Big Spenders

LONDON – Wayne Rooney scores the first FA Cup final hat-trick for 52 years. Brazil beats Argentina in a Confederations Cup title thriller. Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger hug each other at Old Trafford.

Surely soccer in 2005 will wipe away the gloom of 2004.

The world’s most popular sport was dragged down by a series of negative trends in the year just ending.

Fans hurled racist abuse at players, two stars served long bans for doping violations, there was acrimony between coaches, players were guilty of blatant cheating and corruption scandals blighted several leagues and federations.

So what can be done in 2005 to change soccer’s image?

Fans, players, coaches and owners will say the same thing. They all want their own clubs to win titles and buy the best players but that doesn’t necessarily lead to positive trends on and off the field.

The soccer federations and governing bodies say they are trying their best to give the game a better image. No matter how much they polish the surface, however, there appears to be too much decay, underhand tactics and bad feeling underneath.

FIFA says it is confident drugs aren’t a problem in soccer and argues it is taking action to root out corruption.

President Sepp Blatter told the Associated Press he believed the headlines created by players who cheat didn’t reflect the overall state of the game.

‘I am convinced that Fair Play is working,’ he said in reference to FIFA’s campaign to reward honesty and punish the cheats.

‘The impression that it is different may stem from the fact that only bad news is news and therefore the cheats get more often a media platform than the honest players who are respectful, decent.

‘For me, Fair Play is the very essence of our game and also one of the most important pillars of society as a whole. Fair Play must also be lived beyond football, in our everyday life and I will continue to champion for this ideal.’

While soccer looks to its world governing body to set examples, there was widespread condemnation that it let the Spanish soccer federation off with just a fine after racist chanting by its fans marred a friendly against England.

FIFA had the power to order Spain to play its next 2006 World Cup qualifier in an empty stadium and critics said that, by imposing a fine, it set a bad precedent which might signal more racist trouble in 2005.

Another bad sign appears to be that the rich clubs are getting richer and more teams are sailing close to going broke.

Theoretically, the transfer system should even that out. But it doesn’t seem to work that way any more because of the continued fallout from the Bosman ruling almost 10 years ago. That legal decision was that clubs selling a player who was out of contract could no longer demand a transfer fee.

Now wealthy buying clubs wait until a player’s contract is almost up and take advantage of his reducing transfer value. That means talented stars move for small fees and that doesn’t really benefit those selling clubs who are heavily in debt.

For some clubs, notably Chelsea, which is owned by billionaire Russian businessman Roman Abramovich, no player is too expensive. The Blues, who were 80 million pounds (US$153 million) in debt when Abramovich arrived, have spent some 200 million (US$384 million) on 20 players.

A perennial underachiever, Chelsea is hot favorite to end half a century without a domestic championship by winning the Premier League. Despite the fact it has the best young coach in the game in Jose Mourinho, there’s no doubt its turnaround is down to the Abramovich millions.

Blatter sees that as a negative trend and believes buying success is not a true reflection of greatness.