An unfair sporting or competitive advantage is an often used phrase in Scotland since 2012. An SPL commission, a year later, decided that Rangers (IL) “did not gain any unfair competitive advantage” from the use of tax free loans to employees between 2001 and 2010. Every Celtic fan and indeed, fans of the other clubs affected by the use of EBTs’ know this to be absolute horses***.
The club are enjoying a period of domestic dominance and have been for a while now and it doesn’t look like ending any time soon. The humbling by PSG though, showed that the gulf in Europe’s premier club competition is massive between the clubs that can afford to spend whatever they want on players and the likes of Celtic who have to spend well in the transfer market and live within their means. The way that the club is run off of the pitch has been key to the success on it. There’s no doubt that the club are exploring every opportunity to try and minimise the gap to help us sign better players but what can they really do? Immigration rules are different across Europe which has helped the likes of Porto and Benfica exploit the South American market, give players a chance to showcase their skills before selling on them on for inflated fees.
Club partnerships are an option. What benefit do they really have though? It’s not like Celtic are sending players to Santos Laguna for game time or acquiring their best young talent in return. There used to be a partnership also with a Belgian club, KV Oostende. They’re now defunct but have reincarnated themselves under pretty much the same name. Sounds familiar although I’m not sure why?
In a week when Celtic are in Brussels for a Champions League game, it’s worth casting an eye towards a small municipality a touch over 20km south of Anderlecht by the name of Tubize. There’s nothing overly exciting about the the town, apologies if any local residents are reading this! It’s the national squad’s training base. They also have a football team who play in the second tier of Belgian football. The club have South Korean owners. They’re not the only club in the country though that has attracted admiring glances from foreign investors. Fellow second division side, Roeselare, are bankrolled by Chinese money. The Russian guy who has ploughed money into Monaco, Dmitry Rybolovlev is investing some of the money leftover from a costly divorce into Brugge. Even the owners of Leicester City have acquired a side, OH Leuven where we got Logan Bailly from. It’s not just the second division clubs that have wealthy, foreign owners, there are several clubs in the top tier, the Jupiler League, who have money landing in their respective bank accounts on a regular basis from overseas. The Aspire Academy, where the U17 side played last year, defeating Benfica and Estudiantes, are heavily invested in KAS Eupen. One success story is Henry Onyekuru who will be part of the Anderlecht side on Wednesday night. They’re policy is to recruit players from developing African nations as well as Vietnam, Thailand, Guatemala and Paraguay. Is that where the Onyekuru link came from? If so, are Celtic in a prime position to capitalise on the relationship?
It’s different in Belgium in so many ways. As regards players, only 8 players on each squad of 25 have to be “homegrown” so the scope to bring in foreign players is frightening. The clubs are relatively cheap to buy. It’s a bit of a no brainer then for people outside of the country to be looking there for a base to develop players. The names roll off of the tongue. Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Dries Mertens, Thomas Vermaelen, Eden Hazard who is from the aforementioned Tubize, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, recently linked Charly Musonda, Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembélé, no, not that one, Axel Witsel. Those are just the Belgians! It’s bordering on embarrassing the talent available to national team coach and ex Motherwell player, Roberto Martínez. Beveren had a partnership with an Abidjan based academy that saw the Toure brothers, Emmanuel Eboue, Boubacar Barry, Arthur Boka and Gervinho make their first move into European football.
Belgium are able to expedite European citizenship for foreign nationals, making it a popular choice for players outside of the EU, with many using the smaller clubs as a stepping stone to move onto better things. These players will typically be on less than £100k a year. It’s a lot of money for you and me but if you’re offering to double, treble or quadruple the money of such a player, he’d make the move, wouldn’t he? If you got a call from another business tonight offering you similar increased terms, chances are that your manager wouldn’t see you in the morning!
Even agents are getting involved, with renowned friend of Sir Alex Ferguson, Pini Zahavi, being the owner of Mouscron. Since he became interested in Belgian football, 8 players rocked up on loan from, Aberdeen Europa League beating, Apollon Limassol. Want to hazard a guess the club in Cyprus that he also has a strong interest in? The league that Mouscron play in? The Belgian second division. Cynics will say that it’s a way of skirting the rules around third party ownership of players so that they can be moved on for fees, either on a loan or permanent basis. If it’s not against the rules and there is a fair and legal sporting or competitive advantage to be gained, should Celtic be tapping into this market?
PSG played Celtic off of the park last week and whilst not nice to watch, all of us as fans appreciate the gulf in the money available to each manager which inevitably has a bearing on the result. Not many of us would disagree that Neymar isn’t the most revered amongst the home support, right? Less than a week after his obscene transfer to the Parisian side, news came out alleging that the French giants wanted to buy a Belgian feeder club. The club in question just happen to be Mouscron. Good news for the owner Zahavi who also happens to be the agent that brokered the move to Paris from Barcelona of Neymar.
Dedryck Boyata, Jason Denayer and Joos Valgaeren have all arrived at Celtic Park, albeit not directly from Belgium. The point is though, that not a high percentage of players that could be targeted will perhaps not be Belgian nationals. Victor Wanyama is probably the best example. Signed for £900k or thereabouts from Beerschot, another club who have had to come back from the dead and punted south with a sell on clause for £13m. Good business sense in anyone’s language.
Circumstances dictate that the club will look to buy cheap and sell for a hell of a lot more if possible. Chuck in sell on clauses, thank you Virgil, and you can see where the board are coming from. Whilst the vagaries of it are unclear, developing relationships with the movers and shakers at some of the Belgian clubs cannot hurt. Whilst many complained that the club couldn’t land a centre half in the transfer window, the same people will say that Celtic are unlikely to purchase a lower league Belgian side. Every single one of them is likely to be right but given the talent coming out of that country right now, both foreign and domestic, is it a chance that cannot and should not be passed up?