The first open-forum discussion of money matters in the game took place last week at the International Football Conference hosted at FIFA HQ in Zurich.
It was there that Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon explained that he would not accept an invitation to G-14 even if it was forthcoming (G-14 general manager Thomas Kurth responded by winning a signed Chelsea shirt in a raffle later that night and putting his prize back in the draw). Just as significantly, Kenyon agreed with former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein, who said, “We want it both ways in England: we want the best talent but don’t want the foreign owners. At the moment, it appears you can’t have one without the other.”
“That’s probably the first time I can say I have agreed with David,” said a smiling Kenyon, who urged the conference “not to fear foreign investment”.
It is a bit late for that, with foreign investors already owning eight of the Premier League's top 13 clubs. Of those eight, six of the owners made it into last week’s Top 20 of FourFourTwo magazine’s Rich List, with five of the Top 10 foreign.
“Private ownership is better for clubs as it provides more stability because you know who’s in charge,” said Kenyon. “Anyone who buys a football club these days has no interest in harming his assets. People coming into football are doing it because they have a passion for the game, and they want what they’re buying to do better. And don’t forget that in England, new owners have to pass the Fit and Proper Persons test.”
Ah yes, the Fit and Proper Persons Test, which no-one has yet failed, not even the oligarch funded by mineral wealth stolen from ordinary Russians, nor the former Thai Prime Minister who has had assets worth up to £900m frozen, and could yet face 10 years in jail following charges that he illegally helped his wife buy land from the state. Add to those two potential investors — the Uzbek oligarch with a questionable human rights record, and the Hong Kong billionaire who once sacked a coach for not picking the players he wanted (hardly a crime, admittedly) — and you can see that the Premier League is pretty much welcome to all-comers.
Profit is what attracts these investors and for that they have the Premier League to thank. That the TV rights deal struck with foreign broadcasters (over £600m) will soon be worth more than the domestic rights deal is a major indicator of how important the foreign market is becoming.
“The Premier League is so successful because it has brought the best players in the world to England,” said Dein. “Over half of the players in the Premier League are from overseas. You can’t say it’s fine to have that but not to have foreign ownership too.”
That the debate over foreign investors is happening at the same time as the row between Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger over non-foreign player quotas is relevant. This season, there are just 26 English players registered to play in the Champions League, compared to 94 from Brazil, 41 from Portugal, 37 from Turkey and 25 from Scotland.
Wenger may be right in his argument: that Arsenal’s only obligation is to provide winning football to its fans, and not buy English players for the sake of it. “If you’re good enough, you play, no matter what your name, colour or passport,” said the Arsenal coach. But it is the England team that will eventually lose out: there may have been three English teams in the Champions League semi-finals, but there may be no British national team represented at Euro 2008.
Kenyon and Dein are happy to beat the drum for globalisation but they faced opposition in Zurich in the form of Barcelona vice-president Ferran Soriano. Barcelona, he told the forum, are owned by the club members and turned down huge sums of money from companies wanting to sponsor their shirts and chose to partner with Unicef.
Their different philosophy has helped establish a community among the fans but the brutal reality of investment has raised concerns in Spain. “For the moment we have been able to compete and still win titles, but long-term the foreign investment piling into the English game is a concern,” Soriano admitted. “It could create an imbalance and make it a non-level playing field.”
This is part of another Wenger argument: that Chelsea spending the Abramovich millions is a form of ‘financial doping’.
Premier League teams have reached each of the last three Champions League finals, but even Liverpool’s team of last season had not yet received any serious investment from the new foreign owners. For all the millions that Malcolm Glazer and Abramovich have ploughed into their clubs, a place in the Champions League final has proved elusive so far. We know that money does not guarantee success at the elite level.
But Soriano’s worry is that we will see a repeat of those three English semi-finalists in years to come. It didn’t repeat when Spain had three in 2000, or with Italy in 2003: but as the money rolls in at the top tier of the game, the gap will widen, not just between the ultra-rich and the rich in England, but across Europe too.
Meanwhile, the position of Wenger in this debate is fascinating: he is all for foreign players but seems less keen on foreign investment. As Arsenal continue their fantastic form at home and abroad, Wenger’s club provide the antidote to the argument for foreign investment, and the reminder that no matter how much money your team spends, you still need the right coach.