The GBP200m splurge by a few top football clubs to buy a handful of players, prompting sighs among non-football supporting civilians that the world has gone mad again, was lavished just a day before a House of Commons select committee began its inquiry into the game’s frenzied relationship with money.
As MPs ponder how to encourage “co-operative ownership of football clubs by supporters”, Roman Abramovich, the Russian oil oligarch who owns Chelsea, threw GBP71m into signing two players, Fernando Torres and David Luiz, who might help his club climb a place or two in the Premier League from their current position of fourth.
Chelsea chose the day of Abramovich’s extravagance to release their financial figures for 2009-10, declaring a GBP71m loss, despite the club turning over GBP205m. Bankrolling that deficit will add to the GBP726m Abramovich had already poured in since he emerged from Boris Yeltsin’s Russia owning a swath of the country’s oil production and bought Chelsea in 2003. Manchester United, top of the Premier League, were bought in 2005 by the Florida-based Glazer family using the U.S.-minted chicanery of a leveraged buyout — loading their own GBP525m borrowings on to the club itself, and its fans, to pay off.
Manchester City, currently third, spent GBP27m in January on one striker, Edin Dzeko, in the week the local council announced government cuts are forcing it to lay off 2,000 staff. City’s owner, Sheikh Mansour of oil-rich Abu Dhabi, has spent over GBP500m on transfer fees, player salaries of up to GBP200,000 a week, and repaying debts, to haul City up from ninth place, where they were when he bought the club two and a half years ago.
Arsenal, where the committee visited yesterday, are generally regarded as a model exception, a club not reliant on benefactor shareholders to subsidise losses, and with a manager, Arsene Wenger, who appears opposed in principle to alpha-male, Abramovich-style spending. Yet Arsenal do not quite merit the halo of pure sporting values some like to bestow on them. The club boasts rude financial health, recording a GBP56m profit last year. But this is largely due to having a relatively new 60,000-seat stadium with a south-east catchment area able to pay very expensive entry prices — including football’s first GBP100 ticket — which have excluded generations of younger supporters from the experience of watching a game live.
True, Arsenal do not rely on a sugar daddy owner, but their long-term English shareholder “custodians” have enriched themselves recently: diamond dealer turned Swiss tax exile Danny Fiszman made GBP42.5m from selling an 8% stake to the U.S. investor Stan Kroenke; Richard Carr cashed in for GBP40m to Kroenke. David Dein, ousted from the board in 2007, made GBP75m selling his shares to the Uzbek-Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, and was then widely touted as the perfect candidate to be chairman of the Football Association, the sport’s governing body.
The starkest fact about Arsenal, illuminating our upside-down attitude to sport, is that the GBP260m stadium in which Wenger’s superstars play hosts the only grass football pitch in Islington. Fortunes are spent constructing arenas for watching sport — GBP757m on Wembley, GBP500m of public money for the Olympic stadium, to be handed after 2012 to West Ham or Tottenham Hotspur — yet the education minister, Michael Gove, slashed GBP162m for organising school sport across the country, and council cuts will condemn the grassroots to wither again.
Since 1992 — when the Premier League broke away from the Football League and stopped sharing its revenue with the other three divisions — football’s bosses have claimed there is no alternative, that the free market and global sale of English clubs have made our league the world’s most watched and richest.
Then Michel Platini, president of Uefa, European football’s governing body, cut through with “financial fair play” rules, requiring clubs to break even — give or take EUR45m — between 2011 and 2014, or risk being excluded from European competition. Abramovich has said he supports that plan, but GBP71m spent in one day to right a dip in performance throws serious doubt on his commitment.
Sports minister Hugh Robertson has described football as “the worst governed sport in the country”. Its story is of an obsession with money, and great inequality between millionaire superstars paid by plutocrat owners and fans paying fortunes to watch — while the masses who play the sport prepare for years of underinvestment, by Robertson’s “austerity” government.
David Conn is a Guardian sports writer
Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2011