Why we should care about owners

A LOT of Chelsea fans were extremely upset about the treatment of Roman Abramovich and the sanctions on his business activities, which ultimately meant the popular but enigmatic Russian was forced to put the football club up for sale.

Given what we now know about the war in Ukraine and indeed some of Abramovich’s business connections, the UK government, on this occasion, did the right thing. As far as Chelsea fans are concerned, he has been a good owner and he has certainly funded the unprecedented success the club has enjoyed since 2003. Interestingly, when he arrived at Stamford Bridge, there was an air of suspicion about Chelsea coming under Russian influence!

It is difficult to get too upset about the sale of Chelsea, especially given the dreadful and totally unacceptable events taking place elsewhere, but we should care deeply about the ownership structure of our football clubs, no matter how old they are, how devoted we may be about our obsessions and how aware we may be of geopolitics, economics and history. While we should not attempt to rewrite history, we should be aware of the consequences of past events. Football encourages myopia, but the sport is supposed to be a thing of joy, not one that has blood-stained hands or dubious secrets locked away in some dark corner.

The fact is, we all become accountable if we support any aspect of life that we know has a darker side, be it corporates, government bodies, charities, political groups and of course, football clubs.  We can bury our heads in the sand, and many do, but at some point, we all have to accept there are far more important things in life than football.

For most of us, football has become an emollient, a sport that brings people together, breaks down barriers and provides a form of global language. Its mass appeal makes it attractive to so many aspects of commercial life: TV, internet, companies, investors and so on. Go anywhere in the world and talk about football to a stranger and more often than not, you will find common ground. Football may be all about rivalry, but when the dust settles, we all understand it (unless you dig into the mechanics of VAR).

But what we are grappling with today is how our clubs are run, how they are financed and how “clean” some of the owners of our beloved football institutions around the world might be. It is naïve to claim owners from a very suspect regime make for ideal benefactors, no matter how much fancy dress and ostrich behaviour tries to obscure the fact very bad things happen. Similary, if you are aware of the history of the Soviet Union and its break-up, it is hard to feel much sympathy with oligarchs who get their assets frozen. It is unfortunate this affects something like a football club, but it would be wrong to make concessions.

This goes way beyond elite football and even extends into the non-league world. One of the overriding emotions in the game is green-eyed envy, which can manifest itself in resentment over budgets, stadium development or the presence of so-called “sugar daddies”. There’s also a lot of nonsense spoken about club wage bills and how much the local centre forward might be earning and also the source of a club’s income. There’s very little confidentiality in football, rumour becomes “fact” very quickly.

Equally, ownership at this level of the game can be equally dubious. Over the years, there have been tales of possible money laundering, property opportunism, tax evasion, shadow accountancy and gate-rigging. The latter is a practice sometimes laughed about when a cup game’s attendance is announced but looking the other way makes everyone guilty by association. League and club sponsorship should be treated with a very robust level of due diligence and subject to strict regulation.

There are also deep moral issues at stake. For example, given the hand-to-mouth existence of many clubs, the temptation to take money from the gambling industry has become a trend that has got out of hand. With clubs going to great lengths to show they are caring, sharing organisations, it does seem somewhat hypocritical to bite the hands off gambling firms knowing what the industry can do to vulnerable people chasing the hopeless dream. Just look at how many clubs have some sort of sponsorship from betting companies. Coming soon… bitcoin and non-fungible tokens.

There is a chance the Chelsea situation could have a profound influence on the future of football club ownership as much as the war in Ukraine will impact the corporate world and everyday life in the future. This may bring some inconvenience, but it could be a good thing for football because for years, the industry had become something of a wild west gold rush. It has not exactly been lawless, but it has been embroiled in politics, financial abuse and very creative accountancy. This has created a form of free market elitism that has been the catalyst for ever-widening chasms between the rich and poor clubs as well as transfer fees that are totally unrealistic and player wages that can border on the obscene.

This has all been fuelled by spiralling broadcasting contracts, sovereign state funding and those billionaire owners sitting with oversized club scarves draped around their necks. Some clubs are now heavily influenced by the money and culture of foreign countries, arguably an inevitable development in this age of globalisation. It’s still the game of the people, but they are very different, often completely detached people. For example, has anyone actually heard Mr Abramovich speak?

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