Why the Nouveau Riche isn’t a group
In the great big bad capitalist world of club football, two recent triumphs have been painted as the result of ruthless big spending – Manchester City’s Premier League win, and Chelsea’s victory in the Champions League. These two are part of a controversial group of clubs known as the Nouveau Riche – clubs that have come into a vast amount of wealth, usually courtesy of sugar daddy owners, that belies their lack of major success in their history. Other examples include PSG, Malaga and Anzhi.
Now, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. For one, there are different scales of wealth. You can’t just say the big spenders owned by Arabs and Russians are different from, say, Blackburn being driven to glory by Jack Walker’s enormous investment in the 1990s, or Wigan heading up the leagues courtesy of Dave Whelan, or even the rises of Crawley Town and Fleetwood Town into the Football League due to their wealthy backers. Are they all Nouveau Riche? And is there a difference between the other big spending giants who don’t have sugar daddy owners – Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid etc?
But other than those clear divides, I think there’s a pretty major difference here, because not all these clubs are treated with the same derision. Often it’s due to the clubs in question – not many people particularly like Chelsea for being supported by neo-nazi thugs and captained by a man more evil than Skeletor, but people still like Wigan because they’re small and cute. I can tell you as a fan of a lower league club that spent a long time on a roughly similar level to them before they surged up through the leagues that they didn’t seem all that cute then, especially when they were playing in the third tier in their brand spanking new JJB Stadium.
But I didn’t feel all that bad about Chelsea winning the Champions League either – despite the fact that I don’t really like big spending (aside from the bonus of having teams on Football Manager where you can create your own personal dream team), the Chelsea story felt nice and warm and cuddly, because they did it as underdogs. But I think there’s another element to it, which has something to do with the owners in question.
Firstly, big-spending clubs without sugar daddy owners – clubs that are spending money that they have made by being successful or having a nice brand, as ghastly as it sounds, isn’t as bad, because it is their money they are spending, not someone else’s. Man City are spending the money of a man who had no prior connection to the club. Though the concept of “earning” success is subjective, there is a sense amongst those people that didn’t want them to win just because they aren’t Man Utd that Man City haven’t “earned” their money themselves – it’s been given to them by a stranger, and I don’t know about you but I was brought up to not accept things from strangers, because they could be bad.
Beyond that, there also is a difference between the different sugar daddy owners. Compare Abramovich to Mansour, for instance. OK, neither are in any way British or had any connection to their clubs prior to owning them. But watch Abramovich Sr and Jr’s celebration in Munich – they celebrated like Chelsea fans. They were genuinely emotional. Can you see Mansour doing the same? Yes, no doubt he will (because it will happen eventually) punch the air a bit, but I don’t think it will be quite the same.
Abramovich’s investment, which started 9 years ago, was as cold and ruthless as any sugar daddy out there, and was thus worthy of derision by other fans as any other sugar daddy out there. But you have to admit, the guy is now, to all intents and purposes, a Chelsea fan. Whereas a few years ago one might have thought that he would abandon them as soon as the trophy checklist was complete, now it seems highly unlikely that he will leave them any time soon – would he want to leave them in the lurch, almost certainly heading for bankruptcy? While this doesn’t make big spending suddenly OK, it does soften the blow a bit – he is a part of the club now.
The same can be applied elsewhere. Blackburn’s big spending isn’t as bad because Jack Walker was a Blackburn fan. Wigan’s big spending isn’t as bad because Dave Whelan is a Wigan fan. There is a genuine emotional connection there between owner and team. It’s not cold hard investment – it’s because they wanted to see their team play at a much higher level and win trophies, which is exactly what they did. While Abramovich isn’t Dave Whelan, he does appear to be wanting Chelsea to do well for the sake of it, rather than just to make money out of it.
The same, of course, doesn’t apply for Man City, Malaga and PSG, who are owned by groups of faceless Arab investors who are just in it to make money or maybe just to have a laugh. Who knows? We don’t know, that’s the point. The same also goes for Crawley, especially as we don’t even know who their investors actually are, because they have intentionally hidden themselves.
The sugar daddy has always been around, and always will be. FFP won’t get rid of that – someone will always try their luck with it. However, what has changed is globalisation, and with that, any old rich billionaire can cherry-pick his own football club from the other side of the world, and treat it like his own play-thing. The reason there is a difference between this and a local investor doing it is because of the difference between a team and a club – there would be no difference if all football entities were teams, not representing a particular group of people, but clubs do. There is a set of shared values within a club – when a club wins something, they do so as a group. A club isn’t just the 11 players on the field – it’s also the hundreds or thousands of fans involved. It’s why football fans use “we” when talking about their club’s results (and why F1 fans are thick to use it about their favourite teams).
Investors coming from outside this are not part of a club – it’s top-down change. Abramovich, though, has been around long enough to become associated with his club and effectively become a part of it. He is ruthless in his managerial appointments and signings but maybe perhaps now we can say he’s doing it for the love of Chelsea Football Club. Maybe. I’ll assume so, because it makes me feel less bad about feeling good about Chelsea winning the Champions League.