Whitbread used to make beer. They now own Costa Coffee, Premier Inn, Beefeater and other well-known hospitality chains, but no longer make beer. The ales sold under their name are made by AB InBev, a multinational conglomerate that sells more than 200 beer brands including Stella Artois, Corona, Leffe, Boddingtons, Budweiser and many more.
That is the way of the world. Though micro-breweries continue to start up and flourish, and some independents like Shepherd Neame remain, most brewing is in the hands of giant companies. It is the same in other fields: Dixons also owns Currys, PC World and similar electronics retail outlets across Europe; Jaguar is part of Land Rover, which in turn belongs to the Indian conglomerate Tata Motors.
Such consolidation is inevitable in a free-market economy – so why should football be any different? As the ownership battle for Leeds United has illustrated, increasingly, it is not.
If Massimo Cellino succeeds in taking over Leeds they will become the third Championship outfit to be part of a stable of clubs – Cellino has said he is in the process of selling Cagliari, the Serie A club he has owned for 22 years, but no deal seems to have gone through as yet. Watford’s owners, the Pozzo family, also own Udinese (Italy) and Granada (Spain), while Charlton Athletic were recently bought by Roland Duchâtelet, a Belgian tycoon who has become a serial purchaser of clubs. He now owns Standard Liège (Belgium), Carl Zeiss Jena (Germany) and Alcorcon (Spain) while his wife is in charge at another Belgian club Sint-Truiden, and his son is chairman of Hungarian club Ujpest (once known as Ujpesti Dozsa).
Having bought and sold a number of companies in other fields Duchâtelet presumably sees nothing strange in owning more than one club. Equally, it is perhaps not that surprising that Malaysian businessman Vincent Tan, Cardiff City’s controversial owner, has since agreed a deal to buy Bosnia’s FK Sarajevo and has examined a purchase in Croatia.
This is not especially new. There are already several sports entrepreneurs in England. The Glazers own Manchester United and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL franchise. Liverpool’s owners also run the Boston Red Sox baseball team. Stan Kroenke, Arsenal’s leading shareholder, owns NFL, football, ice hockey, basketball and lacrosse teams in the US.
Even multiple ownership of football teams is not entirely new. In the 1990s ENIC, the owners of Tottenham, began taking stakes in various clubs around Europe: Vicenza, Slavia Prague, AEK Athens and Rangers. Not all were controlling interests but when AEK and Slavia qualified for the same European competition Uefa realised it had to act to preserve the competition’s integrity. What if the two teams were to meet at a group stage, with one needing a result and the other already out? Skulduggery would be suspected even if it had not occurred.
Uefa introduced a rule barring any company having a controlling interest (more than 50.1 per cent) in more than one club. This ruling was backed by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. ENIC since appear to have gradually divested themselves of interests in any club other than Spurs.
An owner can still own more than one European club, but if both Udinese and Watford, say, qualify for the Europa League only one can enter.
The restrictions are tighter in England, with any individual holding at least 10 per cent of one club not permitted to have more than 9.9 per cent of any other. Robert Maxwell abused this in the late 1980s when he stood down as chairman of Oxford, installing his son as his replacement, bought Derby, and transferred Dean Saunders from his old club to his new one.
Such a move would now need written consent from the League, with the onus on the family member to prove they are independent – a significant clause, given the Belgian FA had an inquiry into Duchâtelet and his wife owning separate clubs and was unable to find a reason to prevent it.
It has not taken long for Duchâtelet’s multiple-club ownership to have an impact at Charlton. In the January transfer window five players were brought in from Standard Liège and Ujpest. Three of these are on loan and, following a rule change provoked by Watford’s wholesale importation of players from other Pozzo clubs last season, they will count towards the maximum five loanees allowed on the match-day team sheet.
Whether Chris Powell, Charlton’s manager, had scouted any of these players prior to Duchâtelet’s takeover must be unlikely. But it is the owner who calls the tune and – as with Watford last season – they could be good players. Said Powell: “It would be silly for us not to use the network because there are a number of talented players out there. Why not use that to our advantage? I’ve always wanted to improve the squad and the new boys are talented.”
Many clubs have informal relationships that involve loans – Chelsea and Vitesse Arnhem, Tottenham and Swindon are recent examples. In each case there is obviously a senior and junior partner, but at least the junior partner is independent. That does not apply with multiple-club ownership. This is not necessarily damaging, but could be – we will soon see, for example, whether Charlton’s new recruits help them escape the drop from the Championship, or precipitate it.
There is one new development in multi-club ownership, and this, perhaps, will ultimately be the most significant. This is the development of a brand. Not content with the Manchester City makeover, the Abu Dhabi United Group (now the City Football Group) have since started New York City FC and bought Melbourne Heart. The latter is expected to be renamed Melbourne City FC.
Their motivation is likely to be the further promotion of Abu Dhabi in the west, which appears the prime reason for buying Manchester City. In this respect it is merely a more subtle example of Dietrich Mateschitz’s use of sport to boost Red Bull. Besides two Formula One teams, he has bought football clubs in Austria, Germany, United States and Brazil, rebranding all of them with the name or initials of his energy drink. As at Cardiff, this has sometimes involved changing the shirt colours, with short shrift given to objectors.
While there are obvious advantages in clubs sharing resources and expertise, such high-handed behaviour is a clear example of the negative effects of multiple ownership. Yet while most supporters want their club to stand alone and represent their community, not a brand, the horse has bolted. Professional football is a business and subject to the same economic pressures as other industries. The key now is to ensure safeguards are in place, at a global level, to preserve the integrity of clubs and competitions.
Multiple club owners
Sheikh Mansour Manchester City, New York City FC, Al Jazira (Abu Dhabi), Melbourne Heart.
Pozzo family Watford, Udinese (Italy), Granada (Spain).
Duchâtelet family Charlton Athletic, Standard Liège, Sint-Truiden (both Belgium), Carl Zeiss Jena (Germany), Alcorcon (Spain), Ujpest (Hungary).
Vincent Tan Cardiff City, FK Sarajevo (Bosnia).
Dietrich Mateschitz Red Bull Salzburg (Austria), Red Bull New York, Red Bull Brasil, RB Leipzig.
1. Carroll case a bad example
A dangerous precedent is set by the FA in retrying Andy Carroll’s red card after West Ham threatened legal action. Carroll is not a victim of a clear injustice. He swung an arm without caring where it hit Chico Flores. The latter’s dive was appalling, and a yellow would have been fairer, but an offence was committed.
2. Fans’ racism shames Spain
Atletico Madrid’s challenge to the Barcelona and Real Madrid duopoly has been one of the most cheering stories of the season. Until, that is, their fans racially abused Real’s Marcelo and his son on Wednesday night. There remains something rotten in Spanish football and, presumably, its society.
3. Good grounds for standing
The introduction of safe standing is overdue. No one should ever forget the desperate tragedy of Hillsborough, but the circumstances prevailing then were very different. Stadiums – and the policing of them – have changed for the better. If rail seats are acceptable in Germany, they should be here.
4. £10m is a fat lot of use
The Local Government Association suggests the FA should pay for 3G pitches to replace council ones as ‘football is booming’. Sedentary lifestyles are responsible for 17 per cent of early deaths, costing the UK £8bn annually. The Government puts £10m a year into football facilities. Do the maths Mr Cameron.
5. Becks can do it in Miami
David Beckham may be a paparazzi favourite but unlike many of that ilk he is also a high achiever and a prodigious hard worker. If anyone can make soccer work in Miami, previously a graveyard for the sport in the US, it is Beckham. Expect him to succeed.