The Case Against a Salary Cap in European Soccer

In recent months, soccer media has begun to question the ethics and principles of the way in which the sport competes.

In recent months, soccer media has begun to question the ethics and principles of the way in which the sport competes. Perhaps the most difficult idea for American sports fans to wrap their heads around is the way in which player transactions and contracts function in soccer. Without player trades, entry drafts, and salary caps, Europe’s most successful and richest teams can throw around their affluence uncontested, attracting the best players by paying them the top-dollar. In an era full of Emirati billionaires and bored venture capitalists as owners, the name-brand clubs have gotten richer, and in turn, more successful. But teams such as Manchester City F. C. and Paris Saint-Germain F.C. (PSG), which are essentially owned by oil-rich Middle Eastern states, that consistently dominate their opponents is not the only issue; teams also go defunct chasing the wealth and glory of winning, such as the now-expelled Bury F.C., a club which overspent its means to a fatal degree. While soccer is not a sport without its issues, a salary cap is neither a practical nor a particularly welcomed solution.

First, in American sports, salary caps work in tandem with a draft system which rewards teams for doing poorly for the sake of parity. This lulls franchises into a sense of security which can allow for bad-decision making year after year. For instance, since 2000, the National Football League’s (NFL) Cleveland Browns have had two winning seasons, meaning they consistently received valuable draft picks and then proceeded to continuously fail in a system which is structured in a way that helps poor teams recruit stronger players. And in the National Basketball Association (NBA), dynasties still reign. Nine franchises have the made the NBA finals since the 2010-11 season, while in the English Premier League, seven clubs have earned a spot in the top two in the same time period—a minute difference. In short, the checks and balances of American sports implicitly encourage mediocrity with drafts, a salary cap, and a lack of relegation in the NBA, even promoting purposeful failure as highlighted with the Philadelphia 76ers’ infamous “Trust the Process” tanking scheme. Such rules do not fully prevent a select tier of franchises from earning regular playoff and even finals appearances.

With the higher stakes of relegation and stiff competition from the wealthy big boys, soccer necessitates the astute management of clubs. While fans like to speak of Leicester City F.C.’s title-winning season as a ridiculous Cinderella story, its success was not completely accidental. Its star striker that season, Jaime Vardy, who’s gone on to score 102 goals for the club, was signed for just $1.2 million. Leicester’s other key contributors in that title campaign, N’Golo Kanté and Riyad Mahrez, cost $9.8 million and just $570,000, respectively, while the supposed ‘top teams’ spent tens of millions on individual players. Kanté and Mahrez have left Leicester for $39.5 million and $74 million in separate summers, proving their worth.

Leicester achieved success via well-scouted acquisitions and clever coaching rather than waiting for programmed parity to do the work for them. Leicester originally aimed to avoid relegation and had to outsmart its fellow low-lying clubs to achieve that, winning a league title as a result. Soccer’s structure allows the media and fans to exalt intelligent clubs, sporting directors, and coaches, as opposed to questioning whether a team came upon success luckily, or genuinely deserved their championship rings. Money does not guarantee success either, as Manchester United F.C., Forbes’ most valuable English team, has failed to win a Premier League title since 2012-13 on account of poor player signings and lackluster coaching.

In conclusion, while financial irresponsibility, such as in Bury’s case, should certainly not be condoned, a salary cap or other parity-oriented restrictions would not be soccer’s savior. We should not tamper with soccer’s culture of demanding off-field competency to fuel on-field success simply in hopes that Manchester City, PSG, and F.C. Barcelona share their success. And, given enough time, the tables turn in soccer. After all, Borussia Dortmund was a middling Bundesliga club throughout the 1970s and 1980s, only establishing itself as routine title candidate in the 1990s; Manchester United spent that same time period watching Liverpool F.C. win the majority of its 18 domestic titles. Soccer clubs change, and as spectators, we can only be patient and wait for our clubs’ turn.

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