Can Beckham resist the lira or la liga?

This Puritan policy is exposed as a dead-end. Proven talent will sense the discrepancy in wages, leaving a rump of European has-beens and English never-will-bes to ply their trade
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The Independent Football

Attention all investors who have lost faith with dot.com futures and IPOs that don't make the starting grid. I have come up with a new board game about football. It is called The Board Game, and features the exploits of European club chairmen, expensive players, wily agents and piles of "Europoly" money. It is a game of much intrigue and skill, with surprise elements.

Attention all investors who have lost faith with dot.com futures and IPOs that don't make the starting grid. I have come up with a new board game about football. It is called The Board Game, and features the exploits of European club chairmen, expensive players, wily agents and piles of "Europoly" money. It is a game of much intrigue and skill, with surprise elements.

For instance, one of the "Chance Cards" involves a chairman who discovers that the club's best player is leaving by accessing his website. Another features a previously successful manager who is sacked after getting two bad results from the pools panel, while a player who has five years of his contract left instigates negotiations for a new deal, insisting that this is a mark of his loyalty rather than an attempt to blackmail the club for more money or a transfer abroad.

Yes, it's all here, investors, the cut and thrust of modern European football, and all without a ball being kicked. The game is suitable for 11 players, although a squad of 230 can be chosen. To be elected chairman, you need several qualities, including wealth, passion, ruthlessness, a secure mobile phone and fax system and a good spin-physiotherapist. The object of the game is to win as many European trophies as possible without bankrupting your club. But if you do break the bank, you go to jail. The one element that The Board Game lacks is a moral dimension. But then, who's kidding who here?

Observers of football in the new millennium must have become even more bewildered by the events of the last two weeks, most of which no game or drama would have dared invent. The spending by such big clubs as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Lazio has brought the sanity of football into question, at least as far as several English club chairmen are concerned. Peter Ridsdale of Leeds United called the players being traded at vast expense "mercenaries", while Manchester United's new chief executive Peter Kenyon insisted that his club "would not compete with those corporately owned by multi-millionaires such as Silvio Berlusconi [Milan] or the Agnelli family [Juventus]".

Nor would United try to imitate those foreign clubs - by implication Real and Barcelona - who are fronted "by presidents dipping into their personal fortunes to buy players". Kenyon neglected to mention how many millions the outgoing chief Martin Edwards had made over the last decade.

Meanwhile, Arsÿne Wenger, Arsenal's well-travelled manager, warned that the Premiership was falling behind the Spanish and Italian leagues, not just in terms of skill but also in its ability to buy and keep the best players. What seemed to be exposed during these exchanges was an apparent cultural gulf, between the free-spending Mediterranean leagues and their more rigid Anglo-Saxon counterparts in England and Germany. The stereotypes say that Spanish and Italian clubs spend money without regard for debt, interested only in placating the fans and keeping whoever is president in office. Meanwhile, the descendants of the English millowning classes keep a tight grip on their finances so that costs are kept down and the workers do not get above themselves.

As usual, there are elements of the ridiculous in such stereotyping, but also some grains of truth. The transfer gold-rush of the Spanish and Italian leagues was partially inspired by club presidents who were anxious to consolidate their roles by means of trophy acquisitions in the player market. The newly elected Florentino Perez of Real Madrid promised the fans Luis Figo as part of his manifesto, and duly delivered. Meanwhile, Barça's new president, Jean Gaspart, retaliated for Figo's loss by spending the money on Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit, and also by granting Rivaldo a massively improved contract approaching £100,000 a week, net.

In Italy, Lazio's Sergio Cragnotti celebrated his team's first scudetto for 25 years by going big on Argentinian forwards. Their rivals Roma bought Gabriel Batistuta, but he was able to retaliate with Claudio Lopez and Hernan Crespo, at a cost of £56m. While these presidents are plainly passionate about their respective clubs, they stand accused by their English counter-parts of ruining the game. But do the charges wash?

Most of the money changing hands in the Italian league is timed to be tax-efficient - what else is a player if not a capital expense? Equally, the apparently vast sums are mainly money being recycled between clubs - Lazio sent Matias Almeyda and Sergio Conceicão to Parma to defray the costs of Crespo. In Spain, Madrid quickly off-loaded Redondo to Milan, while Barcelona added Gerard of Valencia to their purchase of Overmars and Petit. "Who needs Figo?" was the instant response.

So much of the clamour about transfer fees is just reactionary hype. What the Anglo-Saxon chairmen most fear, even in an environment vastly enriched by television deals, is that the Latins' cavalier approach to players' wages may catch on here, or prove to be an irresistible attraction. English football has always had an atavistic view of a player's worth. Next year will see the 40th anniversary of the lifting of the maximum wage, while it took decades of lobbying and then the arrival of pan-European laws to establish a true freedom of contract.

The Premiership chairmen's main response to the effects of the Bosman ruling - principally the increased wage demands of their players - was nothing less than a classic spasm of capitalism. Just as Irish immigrants in the 19th century were imported to build our roads, railways and canals, football readily found the equivalent of "cheap labour" in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Africa. Individual managers found pockets of under-priced talent in France, and liked the bargain basement tags on those players who had failed to cut the mustard in Italy.

But now this safety-first, Puritan policy has been exposed as a dead-end. Proven talent here, whether home-grown or cheaply acquired from abroad, will sense the serious discrepancy in their wages, and want away, leaving a rump of European has-beens and English never-will-bes to ply their trade. Roy Keane may be happy with fifty-two grand a week, but younger colleagues on much less may not be so accommodating. Last week Keane wondered aloud how long David Beckham and Paul Scholes could resist the lure, not to mention the lira, of Europe.

Fans who have poured money into their clubs over the high-priced span of the Premiership may want to look beyond the propaganda and ask "Why aren't we bidding for Figo, Zidane and the like?" And if the Premiership is as vibrant and wealthy as we are told, players and fans alike are entitled to ask the boards of their clubs to show them the money.

While the Australian cricketer Shane Warne has rightly been punished for attempting to bowl a maiden over by using the equivalent of telephone sex, there has been some unintentional comedy in the fall-out. After stripping Warne of his vice-captaincy, the Australian Cricket Board apparently narrowed his successor down to two candidates, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist. Ponting was favourite until the Board recalled the two-match suspension they had imposed him 18 months ago for getting involved in a drunken brawl. So Gilchrist got the job. Quite how the ACB found a candidate with no previous form in either of the twin recreational areas of excessive drinking or attempting to "pull" while on tour will be a mystery to most former Australian international cricketers. Gilchrist will never live this down.

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