European Football without Loans?

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A brave new world could be upon us…but old habits die hard.

In January 2018, UEFA’s president Aleksander Čeferin was the center of an interview to Swiss newspaper La Tribune de Genève, where he delivered his insights and general plans for the next few years of European Football (he has been the institution’s headman since September 2016).

Restoring fairness and financial responsibility in football were a big part of his message, and among many interesting subjects, he introduced the possibility of “restricting loan transfers or even forbid them completely”. Now that’s a bold hypothesis. Controversy arose, with some defending new regulations which could bring a more balanced state of affairs while others criticise them for being handicapped at birth. A few big clubs expressed their (predictable) reluctance through their social media accounts – once seen as a high-value professional, Čeferin’s judgment skills and experience are now being questioned and his past connections and road to UEFA’s high chair are being investigated. That type of pressure can only be applied from powerful institutions, maybe major sports brands that don’t want their dominance jeopardised?

Who knows, that’s all hearsay. The fact of the matter is that loans are such a big part of club’s strategies nowadays that is hard for us to think outside of the box. That’s the underlying challenge of these sentences. To think differently. Accountants with full-time contracts cannot spend six months dealing with another company’s books and return with ‘reinforced experience’, that’s what independent accounting firms are for. Same goes with legal advisors, or software developers, or recruiters, just to strengthen the example. There are other means (freelancing, for example) to cope with the impossibility to loan an employee, but are those realistic in sports? Is this hypothetical loan-free football world feasible?

If all of us football freaks were to enter a new context in which loans are forbidden, would we be better off? Would the game benefit from it?

Here’s a harsh fact: Currently, loans have very different effects from the original concept they were introduced in, still in the first half of the 20th century. Young bloods had a chance of proving their worth in theoretically smaller clubs, fine-tune their game and potentially find their space in the competitive rosters of the clubs which hold them contractually. That is indeed a positive and hopeful view, but the truth is, smart businessmen quickly turned loans sideways: ineffective control led to the creation of ‘farm clubs’ (teams with the reputation of serving others through partnerships that included excessive amount of loaned youngsters in their squads); Bigger clubs developed a gluttonous approach to transfers, signing ludicrous amounts of players that never wear their buyer’s jersey because they are immediately loaned out, thus depleting the chances for other teams to succeed and build on sustainable development; Several cases of youth gems who ended up drowning their career in consecutive loans; not to mention the clear conflict of interests when a loan player plays against his ‘employer’, a strange situation that originated additional, sloppy rules…a whole mess.

While it was gloriously epic to see, for example, Thierry Henry’s comeback to Arsenal in 2012, the amount of shady and unproductive loan situations outnumber the exciting and useful ones by far. How can a loan ban change that?

  • Bigger emphasis on youth squads? It would no longer be an option to grow a gazillion young players and then loaning them out for the rest of their learning curve. Rosters would be largely reduced – the endless lists of players under contract of the same team would disappear because dishing them out just for a year, or two, or five, ‘just to see what happens’, wouldn’t be possible. Amidst the interview, Čeferin mentioned an Italian club that had 103(!) players with contract ties to the senior squad. That is a perfect example why different visions are needed in sports management, and developing youth squads with better criterion is one of them;
  • Less ‘David vs Goliath’? This is certainly one of Čeferin’s biggest hopes for the future he’s trying to draw. By losing the ability to suck all prospects popping up in nearby smaller clubs, bigger clubs could finally have some trouble in making money rule. Virtually all teams in major leagues need to sell players regularly to feed their heavy cost structures, but senseless moves would decrease and players would also be forced to properly weighs their options, much like a manager that is considering switching companies;
  • Compromised Youth? This one seems to build a paradox with the first hypothesis, but that’s really not the case. It’s just the other side of the coin. What can we say? Major changes like these have unpredictable effects, and even though teams would probably dig deeper into their youth squad to compose the structure of their roster, there are only 11 players on the pitch (and a few that might come in later in the game). There’s simply not enough room for everyone to develop, and since players could not move on a temporary basis, we could end up losing oceans of talent due to bad career choices. Although, to be fair…that happens already.

It’s hard to deny the fact that loans can be beneficial to all parties involved: the player gets competitive rhythm, the host team gets a talent boost and the sending club grows a seed on a neighbour’s farm, potentially reaping the benefits of the crop some time later. Still, it is clear that loans need more regulation, since they are currently watering sprawling fields of uneven competitions and illegal activities.

If forbidding loans seems too much of a change, let’s take it step by step. Starting with equal rules throughout all European top divisions, instead of the strange, disorganised mix that we currently have. That seems to be the path that UEFA wants to take right now – only time will tell if it’s right one or not.

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