Can FIFA save soccer during coronavirus crisis with an economic bailout?

Football mirrors life. And football governments sometimes mirror real governments.

As the coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc -- first and foremost with human life, but also the economy and people's livelihoods - so, too, is it throwing football's ecosystem into a tailspin.

Just as governments are taking economic countermeasures -- from bailouts to stimulus bills -- football's governing body, FIFA, is considering how best to react. The organization, which has cash reserves of more than $2.7 billion, as well as the ability to borrow against future income and guarantee loans, is exploring ways to stave off economic disaster.

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In the short term, many clubs of all sizes are starved of cash flow and risk insolvency since the game ground to a halt last month. In the medium term, it is unclear whether sponsors and broadcasters will be able to meet their financial commitments, or whether the game will be able to keep its end of the bargain and deliver matches to global audiences.

And in the long term, the very financial structure of the game, which sees players listed as assets on balance sheets and upon whom clubs rely on trading to balance books, is in jeopardy.

The challenge to save football is unprecedented. Right now, not only do we not have a sense of what it will take on a global level to mitigate the most serious damage, we do not even know when we will know.

There is also a certain unease at the idea of FIFA doling out money to the rest of the world given the history of patronage and corruption that resulted in scandal and a 2016 indictment that brought down the previous administration. But it is also an opportunity to shape the future of the game and effect lasting change. A chance to make fairer, more transparent and more sustainable a sport that, even as it has grown at the top end, has left many disenfranchised and frustrated by imbalances of power, polarization and corruption.

Here are some key questions as FIFA looks to create its own stimulus package:

Q: How much money does FIFA have to give away and how did they get it?

A: They have $2.745 billion in cash reserves. Some of that is already committed to different projects -- $500 million is earmarked for women's football over the next four years, for example -- but the bulk of it is sitting there. FIFA's main source of income, which supplies more than 90% of revenue, comes from organizing the men's World Cup and selling commercial and broadcasting rights to the tournament.

The idea is not just to give away FIFA's cash reserves, though; it's to create a bailout fund for the game. Some of it might be a portion of those cash reserves, some of it might be borrowing against future income, and some of it might be acting like a guarantor if clubs need to borrow money; a bit like parents who co-sign their kids' mortgages.

Remember, though, this is a concept right now and FIFA has plenty to thrash out, starting with whether to make the funds available directly to clubs, leagues or member associations.

Q: Is the situation really so dire that football needs to be bailed out?

A: Why else do you think players are being asked to take pay cuts? We don't know how long the pandemic will last, but it's obvious that if games aren't being played, there's little to no cash flow. Clubs have costs; cash comes in and goes out the door straight away and not just to player wages. Rent must be paid, debt needs servicing, and non-playing staff need to be paid.

Most clubs, outside a handful in big European leagues, make most of their money from matchday income: tickets, parking and concessions. They might get a little in sponsorship and commercial revenue, but with the economic slowdown, that revenue will dry up, too. And, sure, some clubs also get broadcasting income, but that is also in jeopardy; it's not clear that broadcasters will want to pay up in full for games that aren't taking place or might take place at less desirable times.

Q: Surely that can't be the case at the biggest clubs in the biggest leagues? Especially those owned by multibillionaires?

A: Not every club is in the same boat. Manchester United, for example, shows cash (and cash equivalent) reserves of $377m (£307.6m) in their most recent accounts. They have been profitable for years and their majority owners, the Glazer family, are extremely rich, so they are unlikely to have a cash flow issue.

Bear in mind, though, that wealth and liquidity are two different things. The stock market is down some 30%, oil and commodity prices are also down. Rich people might have a lot of assets, but they probably don't want to sell them now to raise cash because value has declined. (As the saying goes, the only time you can ever make a loss in the stock market is when you sell.)

Q: So FIFA wants to create a fund to help football. Is it similar to what governments are doing by approving massive stimulus packages?

A: Sort of. And it's not just FIFA acting alone. The issue was one of several discussed with the six regional confederations -- UEFA, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, AFC, CAF and OFC -- last Friday. They will obviously need to be involved, though most of them do not have much in the way of cash reserves.

Even UEFA, who are sitting on nearly $600m, probably cannot commit much since they'll likely be hit hard by the postponement of Euro 2020 -- they say it will cost them in excess of $300m -- and the 2019-20 Champions League and Europa League knockout stages indefinitely postponed. Some of the wealthier national associations could chip in on a local basis, but there are a number of big decisions to make.

Q: Like what?

