpool; beset by the transformation of the economy and a Tory government willing to let the people suffer in the name of ideology. It’s again a measure of interesting symmetry given the times we live in now, having just completed a trophy haul over the past two seasons that outstrips anything for the past two decades, just as we enter a period of economic stress in many areas around the world.

But there’s no debate that the circumstances of Liverpool and St. Pauli are quite different. The latter is a Bundesliga.2 club that struggles to stay afloat, despite a sizable fanbase outside of Hamburg, ranging from the hardcore to the casual (raises hand.) Meanwhile, LFC is one of the biggest clubs in the world and it’s difficult for some to rationalize the philosophy of fighting for the community, even while the club is in some ways elevated above it. That’s the effect of money, but its impact is often a question of application.

As noted, Matt Doherty to Spurs isn’t a market-rocking event at the Premier League level (We’ll talk about a potential one of those in a minute…) But it’s a world-changing event for Bohemians of the Irish League. A Redditor mentioned that the club almost went bust a few years back and had to be rescued by its supporters, who are now its owners. The estimated value of the whole club is ~£113,000. They’re about to receive a payment almost 15 times that. This isn’t quite a human-rights-violating-oil-state-buys-your-second-tier-club situation, but it’s similar. The entirety of Bohemians’ business last season was free transfers and loans, both to and from. Suddenly, they’re sitting at the big dogs’ table in the 10-club League of Ireland. And, of course, part of the message of that tweet is that the amounts of money we’re talking about are, from a Premier League perspective, almost minuscule. OTOH, you know what 1.5 million pounds (1,983,390 US dollars) means to the average person, most of whom are us, the fans of Liverpool? The same thing it does to Bohemians. It would be transformative. This is the difference between the haves and the have-nots.

 

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Of course, Liverpool is a “have”. We’re one of the biggest clubs in the world; a part of the Premier League’s “Big 6”, which makes up the wealthiest substrate of the wealthiest league in the world. Consequently, many supporters are in a perpetual state of outrage that Liverpool won’t spend money for new players at every opportunity. Virtually nothing was spent last summer, acquiring only Sepp van den Berg, and very little was spent in the winter window, with Takumi Minamino arriving for £13m once Edwards’ long-held appreciation was confirmed by Taki’s performance in the Champions League. For a team in our position, having just signed a new kit deal with the largest sports clothing business in the world and having made more money off TV appearances than any other club in the PL, the cash should be there, right? But there are three complicating factors to that situation: 1. There is still a division between the clubs who have ridiculous money (all of the top 6) and the clubs who have astronomical money: ManU, Man City, and Chelsea. 2. FSG insists that the club operate in a self-sustaining manner (i.e. we already owe them money and they’re not interested in putting in more.) 3. We’re in a set of wholly unexpected circumstances that’s requiring us to pay back a portion of that heretofore bottomless TV fortune. These are the times of COVID.

So, let’s look at those things. Ed Woodward may not know shit about football, but he sure knows how to make money. Every packet of dried cuttlefish in Kyoto with the ManU badge on it will tell you that. Plus, ManU had the forethought to take advantage of the TV explosion in the 90s and then to keep winning titles while that explosion grew and grew. Man City and Chelsea both have petroleum benefactors which (ahem) fuels their ability to acquire pretty much whomever they want (Witness both, especially City, having piled into the Messi Sweepstakes as soon as they were announced.) Liverpool doesn’t have those advantages, although they have greater legit commercial income than either City or Chelsea and that presence is growing with the new Nike contract and other opportunities that FSG has been keen to link the club with. However, the key phrase there is “link the club with.” FSG is its own thing, as they also own the Red Sox, and they’ve approached the LFC situation from the very beginning with the American mindset: Sports is a way to make money. The vast majority of other clubs and owners don’t think this way because, for the longest time, it was a truism. No one but a precious few made money on football. The converse situation here is that FSG is also determined not to lose money on football.

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One way that Liverpool doesn’t look positively at being in the red is financially. The club is sound now, pays its own bills with room to spare, and has been involved in massive construction projects at Anfield and Kirkby over the past decade, with plans for more at Anfield still in the offing. A decade ago we were sitting on the brink of administration and now we’re in the top 10 in the famous Deloitte Money League. But the latter is a measure of overall value, not liquidity. Man City and Chelsea will always have more liquidity because they’re willing to take huge contributions from their owners (and evade FFP rules, when possible) to reinforce their squads. ManU, tbanks to the cuttlefish, simply has more money. So, when people wail about the fact that Liverpool was unwilling to shell out £54m for the long-awaited Timo Werner and he was, instead, snapped up by Stamford Bridge, the frustration is understandable. No one wants to see the other guys rearming while we’re standing still.

