The title may seem pretty dramatic, if not emotionally incendiary to many football followers and it may also leave people asking who are ‘they’. And after many months (if not years) of frustration with football and many of its participants it has become clear that the vast majority of those involved in football look solely towards their own self-preservation if not personal profiteering for their short-term private interests.

This was summed up in a comment made to me by one of the mainstream sports journalists when discussing football governance and the integrity of the sport, who said: “because they don’t care, I’m afraid”, and in that, surprisingly, he included his media peers.

 

Football is just a game - they just dont care

 

Preserving the Integrity of the Competition

For quite some time I have heard the repeated line from the likes of the FA about ‘preserving the integrity of the competition’, but in all honesty how many football participants truly agree with and wish to uphold this view, with success, profile, sustainability, preservation if not competitive advantage are their paramount concerns.

For most supporters the emotional connection and investment with their club means that they understandably want success at almost any cost; whether it be a ‘sugar-daddy’ club owner who bankrolls signing a plethora of ‘galactico’ players, a consortium who racks up huge debts in the club’s name to win a cup or even the manipulation of regulations such as FFP (financial fair play) to achieve league success.

You would hope the supporters of many of the clubs who have almost disappeared through questionable financial management in the past would want to see the game better regulated and managed if only to avoid the threat of losing their beloved club again (e.g. over 50 league clubs have reportedly entered administration since 1984). But even then, the overwhelming appeal of league or cup success may ultimately skew the views and concerns of supporters who may have previously wept at the thought of not being able to watch their beloved club because of the imminent threat of a ‘winding-up order’.

The supporters ultimately entrust the game to the likes of the FA, UEFA and FIFA (enough said on the latter, given the investigations of recent years) to preserve the game, manage its best and maintaining the integrity of the sport, but does this truly happen or have the puppeteers and governing bodies of football in some cases become the puppets? Not least in the case of the FA who many now see as the puppets of the Premier League and FIFA rather than the National GOVERNING Body for the sport, whether amateur or professional; after all their motto is ