Football needs more than a new regulator to save it from itself | Football
AAbout 15 years ago, I made a short film about a day in the life of a postman. It was an early start. While I was helping him sort his bag, we were talking about football. He was a Chelsea fan. I asked if he had a subscription to Stamford Bridge. I will never forget the look he gave me. It was as if I had asked what kind of Ferrari he drove. “I can’t afford to go and see Chelsea,” he said. “I am a factor.”
So here we had a football club owned by an incredibly wealthy Russian, who charged a normal worker. Here, before dawn, in a sorting office, somewhere in the generous sprawl of south London, this anomaly was striking. In football, we always have a lexicon of clichés ready to go; I have reached one now thinking to myself: my God, the game is gone.
This is not to blame Roman Abramovich for everything. As ill-gotten as his earnings are, he is not directly responsible for the pricing of many ordinary football supporters by clubs across the country. But his entry into the game highlights the fault line at the heart of the problem in professional football: clubs cannot find a way to live within their means. This leads to despair, which invariably leads to desperate measures. And that involves all sorts of desperadoes involved.
Whether you like football or not, it will not have escaped you that some of the owners of these football clubs have some hesitation about them. Many are morally questionable; others are simply incompetent. Some clubs have both dodgy and hopeless owners, a terrible combination indeed.
The three authorities of English football – the Premier League, the English Football League and the Football Association – have each had their own tests for owners and directors. They are designed to establish that potential owners are fit and suitable for the job. It’s unclear how unfit or unsuitable you must have been to fail this test. That’s a low bar indeed.
Now the government is stepping in with plans for an independent regulator of English football, or Iref – see what they’ve done there? Intelligent! It will now be up to Iref to avoid missteps. I offer my suggestion for the very first question that Iref should ask any future football club owner. It goes like this: do you want to own a football club? If the answer is yes, then I’m afraid they have to be shown the door because chances are they’re crazy or bad; neither suitable nor suitable.
There is no rational financial reason to own a football club. No matter how big his income – whether from television rights deals or other commercial activities – all of it, or usually much more than it all, will end up in the pockets of players and their agents. How else to explain the fantastic levels of debt that even the biggest clubs in the world have racked up: Manchester United, around £500m; Barcelona, over £1 billion. What kind of person or country wants a piece of these companies? No matter how cleverly structured debt is, debt is debt.
So if you are not buying a club to make money and you will surely lose money, you must be doing it for some other reason. It could be because you’re a great person who loves the club, or football in general, and you want to do the right thing. If so, great. But if you’re not, I don’t know what Iref or anyone else can do about it.
People like Russian and Chinese billionaires, and oil-rich countries with suboptimal human rights records, will always have the riches to entice owners to sell. Fans will end up turning a blind eye to something other than the success that money could bring to their beloved clubs.
If your club owner wants to sell it for, say, £250m, and he has a buyer who wants to give him £250m for it, I don’t see how a whole team of Irefs wielding red cards is gonna stop that. Anyone about to spend £250m, or intending to spend £250m, will have a lot more to spend on lawyers than Iref, or anyone else, to close the deal. ‘deal.
Iref’s proposals for keeping the bad guys away are detailed enough. They call it an “integrity test” – their quotes, not mine. The use of the word integrity echoes the endless debate in the game regarding handball laws. Referees are asked to decide if the handball was “deliberate”. How can they know? Surely, only the player at the end of the hand in question can answer this; it is between them and their god, if they have one. We’re told a regulator will make an “evidence-based overall judgment using expert opinion to assess whether an owner or director would be an appropriate steward of a club”.
I wish them good luck. Here are the two questions I seriously think they will need to ask any potential owner. 1) Do you understand that in the end, you can never really own a club? Whatever the legal documents say, morally you are just the guardian of the club, charged with loving and cherishing it for the next generation. 2) When you move on, do you understand that you cannot sell the club as you see fit to the highest bidder? No, you’ll have to go with whoever can handle it as diligently as you did.
This might not make the price of a ticket affordable for your average postman, but it might just send some unwanted wrapping.