Why shouldn’t oligarchs buy football clubs?

Clubs should be judged by their results on the pitch and their place in the League, not the alleged human rights records of their owners.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Should we resist the foreign takeover of English football clubs? UEFA president Michel Platini thinks so. ‘I would be worried if I were English because of all the foreign ownership’, he said. ‘I fear your clubs will lose identity. If it was in France, I would fight it.’

Since Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, seven more Premiership clubs have been sold to foreign tycoons with several more clubs looking likely to follow suit. Some foreign takeovers have provoked more opposition than others. Malcolm Glazer’s leveraged buy-out of Manchester United led a small number of disgruntled ‘authenticity hunters’ to tear up their season tickets and form their own breakaway club.

More recently, human rights groups have argued that former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who bought Manchester City for £81.6million in July, is not a ‘fit and proper person’ to own a football club. By contrast, the purchases of Aston Villa, Liverpool, Portsmouth and West Ham by overseas tycoons have not prompted protests from fans.

The Premier League rejects the claims that Shinawatra, who has been accused of corruption and human rights violations, is unfit to own a football club. The League maintains that as Shinawatra has not been convicted of any offence he does not fall foul of their ‘fit and proper person’ rules which, it points out, ‘go above and beyond any requirement by company law and are some of the sternest in any UK industry’. However, the lobby group Human Rights Watch still thinks that the test isn’t strong enough and that Shinawatra, whom they describe as ‘a human rights abuser of the worst kind’, should be debarred from club ownership.

Whether or not the allegations are true, I simply can’t see how Shinawatra’s human rights record falls within the jurisdiction of the football authorities. As Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore quite rightly says, ‘Much as I understand that people think the Premier League runs the world, actually we don’t. We run a league and there is a place where our job ends and governments and politicians take over.’

Shinawatra’s takeover has rekindled the debate over whether foreign owners are good for English football. Scratch the surface of the arguments against foreigner ownership and you will sometimes find old-fashioned chauvinism dressed up in ethical grab.

Tom Bower, author of Broken Dreams: Vanity, Greed and the Souring of British Football, thinks that foreign ownership is A Bad Thing. ‘No other country allows the crown jewels of their major sport to become the uncontrolled playthings of investors whose backgrounds remain untested’, he writes (1). Taking issue with football agent Pini Zahavi’s argument that ‘Britain has sold its banks, its gas, electricity and water supply companies and even its airports to foreign companies…so why not the football clubs?’, Bower argues: ‘The difference is that football is not a utility or a bank, but part of the fabric of England, uniting so much of the nation in frenzy and depression during international competitions such as the World Cup.’ (2)

Bower’s rhetoric is stirring stuff – in fact you can almost hear the strains of Land of Hope and Glory in the background – but his case against foreign ownership is based more on nationalistic bluster than substantiated argument. Bower’s rap sheet read like this: foreign owners raise ticket prices; they are not really interested in developing homegrown talent or ‘re-establishing closer relations between the clubs and the fans’; and star players are rested against weaker opponents. The latter, Bower concludes rather fancifully, ‘disappoints the fans, is a step towards potential match-fixing and hastens the introduction of a European super league, a poisonous scheme for English football’.

The problem with Bower’s argument is that, while foreign tycoons may be guilty of many of these things, much the same can be said for British proprietors. Premiership clubs were hiking ticket prices, resting star players, and opting for foreign imports over homegrown players long before the current crop of foreign tycoons appeared on the scene. And if foreign owners were really so uninterested in youth development, why haven’t any of them scaled down their youth academies? Indeed, Abramovich has said his long-term aim is for Chelsea to produce more homegrown players and reduce transfer expenditure.

Bower claims that West Ham’s new owner Eggert Magnusson ‘has made little effort to retain the club’s relationship with local charities and council officials’. Time will tell whether his suspicions about Magnusson are well founded but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all foreign owners will ride roughshod over the hallowed club’s traditions. None of the new foreign tycoons has changed either the name of a club or its traditional colours. Indeed, Liverpool’s new American owners were extremely sensitive to fans’ attachment to the Kop when agreeing plans for the club’s new stadium. ‘The original stadium plans depicted a bowl, without a dedicated end’, explained Tony Evans, deputy football editor of The Times and Liverpool fan. ‘Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr, the American owners, had the sense to rip them up and commission a new blueprint, one that incorporated an end of 18,000, devoid of corporate boxes, with a steep gradient and acoustics that will amplify the fanaticism.’

Another charge levelled against the new foreign investors is that their spending is dangerously inflating the transfer market. Some analysts fear that clubs without wealthy overseas benefactors may financially overstretch themselves in an attempt to play catch up with the foreign-owned elite. ‘There are clear warning signs that the football economy is overheating’, says Philip Long of accountancy firm PKF. ‘The fact that 62 per cent of Premier League clubs have increased their overdraft will be ringing alarm bells at the banks.’ Certainly, the £6million price tag attached Tottenham’s underachieving striker Mido, does seem a tad excessive. But nobody is forcing club chairmen to pay silly money for mediocre players. If they rack up unsustainable levels of debt in order to ‘chase the dream’, it is they who are responsible for any susbsequent problems, not the foreign tycoons.

The argument that foreign ownership is bad, carries the implication that British ownership must be good. But is that true? With the exception of Malcolm Glazer at United, most foreign owners are spending their own money and not mortgaging their clubs to City institutions as Peter Ridsdale did at Leeds. Moreover, before the commercialisation of the game in the 1990s, English football clubs had suffered from decades of underinvestment and neglect under British stewardship. And, if you look at all the clubs that have gone into administration over the last decade, they’ve pretty much all – bar Wimbledon – been mismanaged by Brits.

My view on foreign owners is fairly straightforward: if the club remains financially solvent and the team gets results on the pitch then Ivan Oligarch is a ‘fit and proper person’ to run the club. End of. How he acquired his wealth is not a matter for the football authorities. Neither is his nationality. While liberal commentators may wring their hands about family silver being hawked off, most football fans have a refreshingly nationality-blind attitude to foreign ownership. A handful of Manchester City fans have expressed concerns about Shinawatra, but most Blues have welcomed their new Thai sugar daddy. Show me the money – that’s the message from the terraces.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) The big sell out, The Observer, 29 July 2007

(2) Genuine hope in our hearts that tradition walks on too, The Times (London), 26 July 2007

(3) Platini fears for future of clubs amid spread of foreign owners, The Times (London), 7 August 2007

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Topics Politics


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