As great power brings great responsibility, sadly, great wealth is often accompanied by surprising levels of corruption.
When English football decided to rebrand the old First Division as the Premier League, this opened the doors for stars from La Liga and Serie A to cut their cloth in the colder British climate.
With the Sky TV deal and the influx of ‘new’ money, the PL became the most-wanted destination for many big-name players by the end of the ‘90s. The world began to sit up and take notice.
After the turn of the millennium, some of those who had observed the growth of the Premier League’s brand from afar now wanted a piece of what appeared to be a very lucrative pie.
In 2003, Israeli-Russian businessman, Roman Abramovich, purchased Chelsea Football Club. It was the first instance of a Premier League club being owned by a super-rich investor.
Two years later, Manchester United was taken over by the American family, the Glazers, and in 2007, Liverpool Football Club was purchased by Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Manchester City was acquired by Sheikh Mansour in September 2008.
Some of these stories had a boisterous ending while others continue to this day with new chapters being added as each season passes by.
Chelsea fans, like Manchester City supporters, are inevitably delirious with how things have gone since the lucrative owners arrived on the scene. Depending on where your morals lie, you could be delighted with how your team has experienced unprecedented success since the money arrived. After all, as football fans, we’re only here to be entertained, right? Where does the moralistic responsibility lie?
That question is what led to the introduction of the Fit and Proper Person Test in English football in 2004. This test applies to all potential owners of clubs in the top four divisions and the conference.
Introduced to safeguard clubs against falling into the hands of corrupt owners, this was the first guideline of its kind in England.
The Premier League established the rules along with the English Football League (EFL) and the Football Conference. It was to apply to any prospective owner who would be looking to buy over 30 per cent of a club’s shares.
One of the main points of the test was that it was to prevent anyone with ‘unspent criminal convictions relating to acts of dishonesty or someone who has taken a football club into administration twice’ from taking charge of a football club.
In 2017, all 20 club chairmen from the league voted to change the rules to make it easier to block potentially unscrupulous investors in a bid to protect the competition’s integrity.
The vote gave the League “the power to impose such conditions as it sees fit in order to ensure compliance with PL Rules on finance, Owners and Directors Test, [the] disclosure of ownership issues and association and influence”.
With these changes, English football governance could now block takeovers if potential buyers failed to provide all relevant information, or if they did provide false, misleading or inaccurate information regarding their finances.
Now, the Premier League could also take into consideration any cases where an interested buyer had “engaged in conduct outside the UK that would constitute an offence… if such conduct had taken place in the UK, whether or not such conduct resulted in a conviction”.
If this law had been active in the early noughties would it have thrown a spanner in the works of Abramovich’s Chelsea takeover? How deep is the PL willing to dig into the characters and business dealings of these tycoons? After all, let there be no doubt they will want that person’s money. They just have to be seen to be ethically guided too.
A Chinese businessman, Gao Jisheng, made a move in recent years to take over Southampton FC in a possible £200 million deal. As it turned out, Gao had admitted to bribery offences but escaped charges because he gave evidence for the prosecution in two separate cases. It was actually Gao’s bid for Southampton that prompted the new rule-change to include the ‘conduct outside the UK that would constitute an offence’ ground rule.
As is often the case, greed has won the battle in English football for many years. Much needs to be considered with regards to the conduct of some of these investors and magnates.
Last year, a spotlight was shone on Sheikh Mansour’s behaviour along with that of his family. Will the PL insist that no matter what country and culture a client comes from they will have to adapt to a code of conduct set out?
It’s a tricky business and, of course, the Premier League won’t want to scare the money away to another up-and-coming league. There have been far too many situations where smaller clubs have been run into the ground, however. A corrupt owner can bring a swift end to a football club, wiping out years and years in a matter of months.
The Fit and Proper Person Test needs to be enforced while football in this country still remains a marketable asset. Stability is needed for all English clubs to prosper, not trying to make a quick fortune through sales to unethical businessmen and women.