Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Football's foreign invasion: A global cause for concern

This is Anfield. But can that famous old sign ever mean the same when the controlling power sits 3,500 miles away in an air-conditioned suite looking out over a man-made paradise on the Gulf?


Manchester United's corporate address is a lawyers' office in Reno, Nevada. So what do the men from the desert know about the wet pavements of Stretford or Lou Macari's fish shop?

Five Premiership clubs in foreign hands, another seven possibly to follow. And one of the worst things about the debate over foreign ownership is the fine line it obliges you to tread. Express any reservation about the big sell-off and you can find yourself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with members of the UK Independence Party or, even worse, the kind of Englishman who still has not come to terms with losing the Suez Canal.

Take a deep breath and remember that the Maktoums, Randy Lerner, even that strange secret coven of Glazers, are not buying clubs because they are cheap assets to be picked off. They are doing so because they are considered great investments and smart businessmen nurture great investments, not run them into the ground. And clubs like Liverpool need the money - we know that because previously they even courted a Thai prime minister with a lousy human rights record.

But it is not racist or reactionary to say you feel concerned about the ownership of Premiership clubs by foreign investors. And you are not alone. It is a different industry, but the same principle in France where, for instance, the government has blocked a recent bid by Pepsi to buy the French company Danone by the ingenious tactic of including yoghurt companies on a list of " nationally strategic assets". The Spanish are trying to do the same with a major utility company. We are not alone in worrying about losing ownership of national institutions, but we are the most vulnerable.

The ownership of our football clubs is just the latest stage in the fractured relationship between the modern game and the fans - in the same category as the spiralling wages of Premiership footballers that make them seem disconnected to supporters. The same as the rising ticket prices and the cost of Sky. It is all part of the unreality of English football and it is about to become even stranger.

How were football clubs originally intended to be run? In one chapter of David Conn's brilliant book The Beautiful Game? he traces the history of Sheffield Wednesday to make a point about the chaos there in recent years. Their founders were the Clegg family, 19th-century Methodist lawyers with a strong belief that football could be a moral force for good.

All that is fanciful now, not least the Cleggs' hope that football could promote the temperance movement. But what remains from those times is the principle that football clubs should be run with the people in mind and, critically, be accountable to them too.

Even in the previous century when clubs fell into the ownership of successful - and sometimes unsuccessful - local businessmen that accountability principle survived in a different way. The chairman may not have come from the same streets as the man on the terrace, but at least he shared the same town or city. He might not listen to the complaints of supporters, but he would have to hear them all the same.

Some of the owners of clubs, to borrow a phrase from Ken Bates, were shysters, but at least they were our shysters. Fans could judge their club's chairman from close up, from his actions within the community, and there was a primal democracy in the way that, if the fans were dissatisfied, they could bring pressure of some kind to bear.

The 21st-century billionaires are not buying just electricity companies or airports, they are buying institutions that many English people love. And fans want to love their football clubs in their entirety, without secretly grimacing at the thought of where the money comes from. What sensible Chelsea fan has not considered that the £5m annual wages lavished on Andrei Shevchenko might have been better off in the Russian economy?

The Maktoums are respected businessmen who clearly love sport and in many respects they seem ideal people to take Liverpool forward. But Dubai's luxury resorts are under criticism that they are built on cheap Bangladeshi and Pakistani labour, who are then packed off home without a UAE passport.

Will the Glazers or Lerner decide in years to come that relegation from the Premiership is an unacceptable financial peril and advocate scrapping it? If that sounds ridiculous, ask yourself which was the last team relegated from American football's closed shop, the NFL? And if there is public disapproval it will be hard for those owners to feel under pressure when they are on the other side of the world.

I remember seeing Liverpool's chairman, David Moores, in Athens airport before the Olympiakos game, part of the club's 2005 European Cup triumph. He was among the players by the baggage carousel, dressed in a team tracksuit with a cigarette lit up beneath that Souness-esque moustache. He might not have been the richest football chairman in the world but he was a member of the Scouse brotherhood and was judged by his club's fans accordingly.

Will they be able to say that of their new owners?

Fit and proper? Football's ownership rules in the three biggest leagues

ENGLAND

There are no rules or regulations preventing foreign citizens from owning an English football club. Most clubs are not plcs, which means a potential buyer will, in most cases, only have to buy out a few significant shareholders. In England, however, there is a "fit and proper person" test for prospective directors/ owners, which the Football Association introduced in February 2005. To pass, a prospective director/owner must not:

* Be subject to a disqualification order as a director of a UK company.

* Be convicted of any offences (laid down by the FA), unless they have successfully undergone rehabilitation.

* Be banned by a sports governing body.

* Be bankrupt.

* In the last five years: (a) Have been a director of at least two football clubs while they have entered insolvency; (b) Have been a director of one football club while it has entered insolvency on two separate occasions.

SPAIN

There are no set rules or regulations preventing foreign owners from investing in clubs. But Spain has not yet introduced a "fit and proper person" test, so anyone, even those with criminal convictions, can own clubs. However, it is often difficult for outsiders to take control of the big clubs, especially those such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, which remain members' clubs in the truest sense. Dmitry Pietrman, an American of Ukrainian and Israeli extraction, is the only prominent foreign owner in Spain. He controls Deportivo Alaves of the Second Division but was previously the majority shareholder at Racing Santander.

ITALY

Like Spain and England, Italy has no rules preventing foreign citizens from owning clubs. The rules regarding who can own and run the clubs, however, are currently under review after last season's match-fixing scandal involving the two biggest clubs, Milan and Juventus. A new set of regulations is expected. Serie A is similar to La Liga in that most of the clubs are run either by fans or dynastic families who have owned the club for many years. Massimo Moratti, for example, the oil tycoon and owner of Internazionale, is the son of Angelo, who was owner and president of the club in the 1960s.

Matt Denver

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