The saddest thing about Rangers FC's slide into administration is not the spectacle of a 140-year old footballing institution brought low. Nor is it the dire implications for the Scottish league if one half of the "Old Firm" rivalry with Celtic is fatally wounded. Rather, it is that Rangers are so far from being an isolated case.
There are two strands to the club's financial meltdown. One is its annual losses of around £10m. The other, which precipitated the latest crisis, is a tax issue. Rangers have been using offshore "employee benefits trusts" to pay some staff, in an effort to minimise their tax bill. Now that HM Revenue & Customs has decided the practice is illegal, the club faces a bill of up to £70m, on top of the £9m it already owes.
It is too easy to point the finger at Craig Whyte, the Rangers owner. Too easy, and not entirely fair. Not only were the arcane financial structures created long before Mr Whyte bought the heavily indebted club for £1 nine months ago. More importantly, both vast debts in general, and EBTs in particular, are endemic across the sport both north and south of the border. Rangers are just the latest addition to a growing list of clubs – including such stalwarts as Portsmouth and Liverpool – that have been rocked by their debts in recent years. And as many as eight more big names may now face EBT investigations from HMRC similar to the one troubling Rangers.
The root cause of football's money problem is not hard to find. Players' wages have spiralled unaffordably out of control, but clubs keep raising them further to lure the best talent. The result is a financial timebomb.
There have been moves to address the situation, most notably the "fair play" rules from Uefa which come into force in 2014. By limiting clubs' losses, European football's governing body hopes to cap wage bills. The scheme does have some clout: those that fail to comply could be expelled from Uefa's competitions. But it is only a small step forward, and far from enough. According to Uefa, the 665 top European clubs were £1.3bn in the red between them in 2010, despite their bringing in more than £10bn. Such losses are simply unsustainable. Alas, Rangers will not be the last to prove it.
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