Arsenal’s Gazidis preaching simple solution to football’s debt problem

IT seems apt that Ivan Gazidis first fell in love with football at Portsmouth. His boyhood club’s grim descent into administration has laid bare the financial mismanagement prevalent even at the top level, where clubs borrow vast sums just to keep pace with their rivals. Now, as chief executive of Arsenal, he is among the most vocal cheerleaders for a Europe-wide movement to ensure all sides live within their means. The club that shaped the young Gazidis has begun influencing how everyone sees the game.

“It’s not a complex problem,” explains the cosmopolitan 45-year-old. “You can very simply identify the reasons a club will get into financial difficulty: they spend more than they can afford. We need more discipline. When revenues are where they are, no club should find themselves in financial difficulty.”

Gazidis, a South African-born Oxford graduate, is in a strong position to argue his case, and not only because he studied law. Arsenal have long been synonymous with frugality, were last week ranked the fifth richest club in the world, and last month announced healthy half-year results. That approach has borne fruit on the pitch, where Arsene Wenger’s much-lauded team reach the Champions League year after year and cradle renewed hope of hoisting silverware in May.

Arsenal’s prominence also allows them a say in the future of the game and Gazidis last week took part in talks with governing body Uefa about plans to tighten financial rules. Key is a proposal forcing all clubs to break even over a rolling three-year cycle, starting in 2012. Errant clubs would be banned from European competition and, although details remain unresolved, “the principle is accepted”. “The objective is to make the football business more sustainable and stable, and I think that’s a very desirable goal.”

Gazidis, who moved to England aged four, spent 15 years running America’s Major League Soccer before returning to join Arsenal and says he knows of many “very wealthy, experienced, and level-headed sports owners” in the US?who “could bring a lot to the table”, if football was more sensibly run. He says they “recognise they need a framework to operate in, otherwise the sports industry will be unstable”, and that Europe is now “trying to play catch-up”. Yet Gazidis, perhaps sensitive to speculation that US sports entrepreneur and Arsenal director Stan Kroenke will one day own the club, also seems keen not to appear too American himself. Of work to make the gleaming Emirates Stadium more homely – a scheme dubbed ‘Arsenalisation’ – he quips “not my word, by the way; something I inherited”. He adds: “I’m fine with Arsenalisation, just it sounds so American. It sounds like it should be with a zee.”

Critics depict Uefa’s plans as a covert attempt to curb the Premier League’s dominance, while others question the ability and willingness of some teams – notably those who enjoy super-rich benefactors, such as Chelsea and Manchester City – to adopt them. Yet he insists:?“There’s a general consensus something needs to be done to introduce more stability. I sit on the panel with Chelsea’s finance director. I think even those clubs are looking to become self-sustaining. It’s in everybody’s self-interest; that’s what’s driving them.”

While Gazidis is a wholehearted exponent of Arsenal’s financial conservatism, the tradition was ingrained before he took up his post last year, and owes much to the evangelical parsimony of Wenger. The Frenchman’s refusal to raid the coffers, preferring to nurture a prodigious yet callow squad, has been equally mocked and exalted, but is not about to change. “We’re not going to be in competition to spend £80m on Cristiano Ronaldo,” says Gazidis, whose brother is an Arsenal fan and lives in N5. “That level of spending is not only not sustainable for us, it’s not sustainable for anybody. As a general principle, things that can’t go on forever, don’t.”

Wenger has brought radical change and success to the Gunners, yet his iconic reign could end in little more than a year, when his contract expires. He will be 61 by then and, should a fifth successive barren season fuel dissent among supporters, he might be forgiven for hanging up his tracksuit. Gazidis, however, talks as if a contract extension is a formality and is relaxed about plans for his succession. “As it has in the past, it will get done quickly and quietly. Arsene certainly still has enormous ambitions left for the club. We will make an announcement when it’s done, but it won’t be an extended or difficult process.” Of his eventual departure, he adds: “I think the club’s general health makes it well-positioned for that day already, but I’m not naive enough to think you can replace a manager like Arsene with a snap of your fingers – you can’t.”

Wenger’s future is not the only looming uncertainty: Kroenke, the club’s largest shareholder, is a few shares away from being obliged to make a formal takeover offer, while the second-largest, Russian metals tycoon Alisher Usmanov, is not far off and disgruntled about being refused a seat on the board. Gazidis meets with Usmanov “regularly” and says the relationship remains “cordial” but adds: “Right now the board has a lot of experience in sports and is functioning very well. I don’t think there is any move to put him on the board at this point.”

Stability is the watchword not only in the accounts department: Gazidis envisages the current squad growing together over the next five years. Rumours persist, however, that the jewel in Arsenal’s crown, Cesc Fabregas, could return to Spain in the summer. The club have already written to Barcelona in a bid to end the Catalan team’s public courtship of the midfielder, but no further action is likely, even if Gazidis is resigned to the disturbance dragging on. “It will continue, because Barcelona are in an election cycle. Unfortunately it’s just a fact of life. There is just nothing to the story.”

Looking ahead, Gazidis is targeting an increase in commercial and sponsorship revenue and hopes to grow the brand overseas by aligning Arsenal with “global powerhouses”. And while matters surrounding Wenger, Kroenke and Fabregas remain uncertain, as does the direction of European football, he is sure of one thing: his brother will keep bombarding him with ticket requests. “I’m running out of excuses now,” he jokes.