Law unto themselves

Chelsea’s conduct during the Ashley Cole affair has raised questions about the extent to which rich clubs can now push at the game’s rules. Mike Ticher wonders how much further they can go – and whether anyone will be able to stop them

To say that Roman Abramovich does not play by the rules is not necessarily an insult. Most men who describe themselves as “self-made” are happy to put their success down to a certain amount of, shall we say, unorthodox behaviour. But since taking over at Stamford Bridge Abramovich, ably assisted by Peter Kenyon and Jose Mourinho, has managed the difficult task of making Chelsea even more unpopular, not just by winning the Premiership but also by riding roughshod over the codes and practices of the football authorities.

The most obvious cases are the tapping-up of Ashley Cole, the approach to Frank Arnesen and the tiff with Barcelona that led to the retirement of referee Anders Frisk. Chelsea also emerged with a tarnished reputation from the attempt to lure Sven-Göran Eriksson, and may yet do so from the protracted affair of Jon Obi Mikel. Add Abramovich’s disputed connections with CSKA Moscow and, possibly, Corinthians of Brazil, and it seems fair to conclude that unorthodox may not be quite a strong enough word.

Football clubs in Britain have always been run by businessmen, often with less than spotless reputations. In one sense Abramovich differs from them only in that he has a lot more money. But whether he is more or less unscrupulous than football’s past overlords is beside the point. What matters is that football is now wide open to someone with Abramovich’s inclinations and reach, thanks to the dramatic economic changes of the past 20 years both inside and outside the game.

Football’s laws tend to get broken when they cannot be enforced any longer. Professionalism was legalised in the 1880s when it became impossible to ignore the extent of surreptitious payments to players. The retain-and-transfer system and maximum wage had to go in the early 1960s, when rising prosperity and the relaxation of wartime controls on the rest of the workforce made them seem preposterous. From the 1970s to the 1990s restrictions on foreign players were challenged, and finally smashed, by the freedom of movement enshrined in European Union laws and the increasing mobility of labour generally. It is football’s international appeal that now makes its laws, on player movements in particular, so vulnerable to someone like Abramovich. He is the logical outcome of the game’s enthusiastic embrace of globalisation.

In sports where the market for players, owners and TV is more or less restricted to one country, such as America’s NFL or Australian rules football, it may still be possible to enforce restrictions such as salary caps and player drafts that keep the competition more equal but offend against most modern ideas of fair employment practices. No such option is open to football in Europe, partly for legal reasons (within the EU) but more importantly because restrictions in one market would simply send money cascading towards another. And that money, for someone with Abramovich’s resources, can now be moved almost without restraint across national borders in ways that would have been impossible before the deregulation of financial markets that began in the 1980s.

The pull of his cash and the players’ ever-increasing contractual freedom are a combination far too powerful to be restrained by quaint rules such as those on tapping up. The brazen nature of Chelsea’s approach to Cole (and perhaps Rio Ferdinand) made it clear they were not too concerned about getting caught.

Abramovich made his money at a time when the rule of law was at best a shaky concept in Russia. It would have been difficult for him to do so without occasionally bypassing or ignoring the strict legalities. So it is hardly surprising that he should bring a similar attitude to football, where the so-called laws and regulations often amount to little more than custom and practice. And unless every dispute is referred to the courts, maintaining those customs relies on clubs and individuals accepting the authority of the various leagues, the FA, UEFA and FIFA.

That authority was fatally compromised in England by the creation of the Premier League, which gave the largest clubs the power to defy the governing bodies and get away with it. Now Abramovich has shown that the clubs can also take on each other with little regard for any independent umpire – only for who carries the most clout, which in the end always comes down to money.

How far can Chelsea go beyond the boundaries of what has previously been acceptable behaviour? Having taken on their domestic rivals and the Premier League and put noses out of joint in Europe with the Frisk incident, one of the few targets left untouched is FIFA. Chelsea are among those complaining ever more loudly about releasing players for certain internationals, and it would be unwise to bet against them forcing the issue with a more provocative stance.

If Abramovich thinks he can continue to flout convention all the way to the top, he is almost certainly right. No matter how unpopular he or his club become, it is hard to imagine them being effectively tied down by any rulings from Brian Barwick, or even Sepp Blatter. But if he continues as he has begun a tiny handful of clubs – an oligarchy, you might call it – will end up making the rules of European football to suit themselves.

From WSC 222 August 2005. What was happening this month