The former President of the United States, Barack Obama, once said during a speech: “Money is not the only answer, but it makes a difference”. In the hyper-inflated market of modern football, this quote distant from the cold reality of politics itself, has taken on new meaning and has become the mantra of each coming transfer-window with spending records being smashed and the bar being set at unimaginable levels.
To put it simply, the situation of increased spending within football is becoming a cause for concern. Firstly, the notion of ‘financial fair-play’ seems to be non-existent for UEFA, which allows teams to buy footballers at ridiculous prices thanks to some loopholes in the system. Secondly, players are offered jaw-dropping salaries that encourage them to change clubs time and time again, often with no legal impediment. This whole situation is distant from creating the impression that everyone’s a winner and that the football industry is a fair market. The landscape isn’t encouraging at all and a lot of questions may arise from this setting, but, the one that worries us the most is: What happens with competition in football leagues?
Tevez signing for Shangai Shenhua with a contract of 615,000 pounds per week, according to The Guardian.
Ici c’est Paris
Paris Saint Germain give us the perfect example for answering the previous question.
On the 2006/2007 ‘Ligue 1’ campaign, two matches were played between Stade Rennais and Paris St Germain. Both ended up 1-0, one victory for each team. Back in that time they seemed to have a similar level on their game, despite the fact that the team from Rennes ended up 4th while the ‘Parisiens’ finished on the 15th spot that season. Now, ten years later, the team from the French capital crushed them 1-6, 1-4 and 0-4, all the matches in the same calendar year (2017) and at Roazhon Park, the stadium of Stade Rennais.
With a little intuition you could say that there was a slight change in something, right? Well, that something has a name and it is called Qatar Sports Investments.
Nasser Al-Khelaifi, president of Paris Saint Germain and member of the board of Qatar Sports Investments.
The team was bought in 2011 by the Qatar Company, with their last league title being won in 1994. At first it seemed that their success would take years to occur, but to the amazement of many, it happened extremely fast. They won 4 out of the next 6 possible league titles, with astonishing football and remarkable results.
As the majority may know, PSG is not the only case. Some may think that Monaco was the underdog and defeated the mighty team from Paris in the title race last year. This is true, but in an entirely different way than you would assume. The team from the principality was acquired by the Russian Dmitry Rybolovlev, who bought 66% of the club in 2013, which in turn has allowed them to obtain players such as Falcao, Moutinho and James Rodriguez in previous years.
In ‘La Liga’, Real Madrid is one of older cases. Florentino Pérez, a known businessman in Spain, took charge of Real Madrid from the early 2000s and has had a major impact on the club. He created the ‘Galacticos’ after buying Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo Nazário and Beckham, regaining prestige to the club. To be honest, this expensively assembled squad can just be remembered for ‘La Decima’, due to the fact that it was the only relevant title they obtained. In spite of this, this situation forged the path for future brilliant eras in the ‘Merengues’ club.
And how can you forget the English Premier League?
Chelsea’s owner Abramóvich bought the club in 2003 for the modest amount of 140 million pounds, handling 60 million to the previous owner and using the remaining 80 to pay off the club’s debt. The Abramóvich era can be categorized as a rebirth. Before his arrival, Middlesbrough annihilated them 8-0 in 1991 and the ‘blues’ had to wait 50 years for a league title. Now, in 2018, they have won 5 Premier Leagues since the Russian acquired the club.
Moving to the north of England, Manchester City is a more recent case. Bought for 200 million pounds, the ‘Citizens’ have passed from, nothing but less than Tottenham in the last 10 years, to being a Premier League champion and a serious Champions League contender.
The spending hasn’t been obsolete as you may see. Now, a more interesting question has arisen from all this. How effective has the money been in general? We have talked about specific cases but how probable is it to have another Leicester-type fairy-tale in the world of football?
The Spearman Correlator
The Spearman correlator is a measure of how associated two ranked variables are. It is measured from -1 to 1, where each of these values show when there is a perfect explanation between the variables, in which the first case is a negative relation and in the second a positive one. After gathering statistics from SportsIntelligence and Transfermarkt, we developed a Spearman correlation between the rank of the average salary of the team in that year (in millions of pounds) and the position they occupied in the league. For the 2017-2018 table, we took into account the positions occupied by the teams up to March 4th of 2018. We took the average salary as the standard measure of expenditure because the free transfers didn’t let the buying outlay be an accurate measure.
Within football, it is easy to find a pattern nowadays. In Spain it is Real Madrid or Barcelona, in Germany Bayern Munich, in France PSG, In Italy Juventus and in England, which is supposed to be the most competitive league, Chelsea or Manchester City. The champions are easy to predict, besides some few exceptions such as Monaco, Atlético Madrid, Dortmund and Leicester, the recent league winners don’t vary at all.
As we can see, the numbers don’t lie. The average correlation of the two years in the top 5 leagues is strong, as the position obtained in the league is related to the teams expenses. But there is a problem isn’t there? The 10th or 11th place in the league don’t win anything, neither does the 7th spot. To be honest, at best only 4 top teams every year are in the title race or are even trying to get to the Champions League. This is the reason why we discovered the Spearman correlation, by gathering the top 4 teams from the 5 leagues from each season and acquired the following results:
The results are amusing but discouraging at the same time. In this season, there is only a relation of 0,96 (where the maximum is 1) between spending and getting to the top 4. Now, it is impossible to clarify what the chances are of another case such as Leicester to happen again but, as we mentioned before, it was a fairy-tale and just in their case they didn’t have to wake up. Even with that miracle, that season of the Premier League (2015-2016) had a Spearman correlation of 0,531, which is actually pretty high. Besides, if it wasn’t for Atalanta and RB Leipzig last season (2016-2017), the correlation would have been similar to the one of this year so far.
Leicester F.C. rewriting history. The underdog, with 4000 to 1 bets, won the EPL in 2015.
Should we still dream?
Pele didn’t call football a ‘beautiful game’ for nothing. Supporters from small teams can’t stop dreaming, we follow a sport where anything could happen. A 90th minute equalizer is a cross and a header away, always remembers that. Celtic defeated Barcelona back in 2012 with 27% possession. Wigan won the FA Cup against Manchester City in 2013 with memorable goals. Like this, there are thousands of cases; it is just a matter of believing that the next one might be the team you happen to support.
Yes, there are Russian and Arabian magnates that may keep fuelling big teams across the world and yes, the statistics show that the probability of success from low-budget teams is heart-breaking. The landscape may not be good, but if Ranieri and his squad made it, why can’t the manager of your team and his players rewrite history and achieve the impossible?