Former Tottenham Hotspur central defender Ramon Vega has expressed his concern about the future of lower league football amidst the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vega spent five years at White Hart Lane after arriving at the club in the summer of 1996 and was a part of the league cup winning side in 1998/99.
The former Swiss international has not just had a career as a player at the top level but is also an expert in finance, having worked in hedge funds, private equity and asset management, since his retirement from football.
So the 48-year-old, who now operates as a sports business consultant, is uniquely placed to comment on the challenges presently being faced by football clubs.
Vega insisted that lower league clubs face a particularly challenging time at the moment and it is up for the big clubs to help out the smaller ones in order to ensure football does not become an elitist endeavour.
He told The Athletic: “I advise lower-league clubs, and there are a lot of owners who are very, very wary of surviving. They’re relying every week on supporters coming through the gates.
“And remember, for these owners, you have to run it as a business but also you have a huge responsibility when you think of the social impact on the region around you — the town or the village or the city. That’s the weekend for a lot of people, that’s their going out, going to that game at 3pm, seeing their family.
“Before this crisis, there was a big gap from the top to the lower-league teams, and it’s just going to get bigger and bigger. The balance was not there and this will hit the lower ones massively. They will suffer the most.
“The crisis has accentuated all the stuff that was already negative beforehand. It’s worrying, but at the same time it’s a good exercise for English football. Because the Premier League, the Championship and everyone need to create a financial balance, so that if another crisis comes, there are not such dire consequences.
“Everyone was talking about increasing the revenue streams, the competitions, more World Cups — just from a commercial and money-driven perspective. But they’re forgetting the contribution of the lower-league teams, who need every single penny.
“And the point is that a big club like Manchester United or whoever can say, ‘We have big revenues, and we can attract the best players’. But without grassroots, players won’t be produced to go to clubs like Manchester United.
“Talking from my own experience — I played for a very small local village team in Trimbach before I went to Grasshoppers Zurich. If these teams disappear and it’s only the Manchester Uniteds, then suddenly it becomes a sport only for the privileged.
“There will always be a gap, that’s nature — it’s never going to be equal everywhere. But a huge, massive financial gap between the leagues is just getting bigger and bigger. And that’s the concern I have. That’s when it could stop becoming a mass-sport and become elite-driven only.”
FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, has called for an honest discussion to be had on implementing salary caps for players on the back of the crisis (Sky Sports).
While Vega is in no doubt that financial reform in football is necessary, he insisted that the players will view a salary cap as being discriminatory given the number of industries that profit from football.
He added: “There are two elements to this, and when the conversation comes up, you rarely hear from a manager or player — ie, the receiver’s side. You mainly hear from an administrator’s point of view, who’s never been on the receiver’s side of things, and is standing there in a suit.
“I don’t think a salary cap is a model that would work from a player’s point of view because they would be thinking, ‘It can’t be that we’re the only ones who have a salary cap and other guys in the industry or around it and who make a lot of money from football haven’t got the cap. Why us?’ What about other industries, like banking? If they started to have a salary cap then yeah you could consider the footballer side as well.
“But the players are the ones who create the product and who have to play, and who people pay to watch. They have a short career, and then you have the issue of: is it that we are talking about a salary cap for the elite, or for the overall pyramid? Because what we start to forget, especially in the last five or 10 years and when we talk about money, is that football is not just about the elite.
“Again, drawing on his own career as a player before he left Switzerland and played at a more elite level in Italy’s Serie A (with Cagliari) and the Premier League, Vega advocates an alternative model to the salary cap.
“A better idea than a salary cap is more of a merit or bonus-based structure. Yes, have a fixed salary but say, ‘You could earn a lot more money if you start to win’. Then you start to see the mentality of players and clubs become more driven. Rather than just sitting there and potentially earning the money.
“If I’m on the bench I can earn the basic stuff, but I could earn a lot more if I’m part of the team and I score goals, win trophies or whatever. That is more of a model that I can see. That’s more what I had when I started at Grasshoppers. There was a basic salary, but if we were winning matches, or winning the league, I earned more.
“I started with not even 3,000 Swiss Francs (£2,518) a month as a basic salary, but because we were winning games I could earn 15,000 (£12,591). But if I was losing three or four games a month, it was 3,000 Swiss Francs.
“Players hate losing anyway but you start to think, ‘I need to play extremely well. I need to be extremely concentrated.’ And you think about where do I have to improve to get that extra 10,000 Swiss Francs or whatever it is? I’m telling you, that period of 1989-96 that I’m talking about was the most successful in Grasshoppers’ history (the team went on a run of winning four out of seven Swiss championships).”
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While one would hope that the footballing world will come together to help lower league clubs during the crisis, I believe we will see the richer clubs becoming even more powerful than they were before on the back of the pandemic. Let’s hope the situation improves quicker than projected and fans are able to attend games soon as lower league teams are heavily reliant on gate receipts for their income.
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