A: How much money to raise and how to raise it, primarily. FIFA will have to decide how much of their own reserves to devote to this, how much to borrow against future earnings and how much to raise by acting as a guarantor on other entities' loans.

The next step is how to distribute the money -- whether through grants or loans -- and, crucially, decide who gets it and when.

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Q: If it is a cash flow problem, loans makes sense, right?

A: Indeed. Interest-free bridge loans, paid back over time, would seem right and bear in mind that, in most countries, it would take relatively little -- think millions, rather than tens of millions or more -- to keep things ticking over.

The tricky part is deciding who gets the money. It's straightforward with clubs that are publicly owned or nonprofits. You can look at their accounts, figure out what's needed and what you can contribute.

With private ownership, it's more difficult for the reasons stated above. Some of the owners may be asset rich but cash poor. Or they may simply not want to divert cash from their other businesses, which may also be struggling. Or maybe they're just stingy and don't really care about the club and are all too happy for someone else to fund their losses. You need to evaluate each case.

Q: How do you do that?

A: What I would like to see is independent, non-football figures involved, such as economists and auditors. Maybe borrow some from the World Bank or International Monetary Fund, who do this sort of thing for a living. But it can't be left solely to football administrators.

Q: Why?

A: Have you forgotten FIFA's track record when it comes to doling out money? How the patronage system brought down Gianni Infantino's predecessor, Sepp Blatter? Cash for votes? There was too much pork in that system and it led to decades of corruption and the scandal that brought down a whole generation of football administrators.

Infantino may rub some the wrong way with a style that can seem autocratic and grandstanding at times, but there is no debate that there is far more oversight and transparency than before. That said, simply writing a check to member association and telling them to go fix their problem is a recipe for corruption and malfeasance.

Plus, there's another problem if they do that ...

Q: What is that?

A: The relationship between FIFA and UEFA has been tense for a while. Infantino's decision to stage a 24-team Club World Cup -- the first edition was to be held in the summer of 2021 in China, but that has been postponed due to the coronavirus crisis -- was seen by some at UEFA as a form of encroachment on their turf, since the biggest, most lucrative clubs are in Europe and this would have given FIFA a direct business relationship with them.

Moreover, the fact that Infantino was originally going to fund this with a $25 billion offer from unknown investors assembled by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank and insisted on getting approval from confederations without offering details did not sit well with them, either.

That's why it is important that FIFA and UEFA put their differences to one side and why they cannot be the ones handing out the money. They cannot be seen to be currying favour with one party or another. Provide the funds, set up the mechanism and step away. You will help football and save jobs.

Q: You talked about using this for a better world, once this is over. What does that mean?

A: This funding has to come with strings attached. That's how federal bailouts work, that's how IMF bailouts work, that's how this has to work. And by this I mean a commitment for football to give itself new rules. I don't know if this industry is more corrupt than other ones, but there is certainly enough malfeasance to go around, whether its money laundering, tax evasion, conflicts of interest, lack of transparency. You have clubs that are basically just cover for third-party ownership. You have certain agents who effectively run half-a-dozen clubs like their own fiefdoms. You have clubs owned by offshore companies; Bournemouth and Tottenham are just two examples of many. You have a club in a major European league, whose owner also owns a significant chunk of a football agency. You have clubs whose owners borrow against the assets of the club to fund activities elsewhere. You have players who are exploited, who don't get paid, who have to give up their education to pursue an athletic career that might pay them peanuts. Need me to go on?

Q: I get the picture. So the aim is to get clubs to play along?

A: You cannot force change from the top, but you can tell clubs, "if you're going to take our money, you need to follow these rules." That's what the IMF and World Bank do when they provide loans and grants and some at FIFA see a vision along those lines. If enough clubs do, maybe they'll be able to pressure leagues to introduce newer, tougher rules to stop some irresponsible behaviour. It will probably be necessary, because, make no mistake about it, when football returns, it's not going to bounce back straight away.

Q: Why not?

A: Because the economic landscape will change. Economies will contract, there will be less money floating around, fans will have less cash in their pockets and institutions will have more debt. When that happens, if you're not careful, you have a negative chain reaction, which is why governments come up with stimulus packages.

All those clubs that list footballers as assets on their books -- putting valuations on them that might have made sense a year ago -- will have to rethink things.

It is crucial to be prepared; that there is a better ecosystem for the game to survive and grow in a fairer, more credible way. As much as ensuring cash flow and that clubs and players do not file for bankruptcy, that has to be the goal of any bailout by FIFA and the sport in general.