Football finances are in a dire state and a Premier League club nearly went to the wall this week, and may yet do so in the coming days. Blame has been attributed to the foreign owners, seeking to take advantage of our beautiful game yet surely it is time to invert our criticism and look to the stewards of the game, the Football Association and the Premier League itself.
Each club is owned and run autonomously but the FA maintains a responsibility to protect and maintain the game in this country. This responsibility spreads from appointing Fabio Capello down to improving the standards of pitches at the grass level. Every facet of the game is supposed to be protected and managed by the FA, and as such there must be some culpability when mistakes are made.
Portsmouth FC have plummeted from FA Cup winners to the High Court in just 18 months and their plight raises serious issues about the health of the game in this country. On the very same day both Cardiff and Southend were also in court pleading for leniency from HM Revenue & Customs. How can such a situation of been allowed to develop, given the riches in the game. There are a myriad of answers and reasons but all of them have festered and grown under the stewardship of the FA. An obsession with money and success has allowed inappropriate and irresponsible ownership of clubs, inadequate distribution of football finances, a lack of financial security and poor support of clubs in trouble.
We live in a capitalist country where money and success go hand in hand. Unsuccessful or poorly managed companies will and do go bankrupt, and this plight can never be avoided. Football as an industry however is causing its own problems and this is why the FA must take some criticism. Incredible sums of money are involved in the elite level of football in this country. The Premier League is the richest league in the world and it attracts hundreds of millions of loyal fans. Yet this money is not distributed evenly amongst the tiers of football in this country, which supply and generate the success of the elite. Although Portsmouth are a high profile example there have been many clubs that have entered administration in recent seasons and financial ruin looms over many more. The FA have to find a way to protect clubs and this must begin with a greater distribution of wealth from the top teir down through the levels of professional football.
The other main issue that the FA have to take criticism for is that of ownership. In the past decade a phenomenon has ensued with wealthy foreign businessmen buying Premier league clubs with the intention of making money. Despite some claims to the contrary most of these men are not fans of the club and instead see a play thing for their spare time. Roman Abramovich pumped hundreds of millions into making Chelsea league champions, and managerial instability inevitably ensued. The fact that the Abramovich ownership is now in fact a model of responsible foreign ownership is incredibly worrying for football fans across the country. Manchester City are currently playing a form of fantasy football, with endless sums of cash. Manchester Untied are in huge debt despite claiming to be the biggest club in the world and Liverpool are desperate for new investment to pay back the banks.
The situation at Portsmouth has been like a soap opera this season. With 4 different owners, all seeking profit and recently having no ties or sense of responsibility to the club. Football clubs like Portsmouth are becoming pawns in the game of big business and the club suffers potentially beyond repair.
So what has the FA done to curb this problem; a ‘fit and proper persons’ test. The test is designed to evaluate potential club owners and ensure that there intentions are good and that they are suitable owners. This sounds like a good policy, yet men like Suliman al-Fahim and Ali al-Faraj are still able to own Portsmouth. Something is not working and yet the FA does very little to change the situation. When the idea of foreign owners first came in many people felt that little could be done. The ‘fit and proper persons’ test was introduced as a piecemeal solution to a vast problem and it has not worked. Much more is needed but what will it take for the FA to act? In all respect to Portsmouth, it will take far more to see some action from the fat cats. Perhaps a big-4 club will need to go bust before the FA start to act. Football in England has become obsessed with money and the FA are as responsible as the players, owners and clubs. It is a sad situation but I believe that only when there own bottom line is affected will the FA act to address the situation.
The Premier League risks becoming a laughing stock if a club does go into administration. In fact Portsmouth could still be wound up by the courts which would mean that the club ceases to exist. Just as the government and the financial regulators have to take some responsibility for the wider financial crisis in the UK so the FA must take some blame for the financial situation of the wider game in England.
The FA are often judged by the success of the national side. At present, with the John Terry issue aside, there is a justified sense of optimism surrounding the national side. The appointment of Fabio Capello has been an unequivocal success and the FA must take some credit for again appointing a foreign manager. The FA cup is as competitive as ever this season and looks set for an interesting set of fixtures this weekend.
Such positives however can not cover the inertia that the FA has shown over the issue of foreign ownership. If strict rules and regulations had been put in place as soon as the issue arose then many irresponsible and unstable takeovers could have been prevented from occurring. The Premier League is at its heart about football and this has been lost in recent years with an obsession with money and greed. The FA must now attempt to remedy the situation over the coming seasons. They need to stabilise football clubs and help those struggling to stay afloat. There may be several casualties along they way but if actions are taken then the back pages can again focus on the football rather that the boardroom antics. Before they do however perhaps they themselves should face a fit and proper persons test.
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