James Lawton: Gut-wrenching week for game, but the only new element is excess

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The Independent Football

These may be tumultuous and disturbing days in English football but if there is an entirely justified call for decency and some minimum regulation, there might be another one for perspective. Enough of one, anyway, to see that recent problems are not new. We are just considering a matter of degree.

Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea, is a Russian billionaire - nudge, nudge, say no more - but we ought to get it straight right away. He didn't exactly buy out Mother Teresa.

That view would certainly be endorsed by the investors in a failed Irish bank in the Sixties partly founded by the Chelsea chairman Ken Bates - ordinary people who were rescued by their government.

In the same way any sympathy that might be extended towards a now pitiful Leeds United, so comprehensively screwed by Harry Kewell and his hugely enriched agent, must be tempered by the club's own outrageous behaviour over the last few years. The Elland Road board are beyond sympathy, even pity. They are harvesting the seeds of their own greed and stupidity. Football regularly survives such folly, and it will do so as long as the game retains its beauty - though whether Leeds have any part of that future, or deserve one under current leadership, is highly debatable

At Chelsea, Bates spent many years lecturing in his inimitably boorish way the rest of football about the need for financial responsibility on his way to leading the club into massive debt - one that, in brief negotiations with Abramovich, was wiped away and with the bonus of vast personal profit. No crime and punishment hook, here, for a modern Fyodor Dostoevsky.

But then where else would you find it in football down all the years? Certainly not in the case history of Silvio Berlusconi, the master of Milan. He dug into his Citizen Kane media empire funds to buy success on the field en route to the premiership of Italy and the presidency of the European Union, with a little subverting of his nation's constitution on the way. It's true that Bernard Tapie, the former president of Marseille, was found guilty of rigging a game, but it took four years to get him into the jug.

The overwhelming point idealists have to absorb is that in football the customers don't really care about any moral underpinning to their club's success. They will take it however it comes.

Bates the blundering braggart was never the soul of Chelsea. That was Gianfranco Zola, the little man who offered football supreme redemption every time he ran on to the field and performed with such brilliant honesty.

Football will always have a life of its own. Ultimately, it is both ogre and spiv-proof. Will the fans of Chelsea reflect for a moment that their new sponsor acquired his vast wealth in a nation where doctors and professors live off cabbage scraps and regular citizens cannot take their old bangers on to the street for fear of being shaken down by corrupt traffic cops? Forget it.

This week the brilliant young West Ham player Glen Johnson arrived at Stamford Bridge for £6m while Real Madrid's Geremi followed close behind for £6.9m. Damien Duff is the latest announced target, and we know that much bigger fish will follow. Arsenal have told Abramovich that Thierry Henry is beyond price, but who are they kidding as they scuffle around to find the money for a new ground?

Sven Goran Eriksson has been chatted up and embarrassed - though quite why is something of a mystery in a business where job security does not exist even if, like Vicente del Bosque, another rumoured candidate to take over from the charming but apparently doomed Claudio Ranieri, you win European Cups and league titles on an annual basis.

However many alarm bells are ringing now, that call for perspective is surely well founded.

If Abramovich is bigger than anyone who ever tried to fashion an image and empire out of English football, his motivations of personal aggrandisement - and no doubt some form of profit - is scarcely exceptional.

Robert Maxwell, the pension-stealer, flew into Derby County in a helicopter. Michael Knighton, while an inch or two from persuading Martin Edwards to sell Manchester United for a travesty of its true value with a deal that fell down under the lightest questioning, ran on to the Old Trafford pitch in the colours of Charlton and Best and Law. That was before Edwards, who declared that just because he and his fellow directors were business suits didn't mean they were not passionately committed to United's future, tried to make the club an adjunct of the Rupert Murdoch empire. Sir Alan Sugar made a vast profit from Spurs after arguing that the club should use Wimbledon FC as its model - and before selling out not to some loaded dreamer, but a carefully profit-conscious business organisation.

Why should Chelsea fans lose a moment's sleep over the ownership of the club? Why should they worry how Abramovich got his money? How could it dampen their pleasure at seeing Henry run through an entire defence? What do they care about an auditor's report?

None of this is to say that it hasn't been an appalling, gut-wrenching week. The Kewell affair alone was enough to bring a shadow over the game with his agent flying off with a lifetime's financial security and Kewell, sickeningly, telling the world the thrill of his move to Anfield was tarnished by controversy. Let him linger in Leeds, tell that to a few punters and hope to get out of town in one piece.

At least Liverpool are happy. After serial over-spending, they have at least got something that looks like a bargain - and someone who, if he is played in his best position, wide on the left, might just kick-start his new team into something approaching balanced and creative attack. That would be one benefit drawn from the week in which football's only new crime was one of excess. Another would be some recognition that the conduct of the Kewell deal was a scandal egregious even by the game's own wretched standards. When the player signed his name, the case for reform had surely gone past debate.

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