Europe's top soccer clubs face major debt issues

Associated Press
UEFA President Michel Platini, right, sitting next to UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino, left, opens the UEFA Executive Committee at the UEFA Headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan.  24, 2012. (AP Photo/Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi)
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NYON, Switzerland (AP) — European governments are not the only ones with major debt problems: Top European soccer clubs lost more than euro1.6 billion ($2 billion) in 2010 and their debts are still rising despite facing new sanctions soon for overspending.

With wealthy owners keen to buy success on the pitch by throwing millions at top players, accounts from 665 European clubs revealed Wednesday that 56 percent of them lost money in the 2010 financial year and their total debt was euro8.4 billion ($10.9 billion).

Those losses came even as soccer revenues around the continent were rising substantially, in part due to television contracts.

Gianni Infantino, the general secretary for UEFA, the regulator for European soccer, said the numbers were "a last wake-up call" for the clubs.

"We must end this negative spiral and gamble for success," Infantino told reporters.

UEFA President Michel Platini, concerned that the staggering amount of debt being wracked up by the clubs could have an adverse impact on the game itself, has pushed through much stricter "financial fair play" monitoring rules for clubs, which began in July 2011.

However, many have questioned whether UEFA will have the moxy to enforce the plan's toughest penalty: Barring noncompliant clubs from the lucrative Champions League. UEFA's top lawyer insisted it would, saying the organization had invested "huge" political capital with European institutions to create the fair-play scheme.

"The system is not going to have much credibility if a club ... in serious breach of rules is not sanctioned in an effective way," UEFA legal director Alasdair Bell said.

UEFA's study showed the combined annual loss of top-tier clubs rose 36 percent, about euro400 million ($520 million), compared to 2009.

The losses can be blamed largely on overspending on salaries, staff costs and transfers, as the overall revenue for European top-tier clubs has soared by 42 percent between 2006 and 2010.

That trend seems to have continued, as Germany's Bundesliga announced Wednesday that 36 clubs in two divisions shared record turnover of euro2.23 billion ($2.89 billion) last season.

Germany's 18 top-tier clubs earned a combined euro52.5 million ($68 million) in profits, after agreeing to cost-cutting measures in August 2010 that have reduced overall debt to euro594 million ($769 million), the league's chief executive Christian Seifert said.

UEFA's research showed that the top five leagues — England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain — has two-thirds of the wealth. However, richer and more successful clubs were also more likely to lose money.

UEFA acknowledged that 13 clubs, including several from England, would have failed its break-even tests on their 2010 accounts. The clubs were not identified but likely included Manchester City and Chelsea, which are bankrolled by wealthy owners.

Of more than 200 clubs playing in UEFA's Champions League and Europa League competitions two years ago, 65 percent spent more than they earned.

Three out of every four clubs earning more than euro50 million ($65 million) annually also recorded a loss.

"Clubs tend to spend more in order to obtain a competitive advantage," said Andrea Traverso, the head of UEFA's financial fair play project.

UEFA outlined a range of sanctions to punish clubs who overspend in an initial two-year monitoring period from 2011-13, or fail to pay wages, transfer fees or taxes. To punish those who transgress, UEFA could withhold Champions League and Europa League prize money, deduct group-stage points or prevent new players being registered in its club competitions.

Financial fair play rules allow clubs to make a total loss of euro5 million ($6.5 million) in the first assessment period, or up to euro45 million ($58 million) if a wealthy owner makes a one-time donation to wipe out losses.

UEFA will phase in tighter monitoring rules in future years.

A total of 31 soccer clubs, including four this season, have been refused entry to its two main club competitions since financial licensing was introduced in 2004. However, clubs barred this season were from the small-market leagues of Ireland, Kazakhstan, Lithuania and Romania.

Skepticism has grown over UEFA's willingness to take on big-spending clubs such as Premier League leader Manchester City, whose owners from Abu Dhabi funded a 194.9-million-pound (then $318 million) loss for 2010-11 before the monitoring took effect.

"I expect that, at the last moment, (big clubs) will respect the rules," Inter Milan chief executive Ernesto Paolillo said on the sidelines of the UEFA briefing. "I can't imagine they would not."

The big spenders include French league leader Paris Saint-Germain, which spent euro82 million ($107 million) on players last offseason after being bought by Qatari owners.

UEFA's project was backed by Jean-Michel Aulas, the president of Lyon whose standing in France is threatened by PSG's revival.

Aulas described a "dichotomy" between clubs spending "easy money and money for investment."

"Tomorrow's paradigm (for clubs) must be built on building stadiums and building youth academies — tangible assets that can benefit (soccer) in general," Aulas said.

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