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Abramovic, Pozzo & Lampard. Are “Sister Teams” Heralding a New Era of Financial Doping?

From Chelsea to New York City FC. Is there a problem with the latest loophole in football, and what does this mean for the future of the beautiful game? Wasi Manazir examines.

“New car, caviar, four star daydream,

Think I’ll buy me a football team.”

It has become a fairly common refrain among football supporters to call the Dutch Eredivesie side Vitesse the Chelsea B team, and for good reason. Since the summer of 2010 when the club was acquired by former Georgia international Merab Jordania and subsequently by Roman Abramovic’s close friend Alexander Chigirinsky, Chelsea has loaned no less than 14 of their youth prospects to the Arnhem based side.

The current squad counts three: Wallace, Bertrand Traore, and Josh McEachran on its books via the loan route from Stamford Bridge. Over the course of their friendly alliance Chelsea has sent some of their best youth prospects including, current first team regular Nemanja Matic, Tomas Kalas who made a distinguished debut at Anfield in the match which wrecked Liverpool’s title challenge, Christian Atsu, Lucas Piazon, and Gaël Kakuta among a host of others who have all spent some time at the GelreDome.

Abramovic Pozzo

Chelsea’s collaboration with the Dutch side is not restricted to football. At the start of the current season Vitesse signed a deal with a new shirt sponsor, a mobile telecommunications company called Truphone. Roman Abramovic invested £70m in the company for a 23.3% stake, thereby getting himself involved in the club’s finances to some degree. Since the club was without a shirt sponsor prior to the Truphone deal, and with the current deal with the company in which Chelsea’s owner has a stake, it is fair to assume the deal was signed in order to make the club appear financially stable in order to meet FFP requirements.

Vitesse are certainly not a team known for developing youth prospects into polished footballers, for Chelsea to send their future stars to them. It has just been a very comfortable arrangement for Chelsea to make sure the players not yet good enough to command a starting place at Stamford Bridge get some first team action in one of Europe’s top leagues.

After UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) came into being it became increasingly difficult for the nouveau riche clubs loaded with money from their sugar daddies to keep spending as much as they wished. It necessitated a new way around in order to maintain the status quo, the mantra for Chelsea at least, so far appears to be “catching them young” and loaning them out to the “sister club” till the prices of the players has inflated or they have become good enough to be brought back home.

Chelsea appears to be playing this game the best among the lot. They have a plethora of potential world beaters in their hands plying their trades throughout Europe on loan.

The deal with Vitesse has been a win-win for both the teams involved. For their part, powered by the best of Chelsea youth, Vitesse has consistently managed to finish above 6th; for a club that struggled to finish in the top half prior to Russian ownership, it’s a big achievement. In fact during the 2012-13 season they looked to be legitimately challenging for the league title till winter. But later their run scuppered and they finished 4th behind Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord, the traditional giants of Dutch football.

For Chelsea, two of the best examples of this strategy paying off, albeit in completely different ways have been the cases of the Belgian duo Thibaut Courtois and Romelu Lukaku.

Goal keeper Courtois was signed from the Belgian side Genk as a 19 year old in 2011 and was promptly loaned to Atletico Madrid who had a vacancy in the goal post after the departure of David de Gea. After spending three extremely successful seasons tending the goal of the current Spanish champions, Jose Mourinho made him his no. 1 at Stamford Bridge at the expense of the veteran Petr Cech who, at the age of 32, is still in his prime for a goalkeeper. But such has been Courtois’ performance in his three years at the Madrid based side that it was impossible to ignore him any longer. And now he appears all set to provide Chelsea at least a decade of great service.

Romelu Lukaku’s case was on the other end of the spectrum; he came to London from Andrelecht as an 18 year old the same year as Courtois, in 2011. After spending very successful loan spells with West Brom and later Everton he was deemed surplus to requirements and subsequently the Merseysiders made the deal permanent the following year for a staggering £28million (he was reportedly bought for £10million). It’s fair to say Chelsea got great value for both these signings.

Where will the other youngsters on their pay roll end only time will tell. But it is a classic case of hoarding talent as their finances allows them to do so. Chelsea are not the only ones to be playing this game, perhaps them doing it so successfully gets them the attention more than others.

Another curios case of “sister team” arrangement is the one orchestrated by the Italian Giampaolo Pozzo who owns a remarkable four clubs: Udinese in Italy, Watford in England, Granada in Spain, and Rapid Bucharest in Romania. Owning all these clubs gave him the power to send players across these teams as he willed.

This policy raised a lot of hullabaloo at Watford in the 2012-13 season when they had a ludicrous 14 players loaned from abroad on their books, a remarkable 10 of them from Udinese alone. One of the Udinese loan signings, Matej Vydra ended up being the best Championship player that year with 22 goals.

The foreign loan influx helped them qualify for the Premiership play off against Crystal Palace, which they didn’t get past and stayed in the Championship. But their performance, especially of the loan signings, did give a window of how this arrangement can be used to strengthen a team and thereby propel them in the league standings.

Before long, Watford loan excesses came to an end when Premiership down all 72 clubs, including Watford, voted to bring international loan regulations in line with domestic rules which meant only five players loaned from overseas could be named in match day squads with just four from a single club – and a cap of eight loaned players per season was imposed. The fact that Pozzo family is not as financially endowed as Abramovic will limit their impact on influencing the top tiers of club football.

No such constraints impede the Manchester City behemoth owned by the Abu Dhabi royal family. The English club owned by Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment (ADUG), a private equity company owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the Abu Dhabi ruling family who has ambitions matched by their deep pockets.

The group has effectively taken their first steps towards establishing a franchise based model in the beautiful game. Along with Manchester City the club has bought New York City FC, Melbourne City FC and has a stake in Yokohama F Marinos to enhance their portfolio of “City franchises”.

It didn’t take long to see how such ownership structure or arrangement with sister teams can be used to exploit the system. Frank Lampard, the Chelsea legend after 13 seasons at Stamford Bridge during which he went on to become their all time leading goal scorer left the club for New York City FC. With the MLS not starting before March, Lampard conveniently signed a loan move to Manchester City. The move was rightly questioned by Arsene Wenger as he deemed it as a way to circumvent around the FFP regulations. Even though the move wouldn’t necessarily make City stronger as they already posses an incredibly stacked midfield, it is not absurd to assume that in future perhaps more decisive signings will be made.

With the enormous wealth at disposal of some of the mega rich clubs it is definitely a strategy (if I may call it that), that the ones owned by super rich billionaires, not shy of investing in their “football project” wouldn’t be averse to implementing in order to gain advantage over their competition.

Where will this novel way of financial doping lead football only time will tell, but surely the signs are not very encouraging as this will increase the chasm between well endowed clubs and the more traditional ones. It will make it increasingly difficult for them to hold on to their academy graduates when the big clubs offer them significant pay rise and first team action, albeit in the form of loan deals to their “sister teams”.

Written by Wasi Manazir


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