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English football: Same old issues with a foreign accent

sports Updated: Aug 11, 2009 17:01 IST

DPA
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Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Fulham, West Ham United, Manchester City, Portsmouth, Sunderland and about a quarter of Arsenal: heading into the new season almost half the teams in the Premier League are in foreign hands.

Should English football be worried? Has it, as Tom Bower, the author of "Broken Dreams: Vanity, Greed and the Souring of British Football", put it, "sold the crown jewels"?

Is wealth generated by English clubs being sucked away from English shores?

Given how often the question is asked, the answer is both surprising and surprisingly simple: no, it isn't, for the very simple fact that English football clubs tend not make a profit.

"At the moment, the Premier League is ahead of any other football league in the world, but its revenues still lag behind those of major US series such as the NFL or Major League Baseball," said Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist at the Cass Business School, part of London's City Univeristy.

"On the other hand, it's growing much faster and it has broader appeal.

"If it continues to grow in Asia, and especially in China, then it could become the biggest sporting series in the world.

"These investors think the globalisation of football will mean much bigger opportunities to make money.

"Also, several of them already run sporting franchises in the US, and they think they can draw on that experience to make Premier League clubs more profitable."

But the Premier League is a different beast to the protected franchises of the US. Football has proved remarkably resistant to making a profit, and according to the most recent figures, Premier League clubs owe a total of 3.1 billion pounds ($5.2 billion).

The most recent figures available show that, of the sides in last season's Premier League, only Arsenal, Blackburn Rovers, Everton, Fulham, Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion were profitable. Not a single one was not in debt.

This is the great trick that Premier League football has played: its sense of glamour and style has pulled in foreign investors who cannot conceive how profits cannot be made, and has taken their cash in investments that, in most cases, will never pay off.

But even leaving that aside, are foreign owners such a bad thing?

When only 37 per cent of players in the Premier League are qualified to play for England, and three of the so-called Big Four, as well as the England national team, are managed by foreigners, why should foreigners not get involved in other areas of the game?

The Premier League is, after all, the global league, although that may change given the fall in the pound and the new 50 per cent tax bracket that will come into effect for those earning more than 150,000 pounds a year next April (by contrast, foreign players in Spain pay just 23 per cent, if registered as an executive).

The "fit-and-proper-persons" test is toothless, but then how could it be otherwise?

Football is not above the law, and the law says that anybody who has not been convicted of a criminal offence is entitled to buy any business.

But why, anyway, other than xenophobia, should it be assumed a foreign owner's intentions are less likely to be pure than those of a local owner?

After all, it's not as though a club owner can, as a foreign investor in another industry could, simply leave and relocate the business elsewhere.

UEFA president Michel Platini has spoken of wishing to "protect English clubs", asking what will happen if the television revenues - at the moment worth 2.1 billion pounds over three years - dry up.

It is a fair question, given the chaos caused to Championship clubs when ON-Digital, which owned their rights, collapsed, but it will affect British owners just as much as foreign ones.

There are problems and inequalities in the financing of the game that ought to be addressed, but it is hard to see any justification in making foreign owners the scapegoat.

Just ask fans of Newcastle United, Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday, Wrexham, York City, Brighton and Hove Albion, Derby County, Chesterfield, Oxford United or a host of others what they think of the British owners who led them into difficulty.