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Are foreign owners harming English football?

English football was once known for its ability to embed itself in its surrounding communities. With clubs played for their fans, owners understood the culture behind the clubs and fully represented their supporters’ interests, and fans gave them their almost religious support in return.

Roman Abramovich is the most famous foreign owner in English football
Roman Abramovich is the most famous foreign owner in English football

In the last decade however a trend has started growing where foreigners who, in most cases have no prior experience in the sport or understanding of the club’s local area, are replacing these home grown owners. Critics have attributed the ever-increasing gap between club and fans to foreign ownership, but how much has this factor actually played in the creation of “modern football”?

The most famous of these foreign owners is Russian businessman and multi-billionaire, Roman Abramovich. Before Abramovich took control of Chelsea in the summer of 2003, the side had been through a period of decline for the best part of two decades. Abramovich started pouring money into the club with the aim of putting them on the same commercial standing of other clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid.

During his tenure as owner, Chelsea have been hugely successful, winning both the Premier League and Champions League titles. At first glance, it would appear that Abramovich’s ownership has ushered in a great period for the club, but at what cost?

Abramovich has been blamed for the distortion of the world transfer market and for the initial inflation of players’ wages. In the year ending June 2005, Chelsea posted then record losses of £140m, a figure that was hugely worrying for the club’s fans.

He has been accused of showing no understanding of how the club is run, and came under extreme criticism from the fans surrounding the departure of Jose Mourinho in 2007, and then again in November 2012 when he sacked Champions League winning manager, Roberto Di Matteo. In replacing Di Matteo, he showed no apparent care for the feelings of the supporters when he appointed Rafa Benitez, the man who had helped build a rivalry between Chelsea and the Spaniard’s then club, Liverpool.

Liverpool have had their own troubles with foreign ownership in the last ten years. American businessmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett bought the club from David Moores, whose family had owned the club for over 50 years, in 2007. They declared that they wanted to gain silverware for the club and invest in the team to make them regular title challengers again, as well as promising to build a new stadium while not placing any debt on the club.

Hicks and Gillett often fell out with each other publicly and failed to deliver on any of the promises they had made to the supporters. As well as this, Hicks showed complete disregard for the club’s past and traditions when he launched an attack on the club’s then chief executive, Rick Parry, just hours after the memorial service for the 19th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.

Paul Gardner is the secretary at Liverpool supporters’ campaign group, Spirit of Shankly, who protested against Hicks and Gillett during their time at the club. When asked about the impact the two owners had on Liverpool, Gardner was less than complimentary. “Hicks and Gillett were massively detrimental to the club. Within a year we owed over £40m to the bank – money that was supposedly going towards investment in players and a new stadium,” he said.

“I don’t think they showed any intention of representing the fans’ wishes,” he said, adding, “They might have said the odd word to make it look like they were doing that – obviously, they had the stadium designs that they kept showing and then drew up new ones because the Kop (Liverpool’s world famous stand where the most dedicated of supporters sit) was supposedly no longer the centre piece in the old design, saying things like the Kop was the “opera hall of the city” etc.”

Gardner tried to give examples of the kind of methods that the owners would use to show fans they were on their side. “They tried to do other things where, for example, Tom Hicks would be interviewed while holding a Liverpool coffee mug,” he commented. Gardner added however that, “it wasn’t long before fans realised the two didn’t mean anything they said and these were simply PR goals they were trying to achieve.”

By the time they were forced to sell their shares, Liverpool were in the region of £200m in debt as a direct result of the loans they had failed to pay back to the bank and the asset-stripping that the two owners had been carrying out at the club. Hicks and Gillet had been completely detrimental to the progress of the club and at the time of the sale to John W. Henry’s Fenway Sports Group, it was revealed that Liverpool were on the verge of administration as a direct result of their actions.

There have been other disaster stories concerning foreign owners in English football. Blackburn Rovers, owned by Indian poultry firm Venkys, have been relegated to the Championship since the takeover and have had five different managers since the start of their tenure, prompting public rage from the club’s fans who feel the owners are completely out of touch with their wishes. Portsmouth have went through successive administrations at the hands of foreign owners and now find themselves in League 2 after being in the Premier League just a few years ago.

There has been much talk and commentary over the last few years on how the situation surrounding football in England and the impact on fans could improve. One suggestion has been to look at how football clubs are run in Germany’s Bundesliga, and how German football is run in general.

Ross Dunbar is the editor of British based website, www.bundesligafootball.co.uk. He provided some clarity on how clubs in Germany operate, saying, “Essentially, the clubs must conform to licensing requirements of the Deutsche-Fussball Liga who govern the top 36 league clubs in the Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga,” adding, “It’s a very strict setup. On a yearly basis, you’ll see clubs, and relatively big ones, not able to meet the requirements, such as, Arminia Bielefeld in recent seasons.”

Speaking of the need to represent the wishes of fans for German clubs, Dunbar said, “It’s crucial in fan-owned clubs. The fans (or members) just wouldn’t allow that to happen.” He elaborated as to where something like this would come into effect, saying, “Take the idea of renaming a stadium, as an example. Kaiserslautern’s fans will simply not entertain this because their ground is named after Fritz-Walter, arguably, the greatest and most famous German player of all-time.”

Dunbar said that German clubs strive to have as much input from the supporters as possible on how they move forward, saying, “The use of Fan Liaison Officers and membership boards, etc., adds a degree of transparency and fan engagement as well.”

Fan ownership has been touted as a way of bringing English clubs closer to their supporters again, but Chelsea fan Stuart Campbell was cautious about the concept’s viability in this country. “Without substantial investment up front it would take time to really get the club into a safe position with fan ownership and time is not something you really get at British clubs,” he said.

Paul Gardner however, said that fan ownership is the ultimate aim of Spirit of Shankly and added, “Essentially that’s a mixture of domestic and foreign ownership in regards to Liverpool’s supporters.” In regards to adopting the same approach used in Germany, he said, “The German model is a good template however, I do think that in this country a system similar to the one used over there would have to be adopted on a club by club basis, rather than across the entire league structure as a whole.

Going back to the original question then, of whether foreign investment is harming English football, Gardner said, “The main thing that’s being shown now is that it’s not about domestic or foreign ownership, but whether the people who are in charge actually care about the club.” He added, “You also have to define what’s good about the two models. You look at Chelsea and Manchester City who have had a lot of success, but at cost of losing their traditional identities.”

Campbell was more accepting of the role foreign investors can play at a club, saying, “I think foreign owners are ok as long as the club keeps its identity,” but warned of the dangers involved, adding, “If you look at Chelsea and Manchester United, in my opinion they don’t really have much of their traditions anymore because of these foreign owners that are trying to buy their way to the top.”

It seems that as more and more money comes in to the English game and more clubs become commercially attractive, more foreign investors will approach with offers of ownership. Another way of fixing the problem could indeed be to adopt the fan ownership model that Paul Gardner advocates, and the troubles that marred clubs such as Liverpool could be a thing of the past. However, as businessmen and women who only look out for their own interests run most clubs in the country, progress will be slow.

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