The gap between football rich and poor

It was only the third game of newly-promoted Burnley’s Premier League season.

They would be facing a team in transition – Manchester United.

United, England’s most successful club, had named British record signing Angel di Maria in their starting line-up as the Argentine made his debut after joining for £59.7m from Real Madrid.

Di Maria’s price, and the reservoir of funds United have at their fingertips, completely eclipse anything Burnley have spent in their 132-year existence.

The Tykes have only splashed £45m on transfers since their inaugural season in 1882 but, facing a Manchester United XI assembled for £214.2m they earned a creditable 0-0 draw.

With this level of spending, United are hoping they will tempt the best players in the world to the club so they can return to Champions League football – something they missed out on this season under David Moyes’ leadership in 2013-14.

Burnley’s shoestring budget illustrates just how difficult it is to compete with the big spending giants of the Premier League, despite receiving £48m over four years since their relegation from the top flight in 2010.

Not only this, the three promoted clubs in 2014 gained a £60m revenue boost – £55m of which is from broadcasting fees.

Despite this combined stream of £108m for ‘yo-yo-ing’ between the Premier League and Championship, Burnley – and most of the league – still can’t hope to match the biggest clubs in the transfer market.

UEFA, European football’s governing body, sought to help rectify the current imbalance by introducing Financial Fair Play rules, but so far only Manchester City and Paris Saint-German have been stung.

This financial ‘sting’ is mere peanuts when compared to their financial clout, but each team competing in either the Champions League or Europa League received a share of their fines, amounting to €265,000 going to each of the 70 clubs involved in European football this season.

UEFA, though, are profiting hugely from Champions League and Europa League broadcasting revenues.

They expect their revenues to rise a whopping 30% to €1.75bn in the 2015-18 commercial sales cycle.

This is partly due to the extortionate fees that broadcasting companies are prepared to pay in order to show the world’s finest club competitions.

In Britain, BT Sport paid an astonishing £897m for the rights to show live Champions League and Europa League football for three seasons from the beginning of the 2015-16 campaign.

UEFA have been criticised for not giving second, third and fourth tier clubs a proportionate share of these huge sums of money, but the reality is that they probably could.

Before the 30% growth forecast for 2015-18, their income stood at €1.3bn, with €900m of that being shared amongst the clubs who participated in the Champions League and Europa League.

Some financial experts have even suggested that UEFA will look to bring in even greater financial rewards for the clubs that qualify for European competitions.

That potential move is aimed at reducing the gap between football’s super-rich clubs and the rich ones – but it widens the gap between the rich and the poorer ones.

In effect, the move would create a vicious circle.

The clubs with the biggest budgets attract the best players and tend to occupy the top spots in domestic leagues, thus qualifying for European competitions and earning UEFA’s prize money.

This makes them even richer and makes it harder for clubs to break into the clique-like qualifying positions for Europe’s top club competitions.

In short, those clubs who do not and who cannot qualify for European football are being cut further adrift.

It is a problem that UEFA has failed to address and is leading to problems with grassroots football across a host of Europe’s major footballing countries, including England.

A large share of the blame must also fall on domestic leagues.

In England, the Premier League are often ridiculed for their distribution of broadcasting fees.

The most recent round of bidding generated £3bn in broadcasting revenue, with Sky paying £2.3bn for live coverage of 116 games a season and BT Sport paying £738m for 38 live matches each season from the 2012-13 campaign.

£1.1bn of prize money was given to the 20 clubs in the Premier League last season, with clubs earning an additional £750,000 per live game on TV.

Additionally, teams earned £1.2m in merit money for every place gained, meaning Cardiff earned £1.2m for finishing bottom and Manchester City earned £24m for winning the title.

That meant the total merit money distributed by the Premier League came to £252m last season.

In total, that means £1.5bn has been distributed by the Premier League – just half of the three-year cycle of broadcasting fees alone.

So, while Premier League clubs are quite well off, the disparity between the top two divisions – in England and indeed most countries in Europe – is substantial and growing further still.

The question is whether FIFA, UEFA or the domestic governing bodies will do something to address the problem?

For the minute, the current arrangements certainly seem to ensure the football rich get richer and the poorer stay poor.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Who are the best and worst Premier League referees?

One of the most asked questions in football is, “Who’d want to be a referee?” – only someone capable of ignoring volleys of abuse hurled at them from all parts of the pitch, and a good amount from the stands. And the dug-outs. And those perched in front of a TV.

Newcomers to football might wonder why these referees, who give up their Saturday afternoons to officiate in the biggest games, actually put up with all the insults.

It could be because they get a great deal of protection from the sport’s governing bodies.

For instance, five years ago the FA started a ‘Respect’ campaign which was broadened by UEFA and FIFA, but which, like so many other schemes, has done little to mollify those who shout at officials with Neanderthal-like ferocity.