But the fact is that those guys are rearming because… they’re trying to compete with Liverpool, who have just won the English league in dominant fashion, breaking multiple records along the way. Lots of people complained that we spent no money last year on a squad that produced 97 points in the league and won the European Cup. Was there a left back that anyone would’ve wanted over Robertson? A midfielder over Henderson or Gini? A forward over Mané? Those same questions exist this summer, despite the squad getting older as humans tend to do. What the squad has needed is depth, but was Werner considered a “depth” player? £54m for someone riding the bench? Maybe at Man City, with the neverending money pumped from the ground, but not at Anfield.

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Complicating all of that right now is the virus. Despite game day attendance being a lesser concern for clubs in the Top 6, it remains a significant income source. If you want to be able to put away some cash to remodel the Anfield Road end, you still need to pay the people who keep the club running and game income is part of that. Similarly, no one ever imagined that the pile of money that is TV rights would ever become a debit on the ledger, but it is right now, with every club in the PL having to pay back some share of that money for not completing the season on time (Personally, I think exigent circumstances should’ve been part of the contract and it seems awfully adversarial for the networks to take this stance (I’d be seriously aggressive about shopping the rights around next time), but that’s a whole other topic.) With limited prospect of bringing fans back into the stadia for the season and other issues that may arise (rumor has it a bunch of Chelsea players/staff tested positive yesterday), the future is very, very uncertain for the PL for the first time in a long time. That’s enough to make any businessperson not connected to an essential resource of the modern economy cautious. And, ‘lo and behold! The long-swirling Thiago Alcantara rumors may turn out to be true. Bayern is expecting something in the range of €30m for him. So, really, Liverpool is going to spend money, despite these uncertain times. It’s being spent on a 29-year-old in a spot where we already have enormous depth, so I can’t say that I understand the motivation, but trust in the Klopp, yo.

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But let’s bring that back to the beginning. That price for Thiago is 20 times what Bohemians is going to receive, which is already a stunning windfall for them. Barcelona is facing COVID problems, as well. Their revenue has taken a huge hit and they’re now trading players (Arthur for Pjanic) in a net loss of future potential in order to balance the books so that their board of directors doesn’t have to make up the loss. This kind of behavior, along with the rampant and disorganized spending on galacticos over the past few years, is what is compelling their greatest ever player to announce his departure. On the one hand, it’s an enormous culture shock to the club and its fans. OTOH, it might be a huge relief to their bottom line, considering his enormous salary and the money that they’re hoping to get for him. In that respect, the most interesting thing about Barcelona’s situation over the past couple years has been their money issues, which involve figures that the normal person (i.e. you and me) won’t see over a lifetime of labor. Is the money game what’s most important in football? Another factor in that whole calculation is that one of the richest clubs in the top 6 may be the most likely destination for Messi, who are among the few that could possibly afford his contract. The rich get richer, again? We spent the last five years, doing things the “right way” and living within our means, only to be overtaken because fossil fuels still rule the world?

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On top of that, the other football story to hit the news in the past couple days involved Harry Maguire and the Greek judicial system. The police and court charged him with multiple attempts of bribery of a public official; citing his supposed declarations that he was “rich” and could just pay his way out of whatever he’d done. In the end, the court declared him guilty of all charges but let him out of the consequent jail time if he would, instead, simply bribe the Greek state; proving that he could, indeed, simply pay his way out. Considering the number of people that fail to answer arrest warrants in this country precisely because they can’t afford to pay the fines that will be imposed upon them whether they go to jail or not (like, say, Jacob Blake, just as a casual example…), it provides a crystal clear example of the dual tracks of modern justice systems. One for those who can pay and one for those who can’t. Many people say this is where football is, as well, and we happen to be supporters of a club that has long been comprised of people from that lower track, but now find the club firmly ensconced in the upper one. Is there a moral or ethical underpinning to this? I don’t know.

Next time: We will talk about the Shield and why it mattered (or didn’t.) Following that, in the interim of an international break(?), I’ll put out a unit by unit breakdown of the squad, starting with the keepers and the back line, and continuing to the midfield, and finally the First Triumvirate.

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