Sunday, April 28, 2013

Biter Bit: Spanish football clubs' debt

Schadenfreude is a German word. It is a very good word, one that doesn't have an exact equivalent in English. It requires an explanation rather than a one-word answer: to take pleasure at another's misfortune. There is also an element of the "biter bit" about schadenfreude, of come-uppance. And the president of Bayern Munich football club, Uli Hoeness, is getting his. Bayern may have stuffed Barça, but Hoeness might get stuffed for tax evasion.

The schadenfreude felt in Spain towards Hoeness harks back to what he said a year ago when the Spanish Government proposed waiving the 750 million euros of debt owed by Spanish football clubs to the taxman. Hoeness's response to this was: "we pay them (the Spanish Government) hundreds of millions to get them out of the shit and then the clubs don't pay their debts". No, the clubs don't pay the taxman. But nor it seems does Herr Hoeness pay the German taxman what he should. Biter bit. Schadenfreude, thy name is Uli.

Most dominant football clubs suffer from a lack of universal love. And Bayern are no different. The un-love for the club is partly to do with Hoeness and his fellow Bundesliga übermensch from Bayern (Beckenbauer, Rummenigge, Breitner), partly the result of a one-time nickname of FC Hollywood at the time of Lothar Matthäus, another disliked member of the German footballing brotherhood.

Bayern's slaughter of Barça last week was blissful. And it was blissful because it had its own element of schadenfreude, levelled at the footballing thought police's exultation of the omnipotence of tiki-taka. So blissful was it, so perfect the game plan, that questions were being asked as to what difference Pep Guardiola could make when he takes over as coach. There is a difference. Guardiola, unaccountably placed on a pedestal of coaching demi-God status despite having only ever coached one team (admittedly a quite brilliant one), is not a typical coach. He is a tortured soul of soccer. Notwithstanding his near deity, he's human. If anyone can make Bayern loved, then it is Guardiola.

Under Pep, if Bayern come to rule Europe for the foreseeable future, the praise for all things German football will reach a crescendo. The volume has been rising for some time as it is. See how the Germans, stung by European failure in 2000, set about a long-term plan for revolutionising their football, an observation which always fails to remember that two years later Germany made the World Cup final. See how the model of German football club finances, ownership and business is so much superior to anyone else's, such as Spain's or England's. It may well be, but Martin Samuel, arguably the greatest writer on football not just in England but in the world, has observed that there has been no shortage of insolvency in German football. And nor has there been any lack of financial support from local government or the state to keep clubs afloat.

In Hoeness's remarks last year, there was more than just a hint of double standards. Yet, much though there may be pleasure at his being hoist by a tax petard, he wasn't wrong in highlighting public aid to Spanish clubs as being one of the maladies of the Spanish game. The proposal to waive clubs' tax debts was dropped almost as soon as it was made, but getting any action on these debts and on the involvement of local, regional and even national government in propping up clubs has been proving mightily difficult.

In defence of Hoeness, the scale of this governmental involvement is significantly greater than in Germany. Just as an example, the Community of Valencia pretty much owns the Valencia football club. Not officially, but thanks to the level of guarantee it has given for bank loans. And knowing what the real debts are of Spanish football clubs is not straightforward. Normal accounting rules don't seem to apply. Normal rules of business don't apply. Only one club in La Liga, Athletic Bilbao, seems to conform to any normality or to any real measure which shows it not to be in debt.

The fear, though, is that the time may be edging nearer when the debt bomb goes off for Spanish clubs. If it does, you can be sure that Real Madrid and Barça won't be affected, despite, in real terms, their both being heavily in debt. As they pretty much play in their own two-team league as it is, perhaps it won't make any difference. They could always invite Bilbao to make up a threesome, but how many other clubs might survive if governmental complicity was withdrawn and the taxman were to genuinely come knocking?

Any comments to please.

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