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Abdalla M. Taryam: The Socialist Republic of UAE Football
October 07, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

We can all agree that the United States strives to become a pure capitalist market. Most of their laws, financial decisions and even election campaigns revolve around capitalism. Nonetheless, there is a sector in the land of freedom that is far from pure capitalism and bordering on socialist practices: Sport.

Survival of the fittest, or the richest is the adopted motto in sport. Less so in individual sport, we are witnessing the power of money dominating the entire world of team sport. And as the age-old proverb of a free market goes: The rich get richer and the poor, well, they will soon either face financial ruin or be forced to succumb and become whipping boys for the top clubs. With football, basketball, Formula 1 and a host of others, the divide between the few top teams and the majority of the "supporting cast" is getting exponentially larger every year.

Except in the USA.

Three of the four major sports organizations in America, the NFL, NBA and NHL (with baseball being the exception), implement a salary cap. Team owners do not have the absolute freedom of flexing their financial muscles against their 'poorer' counterparts. They must adhere to strict laws set by the governing bodies that seek to level the playing field.

Every team is instructed to operate within a fixed amount (for example in the NBA it is set at $58m). This amount does not restrict the wages to be paid to one individual, although in some instances they do have league maximums, but it ensures that each team will enter the competition having spent more or less the same amount.

This certainly does not equate to securing equal talent or equal chances of winning since most sports rely on the rare iconic player to deliver glory, but what it does ensure is that paying that star player the wages he deserves will mean he gets to be surrounded by mediocre teammates that would fit the wage cap. Thus allowing the few iconic athletes to be spread across the market. On the other hand, teams who are less inclined to gamble their futures by dishing out huge contracts can be content with signing average players all around to produce a more competitive and balanced squad.

Of course the fat cats of this business will object to the restrictions of a salary cap, which is why the governing bodies allow them to cheat a little, but at a price.

A luxury tax is usually in place alongside a salary cap. This cheat mode allows teams that have deeper pockets and bigger ambitions to cross that threshold but incur a penalty in the form of a tax. The collected tax is then redistributed amongst the obedient teams that don't cross that line, thus sharing the wealth. Republicans may be attacking Obama for his somewhat socialist ideas but nobody is complaining about this structure when it comes to the billion dollar industries of the NFL, NBA and NHL.

Here in the UAE, and just as much in Europe, we are seeing a great disparity in club football. Clubs in Abu Dhabi spend ten or twenty times more than clubs in the Northern Emirates. In some instances wages of a single player can equate to the entire budget of a smaller club.

Free spending leads to the inevitable scenario where smaller clubs (some of them with a rich history and a lot of pride) insist on competing by any means. They start with refusing to sell their quality players to the big boys preventing them from more lucrative wages. This is the easiest way to embitter your player who will underperform and eventually force a move but this time at a fraction of the previously proposed price. Lose-Lose.

The previous scenario is all too familiar with the majority of the local clubs. They keep falling into the same trap while the few rich clubs exercise their right to divide and conquer. Another futile approach that some clubs have recently waddled in is to live beyond their means. Take out loans if you have to but spend, spend, spend.

A couple of injuries later, they find themselves relegated to the second division not knowing how to pay off debts. One club in particular announced that they would dissolve their football team while others relied on the good old club merger. It's a good thing that the powers that be stepped in and saved a club from extinction.

In the UAE, the football's governing body does have a wage restriction currently in place. Far from ideal though. Instead of placing a team cap, they have placed a ceiling on single player wages. 100,000 AED per month is the maximum a player can receive. There's a caveat though: it only applies to local players.

I fail to grasp the benefits of this rule. What purpose does it serve? Rich clubs can still stockpile local talent by offering the league maximum which is already much higher than most clubs can afford. For example, the highest monthly wage paid by one of the most historic clubs in the UAE (from a Northern Emirate) to a local player is 30,000 AED. This same club offers their top foreign import double that amount so they don't even reach the 'local maximum' even with their unrestricted 'foreign' contracts. While one of their rivals (I shouldn't really use the term rivals) in Abu Dhabi had a foreign player on their books last year with wages exceeding 750,000 AED per month.

Looking at budgets, my hometown club has a total annual budget of 40m AED, whereas Al-Ain dished out 91m AED to bring Jorge Valdivia to town in 2008. That's just one player and he turned out to be a flop.

Clubs in UAE are allowed 4 foreign players in their squad. When you consider the figures at hand it's clear that there cannot be a fair comparison on the pitch. Even when we talk about the pool of local players, it is a known fact that the top local players in Dubai and Abu Dhabi receive much more than the league maximum through under-the-table payments. From excessive sign-on bonuses to add-ons like 10m AED houses that players turn around and sell have been included in 'packages' before. That's a nice way to combat the beleaguered real estate market.

In 1901 the English FA adopted a maximum wage restriction, the rule lasted 60 years but was later abolished due to the excessive 'illegal' payments made to star players and of course some legal threats from the Players Association. This is certainly not a method to curb spending, nor will it help the smaller clubs in any way.

A team restriction on the other hand will theoretically limit overall spending by the clubs. A luxury tax kickback from the top clubs will also encourage the smaller clubs to live within their means ensuring clubs remain solvent.

Another benefit I see culminating from this model is an improvement in administration. No longer will executives gamble with unproven talent. They would strive to select appropriate players that would adapt to their system and eventually improve spending habits.

I've been asked on numerous times to comment on the problems of attendances in the UAE football league. Well, you can hand out Ferraris at halftime or you can outsource busloads of fake supporters to wave flags for you, bringing the term "plastic fans" to a new level. But no tactic will bring back genuine interest as much as a level playing field.

Fans need to feel that they have a chance. I haven't been to my hometown club since 2005 because frankly I've had enough. Give me a chance to celebrate. Allow me to feel that the team I'm going to support is not infinitely inferior. I'm not looking for Drogba to sign for my team. I just want to see my decent goalkeeper pull off some saves instead of him warming the bench on the other side.

Get rid of the wage maximum. If a local player deserves to be paid as much as a foreigner then why are we preventing it? Introduce a team salary cap to prevent top clubs from stockpiling players that would be of use to others. Allow the rich to legally 'cheat' at a price that would alleviate the financial burdens on others. This will ultimately produce a more balanced competition and I for one will purchase my season ticket again.

Although a salary cap set up is more complicated than my words may indicate but the basic theory is relatively simple. We have the means to bring in advisers so why not learn from the best. The Americans are the undisputed masters of sports marketing and the ultimate breeders of athletic talent. If they don't mind a socialist approach to sports why should we?
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The author, an engineer by profession and an amateur
coach, employs his love of the game to comment about it.

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