A few months ago Matthew Syed was waxing lyrical in The Times about football being the beautiful game. I wasn't convinced then and I'm even less convinced now having watched Channel 4's Dispatches which outlined the shadowy world of shady businessmen buying and selling English football clubs in order to make a quick buck, often asset stripping the club in the process. One of the key protagonists in this sordid tale was a certain Mr Bryan Robson of Man United fame, who at least was honest enough to admit that football was no longer a game but purely a business. And what a dirty business at that. Coming close on the heals of the FIFA corruption exposures, how Mr Syed can still romanticise about the beautiful game beggars belief. Still he is employed by a certain Mr Murdoch, sponsor of Sky TV's English Premier League, so I guess it pays to keep up the pretence if you want to keep in with the boss.

Lots of dirt emerged from the undercover investigation, not least the fact that it is very easy to buy two or more clubs by setting up a front ownership for the second club, even though this is expressly against the FA rules. Bryan Robson seemed to have no scruples in circumnavigating this inconvenient by law. Supposedly on Man United ambassadorial duties, Robson had allowed himself to become enmeshed in a network of Far East crooks, many of whom seemed to have made their money by illegal betting scams. Even Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to have been drawn into this web of intrigue, though nothing was quite proven in this respect, but the circumstantial evidence did seem a little damning. No doubt he will have his lawyers onto the matter as we speak.

A second dirty piece of washing to emerge was the frequent reference to the loaning out of Premier players to prospective buyers in order that they would have a good chance of being promoted into the Prem. Again, Man United and Sir Alex were alleged to be to the fore in this little escapade. According to our underworld contact, Man United would use its contacts with ex-United players, now themselves managers, to arrange this movement of players, or should I say commodities, from club to club. It may not be strictly illegal but it sure as hell stinks of corruption and immorality. None of this wheeling and dealing of course popped up in Syed's glowing account of the beautiful game.

A very worrying and revealing set of statistics did emerge from the Dispatches investigation, namely that 15 out of the 20 Premier Clubs are currently registered off-shore under shadowy unnamed owners and similarly, 17 of the 24 Championship clubs are registered in this way. Apart from the obvious fact that it makes the FA' s attempt to enforce the fit and proper test for club ownership near on impossible, it also makes tax avoidance that much easier for the secretive owners of Britain's football clubs. When Channel 4 quizzed the FA on these matters they simple shrugged their shoulders and suggested it was all beyond their competence and resources - which clearly it is.

Admittedly, many football fans are unconcerned about who owns their club just so long as the club can afford to buy and keep its top players and that the club gets its hands on some silverware. But in the long term the fans will be concerned when, like Portsmouth, their club falls into receivership and possibly falls out of existence altogether.

What is the solution? Obviously in the short term, the FA must get its act together and regulated the sport with vigour and clear-headedness. In the longer term, football must take a long hard look at itself and resolve a whole series of questions about club ownership. My belief is that if football is to regain its soul, every club must be, at the very least, 51% owned by its fans. I would rather argue for 100%, but I would no doubt be accused of living in fantasy-land and promptly laughed out of the blogesphere. Private ownership, if there must be such a component, should ideally come from local businesses that at least have a foot in the local community. What on earth is the point of winning if the ownership of your club is in the hands of someunknown murky criminal enterprise, and most of your players are nothing more than bought mercenaries. It will be a case of one set of fans cheering that their dodgy owner is more powerful than the opposition's. The local football content and the local community identity will have become totally irrelevant. Any intrinsic joy of winning against the odds will have been lost forever.

Having engineered ten consecutive victories in the British Premier League of Table Tennis, with the last two triumphs largely based on Chinese imports, I know a thing or two about hollow and soulless victories. FC United of Manchester are, I think, on the right road, and where they lead, others might want to follow.

End JPK Copyright 20/7/11

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 26 May 2018 17:14 )