Book review: Game of profits and gloom

Click to follow
The Independent Online
For love or money By ALEX FYNN and lynton guest

This is a football book of two halves. Broadly speaking, the second part rambles intelligently but unremarkably over the broad field of football worldwide while the first is an important examination of the theory that "where there's passion, there's profit".

The passion is that of fleeced fans. The profit under scrutiny goes to those who have invested in Manchester United plc or have financial interests in television. Few of those who are most deeply involved in the commercialisation of the British game seem passionate about it.

Rupert Murdoch has said that the outcry against his proposed takeover of Manchester United has been caused solely by paranoid British "hacks". If Alex Fynn and Lynton Guest, the co-authors, are hacks they are without doubt superior ones. Fynn is a rarity, enormously experienced in the commercial side of the game while remaining a committed enthusiast.

Unfortunately the latest twist to the sub-title "The business of winning?" came shortly after publication. However, Murdoch's attempted purchase of United merely adds further warning of the dangers ahead. Fynn and Guest argue that with high profits, United have no need to be taken over at all, let alone by Murdoch. Fynn said last week that there was nothing inherently wrong with a television company taking over a club provided it understood its responsibilities towards the fans and the game. The danger in the case of United was that Murdoch's sole motive was TV ratings.

The main accusation in the book (Boxtree, pounds 14.99) is that television has gone "from grateful servant to overbearing master". The authors confirm what many predicted in the early days of the Premier League: that "spectators are seemingly only tolerated in the role of extras on a film set, there to provide verisimilitude and a backcloth for the television spectacular. If they don't like it, too bad".

The major authorities, Fifa and Uefa, protect neither the genuine fans nor the roots of the sport. Uefa continue to enlarge the European Champions' League, preparing the way for a fully fledged Euro-League. But what becomes of the riches? The authors analyse United's experience and suggest that in spite of the club's huge income, they are restricted in ambition partly because of a wage structure which they are reluctant to break, leading to the world's finest players rejecting them in favour of Italian and Spanish clubs. That, though, is not the entire reason for United "probably the richest club in the world", failing to attract the biggest stars. For all of his managerial talent, Alex Ferguson is portrayed as a ditherer when it comes to the really big transfer opportunity. United's attitude is summed up in one paragraph. "It may be that United's destiny will never be fulfilled if the current strategy persists. This is because Juventus and the rest, unlike United, are football clubs first. While United never forget that football is their raison d'etre, their first obligation, as a plc, is to their shareholders."

As for the attitude of the football authorities towards the real supporters, it was never more damned than in the words of the Fifa president, Joao Havelange. Talking about the tickets fiasco for last summer's World Cup, he said: "In every corner of the world, there is television. Why don't people take a coffee, a beer, and watch? That's the modern World Cup." That's money talking.