Liverpool owner John Henry to bring fiscal sanity to an insane world

On Soccer

It hasn't taken Boston Red Sox and Liverpool owner John W. Henry long to get the hang of this soccer thing. Not long at all.

In fact, if English clubs aren't careful, it won't be long before Henry and his fellow American owners — Stan Kroenke at Arsenal, Randy Lerner at Aston Villa and Malcolm Glazer at Manchester United — start calling the shots in the Premier League.

Given soccer's sorry state of affairs — highlighted by the ineptitude of the English Football Assn. and a spend-and-be-damned attitude by certain Premier League clubs already floundering in debt — that might not be a bad thing.

A little U.S. business acumen could go a long way to restoring sanity to the sport, and Henry's smart wheeling and dealing during the past week illustrate that point perfectly.

Europe's January transfer window saw English clubs spend a staggering $362 million, but Henry successfully upgraded Liverpool by unloading two unhappy players and acquiring two very promising ones without it costing him a figurative nickel.

Not a bad month's work, even if most of it was not accomplished until deadline day Monday.

First, Henry sold Dutch winger Ryan Babel to Hoffenheim in Germany for $9.6 million.

On Monday, in a deal that was not completed until the final 15 minutes of the transfer period, he sold Spanish forward Fernando Torres to Chelsea for $80.4 million, an English record.

With $90 million in his pocket, Henry bought English forward Andy Carroll from Newcastle United for $56.2 million and Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez from Ajax Amsterdam for $36.6 million.

So, for a mere $2.8-million outlay, Henry put struggling Liverpool back on track, getting two strikers to replace Torres, while relieving Chelsea's Russian billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, of more than $80 million.

Considering that Premier League champion Chelsea had just announced an operating loss of $114 million for the previous financial year — after losing $71.4 million the year before — the increasingly perilous path being trodden by the London club is obvious.

Throw in the fact that UEFA, European soccer's governing body, has new financial "fair-play" rules coming into effect next year, and it is doubtful how much longer Abramovich at Chelsea and Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, Manchester City's free-spending owner, can use their immense oil wealth to unbalance the soccer scales.

The UEFA initiative is intended to prevent clubs from spending more than they earn, and Henry, whose Fenway Sports Group took over Liverpool four months ago, already is wary that some clubs might seek to "evade" the rules.

"I was surprised Monday morning to receive an offer [from Chelsea of $80.4 million for Torres] . . . at the same time they were announcing such large losses," Henry said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper.

"The big question is just how effective the financial fair-play rules are going to be. Perhaps some clubs support the concept in order to limit the spending of other clubs, while implementing activities specifically designed to evade the rules they publicly support."

Henry said Liverpool would be run in similar fashion to baseball's Red Sox.

"We've always spent money we've generated rather than deficit spending," he said, "and that will be the case in Liverpool. It's up to us to generate enough revenue to be successful over the long term. We have not and will not deviate from that."

Others are also skeptical that UEFA can make its rules stick.

Arsenal, especially with Kroenke having a major stake in the club, prides itself on keeping its books more or less in balance. Arsene Wenger, the club's French coach, was astounded by Chelsea's spending.

"In the morning they announced a $114-million loss. In the afternoon, they buy $114 million worth of players. Where is the whole logic in that?" Wenger asked.

In Italy, AC Milan added several players, including midfielder Mark van Bommel from Bayern Munich and Antonio Cassano from Sampdoria, but without splashing out huge amounts like Chelsea.

"Everyone's talking about balancing the books, but then they spend like crazy people," said Adriano Galliani, AC Milan's vice president. "I just don't know where financial sense will end up."

Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League, said he has a pretty good idea.

Scudamore envisions a player one day commanding a transfer fee of 100 million pounds ($161 million), or double what Torres cost Chelsea and far more than the world-record $129 million Real Madrid paid Manchester United for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

"I would think that one day it will happen," Scudamore said. "Clearly, there is a point at which it becomes, in anybody's mind, ridiculous, but I don't think we're at that level."

Henry isn't so sure and is keeping track. The transfer window opens again in July.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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