English football’s reputation has been dragged through the mud once again – this time in a Hong Kong courtroom. Carson Yeung was sentenced to six years in jail yesterday, after being convicted earlier in the week of money-laundering. The court found that the former hairdresser laundered some £55m between 2001 and 2007. Yeung was described by the judge as “not a witness of truth”.
Yet this individual was considered a “fit and proper person” by the Premier League authorities only five years ago. Yeung became the largest single shareholder in Birmingham City Football Club between 2007 and 2009. His conviction leaves the future of the club, which now competes in the Championship – professional football’s second tier – in a pitiful limbo.
Birmingham needs investment after announcing a £4m loss in its most recent accounts. But an attempt by Yeung’s former company to sell a 12 per cent stake in the club to a Beijing advertising firm also fell through yesterday. And there is a chance that the Hong Kong authorities will seek to seize Yeung’s assets, which might include a soft loan he made to the club.
The ramifications for the wider universe of English football of this debacle are deeply uncomfortable too. English football, the Premier League in particular, has embraced foreign ownership of clubs over the past two decades.
About half of the clubs in the Premier League are now owned by foreign nationals. Some have invested eye-popping amounts of their own money, such as the Russian Roman Abramovich of Chelsea and Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour of Manchester City. They have won the gratitude of fans. Other overseas owners have been less free-spending. Some have even been in the mould of Yeung. Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai Prime Minister, bought Manchester City in 2007 and was convicted of corruption in a Bangkok court the following year. Portsmouth became the first Premier League club to go into administration in 2010, after being passed through the hands of a sequence of mysterious foreign owners.
The anger of fans towards the whims of benefactors is swelling. Vincent Tan, the Malaysian owner of Cardiff City, changed the club’s colours from blue to red. That the club has traditionally been known as the Bluebirds cut no ice with Mr Tan. “In Asia red is the colour of success,” he explained. Hull City’s owner, Assem Allam, an Egyptian-born British citizen, has also alienated fans in East Yorkshire with his determination to change the club’s name to Hull Tigers.
The immediate lesson of the Yeung case is that the Premier League’s fit and proper person test, introduced in 2004, is not fit for purpose. But it points to deeper problems around the central issue of football club ownership in England. The fact is that clubs are not conventional businesses, but unique social institutions. Whatever marketing teams say, fans are not just “customers”, but stakeholders too, and they regard themselves as such. Other countries recognise this special status and have much stricter rules on who is allowed to buy a club. The highly successful German Bundesliga requires that fan groups must have a majority stake.
With every high-profile conviction and fresh round of antagonism between autocratic tycoons and fans, the case for a shift in the rules governing English club ownership grows stronger.