Football's culture of greed will eventually have dire consequences, both for clubs and for those in charge of the game

Two men have presided over a period of financial crisis in their respective spheres, with large businesses being crippled by debt while many smaller ones hover in the verge of extinction. The first, Gordon Brown, became associated with crisis to the extent that he was deemed to be a liability, and has duly stepped down. The other, Richard Scudamore, chief executive of the Premier League, sails serenely on. In fact he’s positively bullish.

While Brown sought belatedly to curb the power of the financial markets, Scudamore is blithely unconcerned that the various banks and hedge funds that brought about a worldwide recession continue to play a critical role in shaping English football. In an interview with the Guardian published on the Saturday before the general election Scudamore even felt able to sneer at the popular response to the current recession. “I understand that the country is caught up in a ‘debt-is-bad culture’,” said the man heading an organisation whose 20 members have combined debts of £3.5 billion.

Indeed, he thinks the fact that some owners have been able to borrow vast sums to fund their takeovers is an “accolade” to the clubs’ perceived worth. As is often the case with Scudamore’s public pronouncements – notably over the “Game 39” proposal for staging Premier League matches overseas which was firmly swatted away in 2008 – it’s hard to gauge whether he is being evasive or is in fact quite startlingly naive. It doesn’t matter either way because the effect is the same.

Club football, in the lower divisions as well as Scudamore’s Premier League, is being corroded by greed to the extent that all the major events of the season, whether they are divisional titles, promotions, or success in escaping relegation, are judged by how much money will be won or lost in the process.

“Fourth place is more important than a trophy these days,” said Andy Gray approvingly during coverage of Man City v Spurs, the game that decided the fourth Champions League spot. This sort of comment is has become so commonplace throughout the media that it’s rarely disputed – and there is no likelihood of it being challenged on Sky Sports which holds a pre-eminent place among the Premier League’s many business partners.

While supporters of most clubs would instinctively disagree with Gray, they’re not going to be in a position to make the comparison in any case as there is not even the remotest chance of their teams breaking into the top four. That Man City were able to get close to a Champions League place this season was down purely to the largesse of the investment arm of the Abu Dhabi government, the sort of grotesque over-spending that Scudamore is happy to encourage. Indeed, he is busily engaged attempts to limit UEFA’s “financial fair play” plans, due to be implemented from 2012-13, which would not allow clubs to spend more than they earn.

Among the many reasons for hoping that the Conservative party were not going to form the next government was the fact that they have not indicated that they would seek to limit the influence that the financial markets are able to exert over football. Indeed they dismissed as “a gimmick” various proposals put forward by the Labour party which recognised that the sport has to be fundamentally reformed.

As was reported in WSC 279, Labour have suggested that clubs should be obliged to give supporters’ trusts a stake of up to 25 per cent in their clubs and that fans should be given a specific period in which to bid to take control of a club that is up for sale or placed in administration. Such moves would be resisted by the clubs Scudamore represents but the Premier League is not English football’s governing body. That role is held by the Football Association, which could be made to take a more active role in the running of the game.

It’s not as if they don’t know what is going on. Shortly before he quit as FA chief executive last month, Ian Watmore circulated an internal report in which he claimed that clubs are “at risk of the charge of unsustainably mortgaging their futures” by taking out loans to finance their running costs.

Scudamore suggests that for his critics to single out Portsmouth, in administration with debts estimated at £130 million, is “a disservice to football and to my colleagues because we don’t run the league like that”. But Hull City may soon join Portsmouth in going bust and West Ham would have been in dire straits had they also gone down. Scudamore will continue to insist that such cases are due to bad management rather than being inherent in the way the Premier League is run.

Given that the Conservatives have been returned to power there is unlikely to be any meaningful attempt to regulate football, so Scudamore is safe for now. But, as David Cameron will soon discover, financial meltdown cannot be media-managed or wished away.

From WSC 280 June 2010

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