Special for the Armenian Weekly
Trevor Francis, a former England International soccer player made headlines in February 1979 by becoming the first ₤1 million player. The English media went to town with coverage of his transfer to Nottingham Forest for a then record fee. The previous record was less than half a million pounds and therefore the new record attracted plenty of commentary. It turned out that Francis was worth every penny of that fee. His goal in the European Cup final of the same season secured the title for Forest and ensured his name was written into club lore and the annals of history.
Adjusted for inflation, the transfer fee would still only be approximately ₤5.3 million ($6.6 million USD) in the 2017 market. As a point of reference, the most expensive player transfers in recent times have been Cristiano Ronaldo (₤80 million) and Gareth Bale (₤85.3 million). That was until Paul Pogba surpassed those price tags with an ₤89.7 million transfer from Juventus to Manchester United in July 2016, approximately $116 million. Although a publicly traded company, United’s US co-chairmen Joel and Avram Glazer would have been thankful for a weak British pound at the time due in part to the Brexit vote a month earlier.
With billionaire owners with deep pockets sprinkled across the Barclay’s Premier League, the money spent on player transfers these days is a far cry from the pittance that Trevor Francis went for. There was ₤218.5 million spent during the most recent January transfer window, the annual mid-season extravaganza that sees reporters broadcasting live from the front yards of agents and players in the hopes of breaking the story of the next big move. It is big business and not a bad commission for the agents either, who can command up to 10% of every deal.
The Barclay’s Premier League is the most watched league in the world, as if you didn’t already know. The domestic television rights for the years 2016-2019, a three season deal, totaled a whopping ₤5.136 billion. That was an increase of over 70% from the previously negotiated deal equating to a cost of over ₤10 million to broadcast a single game. That’s just the domestic deal, international television rights were estimated to be another ₤3billion.
Needless to say, that large pool of money is distributed amongst all 20 teams in the league and has created a large disparity between Premier League teams and those in the Football Championship and the other lower divisions. Promotion and relegation to the top flight is worth ₤100 million to clubs nowadays, and even those relegated from the league receive parachute payments to help pay their high wage bills and bounce right back, assuming they can convince their best players to stay. A similar threshold exists within the Premier League that dictates the next tier of wealth distribution. The English Football Association is allotted four European Champions League berths and an additional three Europa League spots. This creates another multi-million pound opportunity for those lucky “Top 4”.
In contrast to those big money competitions, the cup competitions played in England, the FA Cup and EFL Cup do not pay nearly as much prize money and as such, have become a lower priority to the big clubs. It is not uncommon for teams like Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and the Manchester clubs to play a significantly weakened side in those matches, so as to keep their top players fresh for league competition.
This has become a major talking point for pundits and football purists. “The romance of the FA Cup is gone,” they say. “There’s no buzz around the competition anymore.” In days gone by, major upsets were just that, major. If a non-league side had a good day and knocked off one of the big boys, their feats would be lauded and players’ names immortalized forever as they took one step closer to the Twin Towers of Wembley Stadium, a stadium steeped in so much history.
Just Google “famous FA Cup upsets” and you are transported back to a time when there was romance in football, when players played for their club and not the pay packet, a time when it wasn’t all agents, ownership conglomerates and shareholders. The historic Twin Towers of Wembley were actually demolished when the stadium was modernized and redeveloped a few years ago despite being designated as a grade II listed building by the English Heritage Trust for its historic significance. This is further proof that the game is driven by economics rather than nostalgia and Platonic ideals.
Sad as it may be, it’s hard to blame the big sides for their approach when the numbers are compared. There is in fact, no comparison. FA Cup winners receive ₤1.8 million. Winners of the EFL Cup receive a paltry ₤100k (relatively speaking of course). Television revenue and gate receipts increase those figures and winners also receive a berth in the Europa League, but all that still falls well short of Premier League and Champions League numbers.
Those cup competitions still represent a huge financial opportunity for clubs in the lower leagues, however. For a non-league or even a lower league club, the chance of being drawn against a big name team, having the game broadcast live and receiving the standard 45% cut of gate receipts can inject untold riches into clubs that are far away from the glitz and glamour of top flight football. It is not uncommon for smaller clubs who find themselves in such a lucky position to make a year’s worth of revenue from one match, regardless of the result. Literally, the luck of the draw.
Coverage of Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s exploits at Shakhtar Donetsk and Dortmund was widely available and fans across the globe could easily catch up on his latest goal or assist. But since his transfer to Manchester United, his presence seems ubiquitous on any media outlet covering the league, United or their colorful manager Jose Mourinho. The proportion of content about Armenia’s captain compared to others in the National team setup is large, but such is the nature of the Premier League and the attention it attracts.
As well as keeping pace with the leaders in the Premier League in the hope of regaining Champions League “Top 4” status, United have successfully navigated the aforementioned cup competitions and are still alive in every competition they entered this season, Premier League, Europa League, FA Cup and EFL Cup. Over the next two weeks United have a busy schedule. The Europa League round of 32 matches will be played over two legs on Feb. 16 and Feb 22. FA Cup fifth round ties (round of 16) are to be played on Feb 19 and the EFL Cup final will be played at the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium on Feb. 26. All three competitions play second fiddle to the Premier League, with the EFL Cup holding the least prestige. However, the match on Feb. 26 is a final, it is at Wembley and with a capacity of 90,000 in attendance it is a special occasion for players and fans to remember.
The pageantry and fanfare will be turned up. Managers dressed in their Sunday best with flowers on their lapel will lead their charges out on the field for the preliminary red carpet introductions of the players. There is silverware on the line, records will be kept and historians will take note. Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be only the second Armenian to play in an EFL Cup final at Wembley. Youri Djorkaeff whose mother is of Armenian extraction was unlucky to be a runner-up with Bolton in the 2004 edition of the competition. Perhaps Henrikh will be the first to raise the cup aloft, to do a lap of honor holding the tricolor. For on that day, even though the Manchester United shareholders may not add too much to their bottom line, the players will be joining those who went before them, writing their names into the history books of that storied venue, Wembley Stadium.