James Lawton: As Pompey drown in debt, America offers a reminder of what 'league' really means
Saturday 24 April 2010
It doesn't take a lot to remind you that so much of English football is a wasteland of anarchic greed and utter disregard for the concept of fair competition. Unfortunately, this week of all weeks, the point could hardly have been made more emphatically had it been delivered by a flaming arrow.
That at least was the reaction here when Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini was announcing his plan to move for Fernando Torres at almost precisely the time the St Louis Rams, the most godforsaken team in the National Football League, were acquiring the services of the brilliant young quarterback Sam Bradford.
It meant there was a particularly poignant resonance to the fact that in a week when broken Portsmouth could as confidently contemplate a day trip to the moon as take a second glance at Torres, the weakest member of a rich and powerful league was again given huge encouragement.
Obviously, there can be no direct comparison between the recruitment methods of a club like City, benefiting so dramatically from sudden wealth, and those that enabled the NFL's least successful team to sign the best college talent.
However, the fact that the Rams, who won only one game last season, had the right to make the No 1 draft pick just happens to embody a cherished principle. Underpinning Bradford's move to St Louis is the belief that, however wealthy and popular it is, a league will ultimately only be as strong as its weakest link.
This is something English football might reasonably ponder at a time when Portsmouth's plight has been so grimly exposed, when, with supreme irony, the FA's head of integrity has decamped for embattled Fratton Park and its nightmare indictment of the Premier League, one which, according to its chief executive, Richard Scudamore, has no wider responsibility than doling out between £30m and £50m worth of TV largesse.
Demanding most attention, you have to believe, are the operating principles of an organisation like the NFL.
In this we have to say the Rams' signing of their star quarterback – who will be paid around $70m over six years – is merely an example of the thrust of NFL thinking.
Where do we start with our comparisons? Maybe it is the item in Portsmouth's accounts which tells us that more than £9m, or roughly 9 per cent of their total indebtedness, is owed to agents.
This couldn't happen in the NFL because clubs are not allowed to pay an agent. His income is solely from the player and not one cent of it is paid until all contracts have been vetted by a team of lawyers and accountants. The idea that an agent might act as a recruiting arm of a club, be allowed to cultivate special relationships with a particular manager or chairman, was greeted with disbelief by NFL officials at the time of the George Graham bung affair. "Say what?" said one bemused lawyer.
Portsmouth's catastrophe would have been averted had they been the Rams or the Buffalo Bills. The main reason for this is the NFL has a ferocious "fit and proper" persons test for all new ownership.
The motley gang of Pompey owners would have been unlikely to survive their first application under American rules, as would City's previous owner Thaksin Shinawatra.
Though Manchester United's Malcolm Glazer is also in charge of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the debt-loaded bid which made Old Trafford a disposable asset would have been thrown out in America. This is because the NFL will not permit more than 15 per cent of loan support for any bid. Tom Hicks and George Gillett wouldn't have made it past reception with their proposals for Liverpool.
All new owners in the NFL are required to give full disclosure of all their assets. If their bid proves to be solid, the league's 31 other owners meet to vote on the new man's suitability. He gets in only with a majority vote of at least 75 per cent.
Sometimes an owner is required to stand down if it is felt he has compromised the image of the league. This happened in San Francisco in the Nineties when Eddie DeBartolo, owner of the 49ers, passed control to his sister Denise after being implicated in claims of racketeering and gambling interests. The DeBartolo affair was by no means the NFL's finest moment and charges of compromise still linger but at least the matter was addressed, albeit after a fashion.
Another NFL policy is salary capping, though for next season it is waived until the arrival of a new collective agreement between players and owners. This dovetails with an annual TV payout of around £60m to all clubs and the requirement of the biggest of them to put 40 per cent of ticket income into a pool that is divvied up at the end of each season.
Note to Pompey fans: none of this has been made up. It is not a fantasy from another sporting planet. It is what happens when somebody looks into a dictionary and understands the meaning of the word league.
Olympics: Samaranch won few medals for sporting principle
Lord Coe, who said Jose Antonio Samaranch was a fearless fighter for the primacy of sport, must forgive some of us if we cannot quite so unambiguously mourn the passing of the former Olympic chief. No doubt sport's ultimate politician-huckster secured the future of the Olympics at a perilous time but the baggage of his success was for some loaded more with commercial booty than the gold of pure principle.
Indeed, his career was marked by compromises, not least at the time of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics corruption, which might well have led to his downfall rather than his canonisation. He was driven, it is true, to a strong anti-drug stance after the disgrace of Ben Johnson in Seoul in 1988 but by then the infestation by drug-abusing athletes was an open secret.
Samaranch, whose career prospered under the Franco dictatorship in Spain, liked to be addressed as Your Excellency. It was more appropriate to the leader of a rich super-national state than a movement of youth and idealism. Therein is the ambivalence provoked by his legacy.
Football: Benitez should be judged on what he leaves at Anfield
It seems that Rafa Benitez's impending retreat from Anfield has been painstakingly organised by his agent, a fact which no doubt will be saddening to the most devoted of his supporters who have long insisted that their trust in him was unflagging.
The Juventus hierarchy are no doubt hoping that if they sign him he will be able to reproduce some of the best of his work at Valencia and in the early years at Liverpool.
Certainly, Benitez has a compelling cv. However some old football men insist that the truest test of a body of work comes with the question: what did he leave behind?
The honest answer at Anfield is that it is the need for a fresh start every bit as compelling as the one he may find in Turin.
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