UEFA and FIFA have even refrained from publishing referee statistics, i.e. the number of yellow and red cards they have awarded in a given season, to further protect them from the bitterness that they so often encounter.

However, it is also said that the mark of a good referee is to go through a game virtually unseen. So who are the best and worst referees that Premier League fans have the pleasure of watching?

The good ones are up first:

5. Martin Atkinson (26 yellows, 1 red in 2013/14)

Fans can readily expect a good level of consistency from Atkinson, which is a quality so often desired by commentators around the country. His calm demeanour and the fact that he is also one of the more experienced referees currently officiating in the Premier League means he is a safe bet for the more explosive matches.

4. Mark Clattenburg (34 yellows, 0 reds)

A couple of years ago, Clattenburg would not have made the good list. His former tendencies to be erratic and inconsistent in big matches were key pieces of evidence on that front. However, after serving an eight-month ban for breach of contract he has enjoyed a renaissance. Now seen in high-profile games and aided by stronger and more accurate officiating, Clattenburg is one of the country’s top referees.

3. Howard Webb (29 yellows, 0 reds)

Up until the 2010 World Cup final, Howard Webb might have been recognised as the best referee in the world. However, the feisty nature of that match coupled with his decision not to send Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong off for a ‘kung-fu’ challenge on Spain’s Xabi Alonso has tarnished his reputation somewhat. As a result, the FA has shared around the highest-profile matches more recently, despite Webb maintaining a level of respect from players that is rarely enjoyed. Is that because he’s a policeman?

2. Chris Foy (23 yellows, 1 red)

Steadfast and commanding, Foy finds himself high up on this list. Although recently developing a reputation for shyness in awarding penalties, Foy is a very capable referee who rarely makes glaring errors. Foy, 51, is currently in his eighteenth season as a professional referee and has worked his way up from the Football League to the top flight.

1. Andre Marriner (40 yellows, 4 reds)

Although card happy this season, Marriner has improved his officiating and is now considered to be one of the top referees in the FIFA family. The pinnacle of his career to date was the 2013 FA Cup final, where he became one of the few referees to show a red card in the final, after dismissing Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta for a reckless lunge. That he was chosen to officiate that match is evidence of the quality of his refereeing and could be in with a chance of travelling to Brazil next summer.

Now the bad…

5. Anthony Taylor (32 yellows, 2 reds)

One of the youngest referees in the Premier League, Taylor visibly lacks the experience required in big games. Unfortunately for him, he fails to assert his authority in matches, and players are often seen howling at his decisions. That he is rarely picked for games involving the top-flight’s largest teams suggests the FA lack confidence in him at this stage of his career.

4. Mike Dean (34 yellows, 2 reds)

Guilty of awarding soft penalties and often too card happy, Dean is also notorious for his inability to let games flow and is perhaps fond of the sound of his whistle. Despite his shortcomings, Dean is an experienced official and regularly oversees derby matches and other high-profile fixtures.

3. Phil Dowd (43 yellows, 0 reds)

In the past, Dowd was a figure of fun for his bulging waistline, but must attract praise for lifestyle changes that have helped him lose weight. Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the leading critics of his fitness, once remarking that Dowd was often found too far behind play to make key decisions. Dowd’s style also irritates, especially his snarling approach to on-field conversations and a whistle-happy tendency.

2. Jonathan Moss (33 yellows, 2 reds)

Moss, much like Taylor, has a lack of experience at the top level and consequently is prone to making decisions which are often inconsistent. He has twice been the specific subject of criticism on Match of the Day this season, and was guilty of a nightmare display in Crystal Palace’s trip to Old Trafford where several highly contentious decisions went against the Eagles – notably the dismissal of Kagisho Dikgacoi after Ashley Young’s dive.

1. Michael Oliver (44 yellows, 1 red)

To coin a popular phrase, Oliver is a ‘bottler’. A measure of a referee is their ability to withstand the heated atmosphere and pressured environment of top-flight football and, on many occasions, Oliver has quivered in the face of such requirements. He is, nevertheless, highly-regarded by the FA and has overseen his fair share of big matches. In mitigation, he is very young and will only improve with more experience, but has perhaps been promoted too soon into his career – and that is sorely evident.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Cüneyt Cakir, the stage is yours

It is said that good referees are invisible for the duration of a football match.

Yesterday night, Turkish official Cüneyt Cakir was anything but.

Maybe that was down to the 36-year-old’s garish turquoise shirt? Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t.

Mr Cakir created a frenzy of disbelief inside Old Trafford when, with Manchester United 2-1 up on aggregate against Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16, he sent Luis Nani off for serious foul play.

United were incensed because the decision allowed Madrid back into the game, before they cruelly killed the hosts off with two goals in three minutes from Luka Modric and ex-United star Cristiano Ronaldo.

To the letter of the law, Cakir was probably correct to show a straight red. Nani’s right boot made contact with Madrid right-back Alvaro Arbeloa’s rib cage in an aerial duel and after a brief break in play to allow both players to gather themselves, Cakir brandished red.

