Big money will triumph in this football match

Click to follow
The Independent Online
When big money meets sport, the result is not always a harmonious one. Ancient Football League rules bar an investor who owns more than 1 per cent of a club from owning more than 1 per cent of another. The rules are a little lighter for Premier League clubs, but not much. Here the threshold is 10 per cent for owning more than 10 per cent of a rival. The point of these rules, to use the pompous-sounding language of the League, is "to maintain the integrity of the game" - ie to stop match-fixing or similarly motivated player transfers.

In the old days when football was not a game from which anyone other than the top players expected to make any money, this was all well and good. But now, with the game's business potential well recognised and with so many clubs either listed or seeking a listing on the stock market, the rules are being tested to the limit. Sheffield United yesterday added its voice to the chorus of those demanding change.

There is no other stock market sector governed by rules of this type. Just imagine the outcry if Mercury Asset Management was banned from owning more than 1 per cent of Granada because it had more than 1 per cent of Carlton. As far as institutional shareholders are concerned, the rules are almost certainly unwarranted. It seems hard to believe that Carol Galley of MAM would attempt to fix a match because it suited her purposes that someone other than Man United won the League that year - hard to believe for everyone except Sir Rocco Forte and Greg Dyke, that is.

Many of football's new investors want to go further so that one football club can own or control another outright. The business attractions of such consolidation are obvious, allowing clubs to share the costs of marketing, merchandising, ticketing and other overheads. But does it make for a credible League? The dangers are as obvious as the attractions. Is it really possible for two clubs to compete properly with each other when they have a common owner and manager? Ownership of clubs would become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and the gap between rich and poor clubs would widen with the birth of nursery, or feeder, clubs, serving their larger masters. Over time the lower football divisions might disappear altogether.

There's not much doubt who will eventually triumph in this debate, however. As always, it will be money.