GREED WILL BE THE DEATH OF FOOTBALL
The Premier League is under threat from buccaneering foreign ownership
Sunday September 30, 2007
Too much money is toxic, as the children of the super-rich show us and as the English Premier League is discovering. Its worldwide television audiences ensure its 20 clubs gross an annual revenue of more than Â£1bn a year, but it has neither the values nor the structures to protect itself from the attentions of some of the most suspect billionaires in the world.
Instead of the profits being spread to the roots of the game and the communities in which the clubs are embedded, the Premier League has become the vehicle for financial engineering that makes private equity look honourable. In essence, clubs are being bought at astronomic prices, then the revenue they generate is used to pay back the debt their new owners incurred. The winners are the selling shareholders, the loser is football.
This is a condemnation no longer confined to diehard football fanzine readers, but more generally, especially in mainland Europe, where there is growing indignation at the way English clubs buy success and unbalance European-wide competitions. Last week, Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov took his stake in Arsenal closer to the 30 per cent that would trigger a full bid. Despite the club's robust talk of staying British, the eye-watering price he can afford to pay for the shares, to be financed by the club's own revenues post takeover, surely means it is only a matter of time before even this citadel falls.
The trouble is that, with nine out of 20 Premier League clubs already foreign owned and another nine targeted, the English football authorities can no longer speak for the interests of football, but for the new generation of foreign owners.
England has lost sovereignty over one of its most precious sporting and cultural assets. Yet nobody mounts a Sun-style campaign to hold a referendum on the question. The impact on the national game - one-sided football, a tediously predictable league, absurdly paid stars, a sleazy underworld of agents, increasingly cynical and stagnating crowds, a weakened national side and the growing covert campaign to create a closed shop to protect the interests of owners which will freeze the league's membership for all time - is clear.
This will incalculably effect the lives, aspirations and pleasure of millions more than, say, the second-order changes proposed for the governance of the European Union in the EU Reform Treaty. But then Britain regards loss of economic sovereignty with an equanimity as baffling as the overheated outrage about 'Brussels'.
When Arsenal fall, the Premier League's four top clubs will be foreign owned. Both the American Glazers, who paid Â£800m for Manchester United, and Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who now own Liverpool, explicitly use the clubs' revenues to pay off their debt. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich owns Chelsea as a kind of football bauble, until recently spending hundreds of millions careless of the economics.
More recently, Peter Kenyon, the club's chief executive, said that Chelsea need to win the European Champions League twice in the next 10 years to justify Abramovich's expenditure. Manchester City's long-awaited success in the first few games of this season has been bought by a former Prime Minister of Thailand under fraud investigation, but whose calculation is the same as the others. It is not glory or football that motivates owners - it is discounted rates of return.
Arsene Wenger, the French coach of Arsenal, gave a devastating interview to France Football magazine last week. While Manchester United, one of the world's richest club, might service vast debts, he says the model is not transferable. The impact on smaller clubs could be 'mortal', simultaneously locked in an inflationary spiral to pay players, potentially culminating in a 'catastrophic' collapse of the over-indebted clubs.
Chelsea and England captain John Terry's recent Â£135,000-a-week contract, a catch-up with the pay of Chelsea imports Michael Ballack and Andrei Shevchenko, is a classic example of the inflationary dynamic. Owner-supporters have been supplanted by owner-businessmen, says Wenger, and the English game is tottering under the multiple assaults. As cynicism rises about players' motivation, and games become more predictable, he notes that television audiences are beginning to fall and it is becoming harder to fill stadiums.
What to do? Ten days ago, Michael Platini, incoming president of the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa) wrote to Gordon Brown arguing passionately that 'the values championed by football are a powerful source of social integration and civic education'. Now the values are money. He wants pan-European action: wage caps on players; quotas for home-grown players; regulations on agents; financial checks on owners; revenue sharing between clubs; and redistribution of revenue into lower leagues. Platini even wants a reference to sport's special nature in the EU Reform Treaty.
Brown will give Platini short shrift. When a draft EU report on football (commissioned by Britain!) dared to float similar ideas, a Brown spokesman said he would not allow England's national game to be run by Brussels, a line deemed to play well in the Eurosceptic tabloids. So, instead, it can be run by a murky crew of the footloose global rich, already salivating at the prospect of breaking free from tiresome Uefa and even national leagues, instead mounting show games between their debt-burdened clubs in global tours, modelled on rock concerts and sponsored by multinationals.
But here's the rub. Fewer and fewer people will care. Football needs its roots, otherwise it is purposeless exhibitionism
. I don't hark back to a golden age - money, football and dodgy values have long been intertwined - but what is happening is at a new level. Football values must be reasserted and some limits have to be negotiated and it will have to be an initiative on a pan-European scale. The way things are, it cannot and will not include free-market, Eurosceptic, every- asset-can-bought-by-anyone England.
Maybe it would be best for football if we left Uefa, allow it to protect football and watch the Premier League slowly self-destruct. You can't argue with Eurosceptics - they are a priesthood - but here is terrain where their philosophy betrays millions. Only reality will persuade the English of sceptic perfidy. Football could be a perfect example.
Football is not just a simple game. It is a weapon of the revolution.