Simon & Schuster, £17.99

Broken Dreams: vanity, greed and the souring of British football by Tom Bower

The ugly side of the beautiful game

If it is true that only death and taxes are certainties, then nobody had factored football into the equation. Tom Bower takes football's creation of immortality and glory for granted. It is the avoidance of taxes, records and invoices that interests him. And even Bower, the man who forensically decomposed the rotting carcass of the Maxwell empire is amazed at what he finds, and what he cannot find.

At Leeds, whose finances and performances are virtually bankrupt, the fans have been singing "Where's the money gone?". Bower has looked for it, and we are all in his debt for doing so. While much of the writing on football's finances has blamed Sky and the Premier League for opening the floodgate of commercialisation, Bower looks at what happens to the cash once it arrives at the clubs.

A great deal goes into the bank accounts of leading players, but great chunks of cash – yes, I do mean bundles – end up elsewhere. Twenty years ago, in the era of Tommy Docherty and Brian Clough, paper bags and service stations were the preferred route. These days, as befits a sector of the global entertainment industry, untraceable foreign accounts, offshore companies and blind trusts are preferred.

In charting the financial careers of some of the era's leading managers, agents and owners, Bower reveals a systematic culture of bungs, sweeteners, undeclared payments, off-book loans and gifts. Desperate for instant talent, but unable to identify it or operate in foreign markets, clubs have depended upon a new breed of powerful agent whose capacity to skim off a profit, arrange side payments and be paid by both sides in a deal is breathtaking.

But the unscrupulous greed of much of football's élite is exceeded by the complicity of its regulators and guardians, the FA, and the naivety and cowardice of politicians. Bower shows that there is enough whitewash at the FA's Soho Square HQ to mark out every pitch in the country. Only the sacrificial lambs of lower-league football, with their petty misdemeanours and arson attempts, get brought to book.

Given the insidious collective silences of football's inner circle and the supine amateurism of the FA, this is hardly surprising. But New Labour, armed with reforming zeal and the power of the state, has fared no better. Bower brilliantly recounts how its attempts to reform the game through the Football Task Force and the creation of an independent regulator were rebuffed by the Premier League. The Government's incompetent, reactive involvement in the doomed bid for the 2006 World Cup and the chaos of the Wembley redevelopment show who the real masters are.

Bower's conclusion argues that football "mirrors pertinent truths about Britain". If so, we live in a time in which private networks of power and privilege can defy the state; the principles of accountability and transparency in public life can be flouted with ease; and the powerful and glamorous are rewarded excessively for their triumphs, but never seem to pay for their failings.

The reviewer's 'World Football Yearbook' is published by Dorling Kindersley

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