Football’s unique place in people’s lives and communities means we have to sort out mismanagement of the clubs we love, reports Shamik Das
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An obscenely wealthy petro-state with an appalling human rights record takes over one of England’s historic clubs, based in Manchester. There are protests, concerns are raised, with calls for tighter regulation. Fifteen years later, an obscenely wealthy petro-state with an appalling human rights record bids to take over one of England’s historic clubs, based in Manchester. There are protests, concerns are raised, with calls for tighter regulation. Finally, it looks like those calls have been heeded.
It is against the backdrop of Qatar’s pursuit of Manchester United – and aim to emulate the success of Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City – that the Government has published its white paper on football governance.
The headline proposals of an independent regulator, a strengthened owners’ and directors’ test, a greater say for fans, a fairer distribution of money, action to prevent clubs getting into extreme financial difficulties, and powers to block clubs joining breakaway leagues have been broadly welcomed, if a little late.
Over recent decades, the red carpet has been rolled out for the likes of Sheikh Mansour (Man City), Russian oligarchs Roman Abramovich (Chelsea) and Alisher Usmanov (Arsenal), and American billionaires Malcolm Glazer (Man Utd) and John Henry (Liverpool) with next to no due diligence. Those who asked questions have been told to suck it up – while further down the football pyramid clubs like Derby County, Bury and Macclesfield Town have faced financial disaster.
There have been owners with serious criminal convictions; owners with long histories of prior bankruptcies; and owners jailed for money laundering.
What supporters want to know is will the new independent football regulator be able to prevent such mismanagement in future?
The updated version of the much-maligned ‘fit and proper persons test’ is set to have a fitness and propriety test, enhanced due diligence for sources of wealth, and robust financial plans for owners and directors. Again, this is to be welcomed, but the proof will be in its powers of enforcement – risibly, the current system is run “on a self-declaration basis, where the prospective owner or director completes a form to confirm that they are not barred by any of the disqualifying conditions”.
With fans and communities currently powerless to save their football clubs or have any real say at all over their running, another key detail for supporters will be exact nature of fan engagement and protection of club heritage. How will they be consulted on strategic matters? Will club history be preserved? Will there be any say on stadium relocations? Again, the proposals are encouraging but stop short of, for example, shadow boards or the 50+1 rule in the German Bundesliga, which gives club members an effective veto on major decisions.
And on the (re)distribution of money from the wealthiest clubs down the leagues, it highlights the need for action, noting the current gap of £4 billion between the combined revenues of Premier League and Championship clubs, though, once more, the laissez-faire approach reigns supreme, with intervention from the regulator only coming “after the market has been given adequate opportunity to reach a settlement” and no plans to re-examine parachute payments which, whatever their merits, give an unfair advantage to recently-relegated clubs over existing lower division teams.
The white paper, however, only seems to covers the financial side of men’s elite football, with proposals to follow on women’s football and equality, diversity and inclusion among other aspects of the wider game.
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This feels like a missed opportunity, shoved in at the back, like an afterthought, with the proposals to be published later in 2023 – last summer’s European Championships victory for the Lionesses feels a long time ago. Just in recent weeks, England Women beat Korea 4-0, Italy 2-1 and Belgium 6-1, in Milton Keynes, Coventry and Bristol, while Wembley lay empty.
Why should any of this matter? For non-football fans, why should you care?
Businesses go bust all the time. Charlatans, despots and oligarchs buy up companies, properties and assets in the UK frequently and no one bats an eyelid – well, they should and do, but not on the same scale and level of concern as with football. Other sports have their share of scandals, from racism in English cricket to sexism in Welsh rugby – both of which have received coverage, though probably not to the same extent as they would have if they were to do with football.
It matters because of football’s unique place in people’s lives, in communities, in the country. It’s no ordinary business product – you don’t switch clubs as you might do brands, companies or service providers.
And it matters in terms of the wider economy – on match days and every day, with jobs, revenue and tourism. One need only look at the impact of the sudden cancellation of all football following the death of the Queen last September.
We all need these proposals to work and, on the whole, they are a good start. But we could do with more teeth.
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