This subject of ‘Government Interference’ in football has been a prominent bugbear of mine for several years now; and as the members of the media, the FA and government persistently regurgitate the excuse that ‘Government Intervention’ is not permitted under FIFA regulations, this in many cases is little more than an excuse for not wanting to take responsibility in important football-related governance issues for whatever reason.

Don’t get me wrong I don’t wish to see government interfering in the offside rule, how leagues and cup competitions should be organised or indeed the selection of the national team (or its manager), but there are matters where time and time again the likes of the FA and other football stakeholders have either failed to act or are complicit in bad practice with no-one to answer to on matters of public importance and this has been recognised and acknowledged numerous times from within government.

 

Time for Government Intervention in Football Governance?

 

Intervention vs Interference, and Government vs Political.

I totally agree that sport should never be used as a ‘political football’ (pardon the pun), but the fact is there have always been times when a sport has found itself subject to political or government influence whether arguably legitimate or not. For example, nations boycotting an Olympic Games because of who is hosting the games, and reasons such as human rights issues like apartheid where several national rugby and cricket teams were not permitted to officially tour South Africa.

Now I am not a legal expert but from my research and interpretation there is no mention of ‘Government Interference’ in FIFA regulations, ‘Political Interference’ yes, but even then, the definition is quite loose and open to interpretation on how it can and should be applied.

FIFA Statute, states: 15 (c):
national association statutes are) to be independent and avoid any form of political interference;

On closer scrutiny, FIFA has arguably implied that ‘political interference’ is applicable to such things as governance structures within national football associations and that government cannot interfere there. And in cases where some governments have interfered in such a manner; by for example firing the senior officials of their national football association only to arguably install their own preferred candidate, FIFA has acted and suspended the participation of that countries representative teams (e.g. Mali, Kuwait, Sudan, Nigeria ) and threatened others (e.g. Spain

So, as you can see, what I interpret to be ‘political interference’ is very different to that of ‘government intervention’, and as such should a government adjudge such matters as mismanagement, corruption to be sufficient of public interest or a legal matter, surely there is an opportunity for ‘government intervention’ to correct things in the public interest.

 

Previous International Government Intervention on Football Governance

Just looking at the one governance matter of the player intermediary (agent) regulations alone this was acted on by the French authorities in 2015, and the Italian government in 2018.

The former implemented sports agent licensing when FIFA abandoned the old agent’s license and regulations effectively stating they did not recognise the new concept of ‘football intermediaries’ taking such regulation under federal law. Whilst the latter who accepted that the new licensing system hadn’t worked and ruled that they were reimplementing the agent’s license (of sorts), and other measures for the benefit of the sport and its participants under national law.

Did we see any FIFA action in either of these cases ……… no, so what is the UK’s excuse?

 

The UK Sports Governance Code – Does it Contradict a Lack of ‘Government Interference’

In my opinion the UK Sports Governance Code (SGC) is a step in the right direction for improvement of Sports Governance in the UK, as it amongst other things encourages conformity and structure in how UK sport’s National Governing Bodies (NGBs) should be structured and run in terms of such things as governance structures, diversity and equality with a focus on public interest.

However, it is quite frustrating to hear representatives of the FA and Government lauding the impact of the SGC on football and how they are strongly supporting if not applying it in football. Not to mention using the SGC as a means to negate and deflect from the subject of government interference in football (where it is arguably needed more than many other UK sports NGB) to the likes of the DCMS Select Committee.

By this I mean the FA say they are moving to adhere to the code, whilst the likes of the Sports Minister use the governance code as a means of explaining they have made requirements for the FA to follow and they ‘appear’ to be doing so (or will do in time).

HOWEVER, by the Sports Governance Code in (i) expressing certain requirements of NGBs (such as the FA) in terms of structure and (ii) making central government funding and support to NGBs somewhat subject to adhering to the code ……… is this not ‘government interference’ and thus a contradiction in the breaching of FIFA regulations when it comes to ‘government interference’ in football?

 

Poor Understanding, Apathy, Fear or Simply Selfishness

So where does the reticence of some in regards to ‘Government Intervention’ in football come from? Is it a pure lack of understanding and perspective, a total apathy to the immediate and subsequent problems, fear of upsetting the football establishment or just selfishness.

Having had the debate with members of the media, participants, and followers of football they have the resounding fear that England will be thrown out of the world cup and not be able to bid for future competitions on the basis of government interference. However, reflecting back on the interventions of the French and Italian government in football governance matters (as previously mentioned) has FIFA taken action there, and is this fear pure naivety and more an example of excuses from those who have a duty of care to football and its participants in the UK.

But probably what is more alarming is the total apathy expressed by some quarters of government and the objective of government officials to totally avoid being seen to interfere in football governance with the mention of ‘tough action’ being solely ‘lip service’.

This is all despite many hearings and reports from the DCMS Select Committees over several years into football matters and at times have resulted in stern warnings for football (the FA in particular) to ‘get its house in order’ and in 2017 ultimately a vote of no confidence in the FA was passed in the House of Commons.

Yet in contrast to the DCMS Select Committee (a cross-party assembly with limited political bias, and thus arguably even further removed from ‘political interference’) an array of DCMS Secretary of States and more notably Sports Ministers come and go whilst burying their heads in the sand and hiding behind the ‘Political Interference’ excuse conveyed by FIFA and then conveniently cultivated by others as ‘Government Interference’, so as not to intervene in UK Football matters. Personally, I have experienced this first hand with Government Advisors and indirectly Ministers choosing to ignore the problems and pass the buck to someone else, that’s if they even understand the serious nature of the problems and the widespread impact they have not solely on football but also wider matters of public interest affecting the treasury, tax and amateur sports.

Hence if the participants such as media and government actually opened their eyes and ears to the problems and chose to encourage action on the basis of ‘government intervention’ on football matters that are underpinned, financed and followed by a large proportion of the public, I firmly believe we would see improvement in the governance of one of the nation’s favourite sports for the benefit of the many and not just the protection of the comparative few who seem untouchable.