‘After Fifa, it’s time to bring reform home to England’: a piece for TheSecretFootballer.com

Below is a guest piece I wrote recently for The Secret Footballer’s site.

We are all piling-in on Fifa, Qatar and Russia – and rightly so in my view. But I think we need to guard against the idea that the problems are, effectively, the result of a greater propensity for and tolerance of corruption in other cultures. English football, I argue, needs reform now to safeguard it against following Fifa into the mire…

After Fifa, it’s time to bring reform home to England

With all the goings-on at Fifa, it certainly makes you glad, doesn’t it, that it could never happen here. Yes, thank goodness the Premier League is immune to avarice, free from egotistical Russian and Arab billionaires and run by people who care only for football.

Is that a cheap shot at the Premier League? Maybe. But let’s not comfort ourselves with the mildly xenophobic assumption that we are above corruption. Don’t forget that France and Germany voted for Qatar, Spain were trying to engineer some vote swapping and the English FA were courting ‘Jailbird’ Jack Warner, whom they knew to be totally corrupt. Sepp Blatter, meanwhile, didn’t want Qatar to win. He knew it would be a catastrophe but simply underestimated the willingness of the Qataris to pay for the votes they needed.

So, whether your response to the sight of senior football administrators doing the perp walk was outrage, amusement or resignation, the future of the English game depends on us facing a painful truth: the situation at Fifa is remarkable and bizarre, but it is not unique and unrepeatable.

If we let it, it could happen here as well.

Why? Because, while the Premier League’s problems are different to FIFA’s in scope and scale, the root cause is the same: a structural and cultural inability to resist the power of money.

Weak governance

We laugh at the tin-pot and secretive nature of decision-making in Fifa, yet the Premier League has no fan or player representation on its board and is led by Richard Scudamore who, when asked by The Guardian how he measures the success of the Premier League, replied. “Attendance No1. Global audience No2. That’s it. How many people are turning up and how many people are watching.”

I give him credit for managing not to blurt out “No3. The massive size of the TV deal,” but this is still an astonishingly impoverished view of the potential, the power and the responsibilities of football.

Perhaps, given his juvenile sensibilities and sweaty-palmed sexism, we shouldn’t be surprised he thinks this. We should certainly be alarmed, though, that, having shamed his employer last year, he found himself not dismissed, but promoted to executive chairman. This doesn’t just suggest a lack of moral foundation in the Premier League, but a deeper contempt for good governance.

The Financial Reporting Council, which is the UK regulator in charge of promoting good corporate governance, says that ‘the roles of chairman and chief executive should not be exercised by the same individual’ – as, in effect, they will be by Scudamore. Further, it specifically cautions against moving someone from CEO to chairman (let alone executive chairman) in all but ‘exceptional’ circumstances. Such actions undermine the ability of a board to hold its executives to account.

Of course, the Premier League isn’t the only body in English football where fans and players have no say or where bureaucracy is arcane and decision-making opaque. While we’re smashing Fifa apart and rebuilding it, we’ll also want to look at the logic of having an FA, a Football League and a Premier League. We’ll want to consider the makeup of their boards and the application of the Freedom of Information Act to them. And we’ll be certain to have proper representation of fans on club boards.

Self-regulation

While its members occasionally have their collars felt by the Feds, Fifa itself floats serenely above the law, enjoying a curious legal status that makes it all but immune to outside regulation and review.

Disgraceful. Indefensible. An invitation to corruption and mismanagement.

And yet, are things really so much better here? Time and again, no matter what the failing, football demands and receives the right to self-regulate. A right it has shown to be utterly incapable of exercising.

But there is no football reform bill. It’s talked up and promoted. Sometimes by people, like Tory MP Damian Collins, who really mean it. But it never actually arrives.

English football has been drinking in the Last Chance Saloon for so long it’s amazing it hasn’t been assaulted by Jeremy Clarkson.

Financial management

Transparency starts at the top. Which is why Sepp Blatter’s salary is apparently a secret even from the members of his own executive committee. Small wonder then that the billions that flow into Fifa’s coffers are about as carefully accounted for as Keith Richard’s royalty cheques during the drug years.

Swamped by the tales of grotesque excess, it’s easy to miss a sobering truth. The money stolen from Fifa wasn’t just for paperclips and the Christmas party. It was intended for football development. For pitches and coaches in some of the poorest parts of the world. It was intended to be used so that the billions who love football in Asia and Africa might one day see their dream fulfilled of having their national side qualify for the World Cup.

This shameful abrogation of responsibility is mirrored in England, where money is funnelled, albeit completely legally, into the pockets of the richest clubs and players, leaving the grass roots to shrivel. Drive past any recreation ground last winter and you’ll have seen that the current financial arrangements in England are simply not delivering for the tens of thousands of clubs and millions of players and fans who aren’t on the Premier League party bus.

And, when the last TV deal came round, what did we get by way of a solution? Rather than a properly consulted upon, constitutionally or legally mandated settlement, the Premier League produced an impressive sounding but vague announcement designed to do little more than head off criticism of the league’s finances.

This is the Amazon school of good corporate citizenship. Run from your responsibilities until public pressure forces action. And then trumpet your voluntary contribution as an act of great generosity, rather than quietly acknowledging that you, like the rest of us, must pay your fair share.

In the grubby world of World Cup sponsorship, meanwhile, it’s been noticeable how many brands’ values cause them, like Visa, to feel ‘profoundly disappointed’ by Fifa corruption but to remain blithely unconcerned by Qatari slave labour and the plans of the Russian dictatorship to use prisoners to construct stadia.

It makes you sick, doesn’t it?

And yet, over here, the battle to close the gap between the millionaire playthings of billionaires and the minimum wage workers who keep the show on the road is just as slow. Most clubs in the Premier League are now profitable. Players and executives earn huge sums. There can be no excuse, then, for not paying a living wage.

Richard Scudamore isn’t so sure, though. As executive chairman of the world’s richest league, it’s not his business to give a lead on these things. At least not until the sponsors begin to ‘apply pressure’.

And so, here as in Switzerland, football’s parade of moral pygmies continues to march to the tune of big money. We are still some way behind them, but we’re headed in the same direction.

Unless… as fans, we are prepared to say that Fifa’s problems aren’t a separate issue from the ills of English football, but rather a manifestation of the need for reform at every level of the game.

There are groups out there fighting the good fight. Community ownership schemes; phoenix clubs; campaigning fans at Blackpool, Newcastle and many other clubs; David Goldblatt and his Football Action Network. They need and deserve our support.

Because, as I see it, we can either reform English football now – or we can wait until the corrosive impact of unchecked greed drags our game into the same swamp in which international football is drowning.

The endgame has begun for Sepp Blatter and Fifa. The battle for English football is just getting started.

 

Martin Calladine is a freelance writer and the author of a wonderful book – “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL’ – which came out before Blake and Calvert’s similarly named book but has been tragically overlooked. If you enjoyed this, why not buy both books? That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.

 

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