It’s a topic that has been much under discussion in recent years, and I myself, in the few short months that I have been writing this blog, have tackled it a couple of times. But the thing is, no matter how often people come to the conclusion that foreign investment in football is a bad thing, clubs will continue to try and sell themselves to a mega rich investor. Clubs know that money will play a huge role in determining their success on the pitch.
It is important to distinguish at this point though, that my title is not absolute and objective in it’s stance. I do believe, and intend to argue, that foreign investment, by which I mean the heavy financial involvement in British clubs of men who have no history in football never mind with that particular club, is a bad thing. However, I will acknowledge that sometimes, foreign investment can be a positive thing for a club, but that this is a worryingly rare occurrence. For instance, I believe that Aston Villa landed on their feet when Randy Lerner bought their club as he has proved a sensible and withdrawn owner, willing to back but not insistent upon ‘making waves’. However, this seems to be very much the minority, with other foreign owners seeming to cause nothing but trouble, as I suggested the other day.
Reading through the BBC’s football news this morning though, I happened across a piece that revealed a supposed attempt to buy Chelsea being lined up by one of the investors from the Abu Dhabi group who have so recently sent shock waves around the football world with their audacious and downright ludicrous bid for Kaka. If true, this story is shocking in two ways: firstly, Chelsea are already probably the second richest club in the world, despite Roman Abromovich’s stock having fallen a little with the economic crisis; but secondly (and mainly) because of a quote that was given by the investor in question at the end of the article:
“You don’t make money because 11 guys run around the pitch, you make money because of all the other commercial aspects that go with a football club, particularly real estate and television rights.” – Dr Sulaiman al-Fahim.
When I read this, it simply confirmed my fears that have been growing steadily for years, as the influx of foreign investment into the British game has increased exponentially. There is something about that quote that just seems innately wrong, completely at odds with our game and the proper attitude that should be held towards it, especially by those who are involved on the inside, those running the game.
Of course, we all know that these investors are so keen to jump on the football bandwagon because it is such a big business. There is lots of money and football, incredible amounts even, and with a sharp business mind, a clever investor can reap massive personal reward from the game. That is OK to an extent. We know that in the end, they’re in it for themselves, but on the whole, an investor will benefit the club he is investing in too. To being about such a gain for himself usually implies some initial financial input which helps the stock of the club rise through good performance and success.
However, Fahim’s comments show that he does not really see it this way. He is clearly only interested in the money side of things, which is only to be expected, but his declaration that you only make money because of all the “commercial aspects” rather than “because 11 guys run around the pitch” are worrying indeed. He seems to be forgetting that were it not for the “11 guys running around the pitch” there would be no “commercial aspects” to speak of in the first place.
This is the really distressing thing about these investors. They see the football, the actual game, the sport, the thing that we watch, the thing we love, the thing that we are so passionate about, as something that merely exists to help them make money. It is to them, merely a background occurrence, a necessity, a cog in their money making machine. Oh yes, they know that it is essential, that without that cog their machine would be useless, but they do not care in which direction the cog is moving. As long as the machine still functions, they could not care less about the football.
Of course, the ironic and most distressing part of the whole diabolical situation is that with this neglect of the football side of things, with their apathy towards the actual game itself, the fortunes of their club on the field are likely to plummet dramatically. This will ultimately and eventually render the club as a whole useless as a money making machine and thus their cogs will cease to turn. But the terrible thing is that by that point, the businessmen invested in the club will have sucked it dry of everything it had anyway. It will have made them a steady amount of money over the years and so when things are drying up they will simply walk away, leaving the club up the proverbial creek.
And then there will be no one left to the club but the fans. Those fans who bankrolled the machine, who kept it going, who stayed loyal to the club despite the owners greedy and money-obsessed antics. The fans who watched their clubs performances falter and dip, who have seen their club fall into financial turmoil. They will still be there, depressed and distraught but as faithful as ever, with a shell of a club, the shadow of its former self.
What these businessmen don’t realise is that the true value of football is not the “commercial aspects” like “real estate” and “television rights”. Yes, these things are big business and involve a lot of cash, but they are not the heart of it. The only reason they exist in the first place is because of the football. There was a time when footballers earned a normal salary. When the players were normal people, and matches on television were a rare occurrence. But we fell in love with the game. It captured our hearts and our imagination, and so it gradually became more and more like the game we know today.
But it was a slow process. And the only reason anyone was interested at all was the football. People loved to watch the game played, so would pay to watch it broadcast live on TV. Even more so, people loved the atmosphere of going to a match, so clubs built big stadiums so that more people could see the games. They liked to see the game played well, so more and more money was shelled out for the services of the best players. That is why there are “commercial aspects”, that is why there are “real estate” assets and “television rights” deals. Without the football, there would be no money.
And without the football, there would be no investors. The problem is that these investors don’t realise that. Fahim doesn’t realise that the football won’t just go on forever in the background. If he ignores it and lets it stagnate, the club will die. If it happens at more clubs, the game as a whole in Britain will start to decay and crumble. The competitiveness will go out of it, and it will become boring and lose its appeal. Fans will drift away, no one will pay to watch it on TV, much less pay exorbitant prices to watch it live. And suddenly, there will be no money in football anymore.
Unfortunately, it seems to me at this point that the game can’t exist without money. It cannot return to the way it was before the Premier League era. It cannot return to normality. If the money went out of the game, it would die altogether now. So these foreign owners will not just slowly kill the clubs they invest in, milking them for all the profit they have and leaving them hollow and defeated. They will eventually kill the game itself, unless they begin to realise that there is more to football than money. The two must coexist now, they have developed a dependence upon one another, but just as football will die if it loses the money, so will their money die if football runs out of steam.
Unless Fahim and others like him then are able to realise the true value of the game, where the real money and value lies, their money-making exploits will eventually be extinct. Unless they realise what we the fans have always know, that football is about “11 guys run[ing] around the pitch” their ventures will fail. But they won’t break sweat. They’ve already got enough money, which is what they care about. But we must hope they realise it, because otherwise, what we care about, our game and our clubs, will end up dead, broken and deflated. Quite literally, football will be robbed of it’s heart.