Premier League will never be stable while Gulf states own clubs, warns Fair Square

The human rights group says nations’ involvement in football ‘leaves the Premier League inextricably entwined with, and exposed to, developments in the UK’s foreign policy’

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 17 March 2023 12:00 GMT
<p>The Premier League’s ownership model has come under scrutiny</p>

The Premier League’s ownership model has come under scrutiny

The UK government has been urged to prohibit and phase out state ownership of football clubs, in a letter written to sports minister Lucy Frazer by human rights group Fair Square.

It is stressed that the stability for the game called for by the government’s recent white paper on the future of football simply isn’t possible with the current involvement of states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as the non-profit body raise questions as to why it was not included in the document. FairSquare lays out why state ownership is “the greatest threat to the sustainability, integrity, and vitality of football in England and beyond” before calling on the government to “protect” clubs and the game with rules that “dissuade states or their proxies from even attempting to take ownership of clubs”.

The letter reads: “We are seriously concerned that there is no reference to state ownership of football clubs and that a proposed ‘fitness and propriety test’ adjudges suitability for stewardship of a club to be based solely on an individual’s ‘integrity, honesty, financial soundness, and competence’, and takes no account of whether a prospective owner is acting in the political interests of a state.”

Fair Square, a non-profit research group which works on accountability in sport and the impacts of authoritarianism in the Gulf states, then succinctly explains why state ownership presents such a threat.

“The arguments against allowing states to control football clubs ought to be self-evident, and result from the powers they can exercise. Only autocratic states, with power and wealth concentrated in the hands of unaccountable individuals, are able to sanction the use of sovereign wealth to finance football clubs. Autocratic states abuse their sovereign powers in various harmful ways. They use force arbitrarily and often violently to establish and maintain power domestically and to wage war abroad, and they have the capacity to dispose of vast sovereign wealth without any oversight or transparency. Their involvement in football leaves the Premier League inextricably entwined with, and exposed to, developments in the UK’s foreign policy. Their primary motivation for controlling football clubs is typically for the reputational benefits that can accrue.”

The letter goes on to point out how Frazer wrote to the sponsors of the International Olympic Committee asking them to press and maintain a ban on Russian and Belarussian athletes, arguing the government was “determined that the regimes in Russia and Belarus must not be allowed to use sport for their propaganda purposes”. It is put to the sports minister that “reform of club football governance in England provides you with the perfect opportunity to prevent other autocratic states from doing the same”.

James Lynch, co-director of FairSquare, said: “No football club that is run responsibly and in the interests of its fans and its local community can compete with a club that is run in the political interests of an autocratic state. The government deserves credit for listening to fans and there is much to applaud and support in the White Paper, but the powers of an independent regulator will be critically undermined if nation states control the top of the football pyramid, and the harms that flow from allowing autocrats to control the game go far beyond the reputational damage to the clubs themselves.

“This is a critical juncture for the future of the game and an opportunity for the government to draw red lines when it comes to state ownership, but instead it risks rolling out the red carpet to states that pose arguably the most serious threat to the long term vitality and reputation of English football.”

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