THE BILLIONAIRES’ CLUB: The Unstoppable Rise of Football’s Super-Rich Owners
Bloomsbury, 2017, 330 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
At this stage of the 2017 English Premier League (EPL) season, it looks like either of the two Manchester teams to win the championship - and with barely a Mancunian between them. Both Man United and Man City have overseas owners, overseas managers and overseas-dominated player lists. The same foreign flavour emanates from most of the clubs in the elite competition – whilst only thirteen imports in the whole of the competition took to the field on day one of the season just 25 years ago, now 67% of players (and 69% of managers) are from overseas.
What the EPL clubs also share, not coincidentally, is wealth, loads of it – billionaires own the clubs, millionaires coach them and highly-paid players pull on the jersey. What, asks the British journalist, James Montague, in The Billionaires’ Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football’s Super-Rich Owners, has happened to this quintessentially English working class game of yore?
Big Global Money, that’s what. Rampant capitalist globalisation has opened up an international footballing meat market, turning the people’s game into a plaything of international profiteers.
The pivotal year was 2003, when Chelsea, whose EPL existence was threatened by a large debt burden, was purchased by the Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich. This shady businessman had graduated from minor ventures like rubber duck salesman (under Soviet President Gorbachev’s free market reforms) to staggering wealth from the liquidation sale of state assets at massively discounted prices to the most corrupt, greedy and politically-connected new money kings of post-Soviet Russia. Abramovich had scored a spectacular goal in picking up one of Russia’s largest oil companies for just 2% of its true, three billion dollar, value and he used this windfall to finance his Chelsea vanity project.
Abramovich has since splurged north of £2 billion on top quality international players, and the silverware has duly followed. Other EPL clubs have had to join the new financial arms race or die i.e. face relegation and the loss of their coveted slice of the EPL’s billion-pound broadcasting deals.
No longer can talented local lads take to a pitch which is now reserved for players with wage packets of up to £200,000 a game in a ridiculously overpriced global player transfer market. No longer can ownership rest with the “local businessman made good” (Man U was once owned by a local butcher) or even with millionaires; only the super-rich can now cut it – billionaires have bought outright, or own controlling shares in, fifteen of the twenty EPL teams.
The ethical price ticket of this money invasion is steep. Abramovich, for example, is from a long line of Kremlin-favoured business cronies with financially hazy pasts. Other fiscal felons from the global kleptocracy have embraced the world’s most popular sport for the sparkling distraction it provides from the financial and humanitarian crimes of the game’s new owners.
The former Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, for example, bought a majority stake, illegally using state funds, in Man City in 2007 to perfume his shonky human rights and corruption record. When a military coup ousted him from office and froze his liquid assets the following year, Shinawatra was forced to sell his footballing holdings but the ethical fog did not lift, however, as Man City’s new buyer was Sheik Mansour al Nahyan of the autocratic monarchy which rules Abu Dhabi, the biggest emirate in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (which also owns Melbourne City in Australia’s A-League).
The UAE’s grotesque wealth rests on massive oil deposits, a brutal state security apparatus, the outlawing of strikes and severe exploitation of the Asian migrant workers who build the leisured elite’s air-conditioned skyscrapers, malls and airports in 50 degree heat. In 2004 alone, the embassies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh sent 880 of their construction worker citizens back home in body bags. The price of a prestige English football club is a small overhead willingly incurred by the UAE business-royals to help cover up their failings in labour relations and democracy.
Qatar’s Middle East despots, too, are anti-democrats and migrant-abusers who know the image-cleansing and profit-protecting value of sport, including their (corrupt) purchase of the 2022 World Cup hosting rights, their sponsorship of some of the biggest clubs and competitions in Europe, the naming rights of Arsenal’s new stadium, and the acquisition of French power club, Paris-St Germain, an “asset just like any other” on the state-run Qatari Investment Authority’s books (alongside Sainsbury’s, Harrods, Barclays Bank, Volkswagen, Porsche and Miramax). Qatar Airways, the state airline which bans unions and sacks women cabin crew on pregnancy, is prominent in the fiefdom’s football outreach.
In the US, of course, the profit motive (well-honed in their domestic basketball, gridiron and baseball competitions) is central - the American owner of Man United (the property magnate, Malcolm Glazer) sees football as a pure “entertainment product” for commercial exploitation through advertising, television broadcast subscriptions, ticket prices and merchandising.
The fabulously wealthy elite of China, on the other hand, has to mix profit with politics (party approval at home and ‘soft power’ abroad) through its football investments. A Chinese lighting manufacturer (which also owns the Newcastle Jets in Australia), for example, signed a sponsorship deal with Portugal’s’ second division which required the top ten clubs to include at least one Chinese player. Meanwhile, to the background of the English and Chinese political leaders’ mutual celebration of Sino-Anglo trade and investment ties, a Chinese media mogul’s wise acquisition of a stake in Man City and a seat on its board paid promotional political dividends in China by procuring one of the rare slots (there are only 36 of them) in the English Football Association’s Hall of Fame for Man City’s Sun Jihai, a name not quite on par with fellow famers like George Best, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton.
It is not just the foreign rich who have compromised ethics. The British billionaire owner of Newcastle United, for example, is a sportswear retailer whose mega-wealth rests partly on a workforce exploited through zero-hours labour contracts and sub-minimum wages. A British steel mogul is an industrial-scale tax evader whose state-supplemented player shopping spree included the goal-scoring metronome, Alan Shearer, to take the unlikely Blackburn Rovers to league championship glory in 1995.
The money culture of football matters in many detrimental ways. Apart from the moral stain of an ownership wealth tainted by thievery and exploitation, the hegemony of money corrupts fairness through the ‘financial doping’ of teams to win titles and it concentrates success amongst the few, predictable, glamour teams.
Serious lucre also tampers with cherished football traditions, whether that be though altering traditional strips, colours and logos, or covert plans for a breakaway European-wide competition restricted to a qualification-exempt and relegation-proof elite of ‘legacy’ clubs, a mooted competition that avoids the risks to their rich owner’s investments from missing out on the existing pan-European competition.
Although Montague doesn’t address the deeper issue with the capitalist commodification of football - players as production inputs, the sport a media product, all run for profit – most detrimental is the disenfranchisement of local players and fans from a community connection. Cheering on the heft of the owner’s wallet and celebrating the international managers’ and players’ monetary valuations is hollow compared to barracking for a team that has an authentic grass-roots identity.
Montague takes some heart from supporter ownership of football clubs (AFC Wimbledon, Exeter City, Portsmouth) but this model is feasible only in the lower, cheaper Divisions, and even these people power football roots are fragile – Pompey’s rank-and-file (2,500 supporters with £1,000 shares each) yielded to the temptation for higher league honours and sold to a former Disney CEO.
In 21st century capitalism, football always seems to be an away game played on Big Money’s home turf. Still, there’s always next week, or next season, and upsets against the odds do happen, not just in the weekend kickaround but in the war between the classes as well. It’s all to play for.