FIFA’s law 12 on fouls and misconduct provides that “A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball.”

So, Nani was justifiably sent off? Perhaps not.

It is widely held throughout the global footballing community that part of the art of refereeing is the official’s ability to apply the laws of the game with judgement of the footballing situation in question.

With the ball coming over Nani’s shoulder, the Portuguese winger’s eyes were fixated on the ball, with Arbeloa making a late entrance onto the scene. There was no intent to commit “excessive force or brutality” on Nani’s part.

Does there have to be? Once more, perhaps not. Taking everything into consideration, most referees would have realised that it was a 50/50 challenge, there was no malice involved, and that it had not been a high-tempered match up to that point.

This makes Cakir’s decision all the more robotic – and he has previous history.

Cakir, an insurer with a love of table tennis, became an elite referee in the 2007/08 season, and has since officiated several matches in the European Championships, Champions League, Europa League and Club World Cup.

What is immediately recognisable when glancing through his record is that, in the 134 games he has refereed since the 28th of March 2007, he has failed to give a card in just four of those games.

The plot thickens further when Cakir’s habits are examined more closely, and how predictable his style of officiating is.

Cakir would have first come to the attention of English fans when he officiated Chelsea’s 4-1 win over Spartak Moscow in the 2010/11 Champions League. It was a straightforward match to referee, with only four bookings dished out.

His next European match came three months later – a Europa League tie between Villarreal and Napoli which finished 2-1 to the hosts. It was marred by nine bookings, six of those coming in the second half.

Exactly three weeks later he sent off Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli in the same competition,  booking eight other players as City went out 2-1 on aggregate to Dynamo Kiev, despite winning 1-0 on the night.

Such a high volume of bookings means that Cakir’s style of refereeing is to adhere as closely to FIFA’s rulebook as possible.

Perhaps he enjoys the limelight when he flashes cards about. For certain, it is an inorganic approach to refereeing, and the statistics reinforce that point.

Last season, Cakir took charge of 34 games in the domestic Turkish Superlig and both elite European competitions.

He managed to show 172 yellow cards in that time, complete with nine red cards for good measure.

Across the 34 games, that is an average of 5.32 cards per game – an unusually high figure.

Those who have followed Cakir’s eye-catching refereeing since that time will have noticed his style of observing the match and the players in it during the first half, before unleashing a flurry of cards in the second period.

Last season he showed 61.3% of all his cards in the second half, and there were some high-profile matches during that time.

The infamous 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Chelsea at Camp Nou was famous for John Terry’s needless sending-off – a decision which Cakir got right – and the fractious nature of the match, with an additional eight players booked.

In Cakir’s homeland, the notorious Istanbul derby between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray is almost always an ill-tempered affair. So it proved in 2012 too, when Cakir sent off two players and booked 12 others.

His form continues into the current 2012/13 season when, after officiating just 25 games, he has already sent off eight players in all competitions, and has brandished 110 yellow cards.

That is an average of 4.72 cards per game – again, an unusually high figure.

When his performances are compared to that of England’s most card-happy referee, Martin Atkinson, Cakir’s super-strict manner is exposed again.

Atkinson has taken charge of 27 matches in all competitions this season, amassing a total of 107 cards, just one of which has been red. His average of 3.96 cards per game is a staggering 0.76 cards beneath the level of his Turkish colleague.

Cakir’s performances also seem to be more negatively prolific as the profile of the match amplifies. In his first major international tournament – Euro 2012 – he only officiated three games.

Yet, he still managed to brandish 18 yellows and one red, 13 of those coming in the second half and nine coming in the derby between Portugal and Spain. Ireland’s Keith Andrews was the man dismissed in a 2-0 loss against Italy.

In a World Cup Qualifying match between England and Ukraine, under three months later, Cakir showed 10 cards, sending off Steven Gerrard in the 1-1 draw at Wembley with (yes, you guessed it) all 10 of the bookings coming in the second half.

Cakir has also sent off Sergio Busquets for Barcelona in the Champions League this season, and Gary Cahill for Chelsea in the Club World Cup final. He now has Nani to add to that list of big, game-changing decisions.

With atmospheres no more hostile than those in his homeland, you would think Cakir has the necessary mental qualities in a referee to officiate in the biggest of occasions. All the matters discussed in this blog seem to suggest otherwise, but still FIFA and UEFA continue to give him high-profile games.

Perhaps that’s because he is a limpet to the rulebook. With that in mind, does he do a good or a bad job?

Does the fact that he gives a high amount of cards mean that he sees fouls no other referee does and should therefore be given credit for doing so?

One thing that seems certain is that Cakir will officiate at his first World Cup in Brazil next summer, and because of his latest attention-grabbing decision the weight of one billion eyes will be upon him.

If he continues to make similarly mechanical decisions in Brazil, he should probably turn his hand to officiating table tennis matches instead.