Football Is Making The Mistakes Of Finance

In the UK, following football is one of our favourite pastimes. But it should come as no surprise that people are exploiting the nation’s passion to try to make an extra buck or ten: football has always worked like that. 

British football clubs have long operated as businesses as much as sporting bodies, but now individual investors are also making big gains out of football. They’re doing so through third-party ownership, a practice by which rights over a footballer are owned by an external investor, instead of a club or the footballer themselves. The rights can be bought and sold freely as many financial assets can be, with the players’ careers being treated as mere commodities. 

Worryingly, similarities exist between third-party ownership and some criticised practices in the finance world. Third-party ownership transactions could be said to resemble derivatives trading, where rights derived from an underlying asset, such as the right to buy that asset in the future, are bought and sold on the markets. The rise of derivatives trading in the early years of the twenty-first century has been widely regarded as ones of the causes of the financial crisis – the complexity of these products and their sheer volume played a part in causing the banking system to eventually almost topple over. Like derivatives, third-party ownership has led to some raised eyebrows – and with equally good reason. 

The current trend, particularly in South America, is for non-footballing organisations and individuals to buy the right to a cut of future transfer fees relating to a particular player. The motivations for both parties are obvious. Clubs are offered a lucrative short-term revenue stream, while investors make exorbitant amounts if a player becomes a superstar. 

The practice is not common on English shores, but the high-profile sagas involving Argentine players Tévez and Mascherano put third-party player ownership onto to the back pages of our newspapers as signs of the coming financial crisis were beginning to appear at the front. In August 2006, it emerged that Iranian-born British businessman Kia Joorabchian owned (under the auspices of four separate companies) economic rights in Carlos Tévez and Javier Mascherano, then both newly-signed to West Ham. 

The businessman’s punt paid off, umpteen-fold. Mascherano was sold to Liverpool just five months after arriving at Upton Park in a deal eventually worth £18.6 million. But it was Tévez who really proved to be a footballing goose that laid not one but several golden eggs. Heroics in his first Premier League season meant that the Argentine’s stock rose dramatically, and how Joorabchian must have rubbed his hands together with glee as Tévez’s career continued to flourish, leading him to transfer twice over the next few years, first to Manchester United, and then to its arch-rival Manchester City.

As the use of derivatives did before the financial crisis, buying the rights to a youngster destined for greatness on the football field may look like a practice with no downsides but, just as bankers often failed to remember to their cost that derivatives couldn’t be divorced from real-life assets, what is forgotten all too often in third-party ownership is the player – or asset – himself. 

There are many untold stories of young men coerced into moving to foreign lands for riches that never arrive, as they end up on the scrap heap sooner than they can say “Real Madrid”. A case in point is that of Brazilian midfielder Carlos Alberto. The player moved to Germany’s Werder Bremen from his Brazilian team Fluminense, despite stating: “My owners want something that I don’t want… I’d like to stay at Fluminense.” The record books show he played a paltry two matches in three ill-fated years in the German Bundesliga. His story is a powerful reminder that behind big-money moves in football and finance are human beings, a fact that so often gets lost in a blur of supposed glitz and glamour, and talk of “projects” and “products”.