The Limey
Friday July 25th, 2008

It's been a slow summer in the Premier League, with no England in Euro 2008 and a transfer market that has been moving slower than 92-year-old Great Uncle Limey after several hours at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Probably something to do with the tightening finances in the football world and the soccernomics issues we wrote about last time around.

However, if reports and gossip are to be believed, there is a chain of transfers imminent involving a group of clubs and players, all of which are in some way dependent on each other. The first of these deals should see the first domino fall and resuscitate the transfer market from its current slumber. We'll take a look at this proverbial transfer merry-go-round a little later.

News and action has been so sparse over the last few weeks that Team Limey's EPL-focused eye wondered across the pond to West Ham's eventful tour of North America. First, the tour firm with whom the Hammers originally planned to travel went bust, meaning the squad had to fly over in economy class. Second, a mass brawl involving more than 100 fans marred their friendly against the Columbus Crew -- and to top it all off, they were defeated 3-2 at the hands of the MLS All-Stars on Thursday in Toronto. In summary, not ideal preparation for a hectic EPL season.

At least Sir Alex Ferguson has added some spice to the EPL banter melting pot with his comments earlier this week, firing the first salvo in the war of words between himself and his new Brazilian foe at Stamford Bridge.

In an interview, the beetroot-headed Scotsman repeatedly referred to the Chelsea squad's "experience," in a thinly veiled attack on the age of Luiz Felipe Scolari's team: "Scolari is fortunate as Chelsea has a lot of experience and that was the one thing I was a bit concerned about last season, but I don't know how far that team has got to go."

Ferguson went on to suggest that Chelsea cannot improve from what it achieved under José Mourinho, saying, "It's hard to see where there's going to be a big improvement with a team that's really very experienced. 'Plateau' is maybe not the word, but how can they accelerate beyond what they've done up to now?"

Sir Alex's attack provoked not only the inevitable response from Scolari, but also from the unlikely footballing mouthpiece of charity Help the Aged, which accused the "experienced" pensioner of ageism: "In 2008, age is no longer an acceptable yardstick to measure a person's worth or potential. Ageist attitudes and comments such as this should always be handed a red card."

Meanwhile, Scolari wasn't too bothered by Ferguson's comments. "I will not answer this question," he told reporters. "This is not a question for me; I think I have a lot of experienced players and also some young boys in my team, but I feel we have experience for the Premier League or whatever league."

Scolari and Ferguson are two of the characters standing eagerly on the edges of the footballing merry-go-round we spoke about earlier. On the red-and-white horse, Arsenal's Emmanuel Adebayor is eagerly making eyes at the Barcelona suits looking on. His arrival at the Camp Nou would likely seal the departure of the unwanted Samuel Eto'o, with Tottenham looking likely suitors.

Eto'o would make an ideal replacement for Dimitar Berbatov, who's attracting the admiring glances of Manchester United and AC Milan. Berbatov could fill a Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped hole in United's attack should the winger make his "dream" move to Real Madrid. Ronaldo's arrival at the Bernabéu would likely see the departure of incumbent creative wing wizard, Brazilian Robinho, either to Manchester United as a make-weight in the Ronaldo transfer or to be reunited with his former national-team boss Scolari at Chelsea.

So the transfer market has been moving slower than usual, with the soccernomics theme raised in our last column (which drew a barrage of e-mails) likely to be behind soccer clubs' reluctance to flash the cash.

David F. Hegarty suggests that with the weak British Pound, English clubs should look not to the continent for talent, but to South America. Interesting idea, David, and an option that EPL clubs should probably explore further. Many top South American players are in the EPL, but the vast majority comes via continental Europe. Perhaps the cultural, climatic and playing style gap between South American soccer and the EPL is seen as too large to be crossed in one hit.

Ola Olua of Lagos, Nigeria, Andrew Roads of Portsmouth, England, and D.J. Barnett of Terre Haute, Ind., suggested that an American-style salary cap might resolve the problem of high player wages in the EPL, an issue that will become more prominent if club revenues streams fall.

Until 1961, English professional soccer salaries had always been subject to a wage cap, which was overturned thanks to a threatened player strike and campaigning from the then Players' Football Association chairman and Fulham inside right Jimmy Hill who, at his previous club, Reading, had supplemented his wages with part-time work as a chimney sweep.

But the world has turned over 13,500 times since then. And while in 1960, the average industrial wage in England was $45 a week and footballers' pay was capped at $60, today the average British male earns around $1,000 a week, and the average EPL player about $30,000 a week, with regular starters typically earning considerably more.

Certainly, players could financially afford a wage cap as, given the number of players who already earn more, it would have to be set at higher than the $5 million-a-year mark. And without doubt, a general public, concerned with issues of excess and wealth disparity, would support it. But is it feasible? In an evermore marketized economy with increasingly sophisticated financial services, one suspects that the introduction of wage-capping would neither be workable nor tolerated.

Even if it didn't contravene European Union competition regulations, consider the following questions: How would EPL clubs compete for players with other countries that didn't employ a maximum wage? Would you end up with an increasingly large bunch of players all earning the maximum? And how would you reward players' varying quality and outputs? Following wage-capping, sponsorship deals would make up an increasing proportion of players' income, meaning that marketability, rather than performance, would become a player's most saleable asset.

Mike C. Callas has a more radical solution for English soccer. He suggests that 92 professional clubs is too many, and if the number of divisions was reduced from four to three, a smaller number of better-supported clubs would result. This could help a potential problem identified by Jeff Traylor of Baton Rouge, La., who thinks that an economic slowdown will increase the rate at which clubs incomes are diverging given the ability of the larger clubs with multiple incomes streams to weather a downturn in revenue in some quarters. Jeff thinks that NFL-style revenue-sharing should be explored.

Jeff, the current breakdown of EPL TV money is already a redistributive mechanism. If clubs could negotiate their TV deals separately, the disparity between the money paid to the larger and smaller clubs would grow significantly. Suggestions have been made over the years of equaling out this revenue stream further. But this seems like an unlikely outcome given current the current state of the economy, the political muscle of the leading clubs and the desire to financially support those teams that compete in European competitions.

Robby of Denver and James P. Hubbard of Reston, Va., both worry about the future of MLS in an economic downturn, given the expense and time needed to travel to predominantly out-of-town stadiums, the lower attachment that many fans have to MLS clubs in comparison to supporters of more established American sports or leagues like the EPL, and the low revenues teams currently receive in comparison to costs.

With the league still developing, revenue is needed to develop smaller soccer-specific stadiums, where atmospheres can blossom. However, James notes the town planning and financial difficulties encountered by D.C. United's plans for a new stadium, a mixed-use development from which the club was hoping to benefit financially.

And finally, we took some time out from recording railway engine model numbers to research a question from Kristen Wilson of Dallas. Kristen wants to know which club had the most players in Euro 2008. Well, au revoir, Amtrak Acela, and bonjour, Train Grand Vitesse Sud-Est, as we travel to France's second city, Lyon, home of French champion Olympique Lyonnais. Les Gones had 11 players at the Euros -- all but one of whom departed after the group stage:

Milan Baros (Czech Republic); Karim Benzema, Jean-Alain Boumsong, François Clerc, Grégory Coupet, Sidney Govou, Sébastien Squillaci and Jérémy Toulalan (France); Fabio Grosso (Italy); Kim Källström (Sweden); and Patrick Müller (Switzerland).

With the new EPL season almost upon us, we want to know, in order, which clubs you think will finish in the top six. Those of you taking time out from spreadsheets might want to model that, or send further feedback on soccernomics.

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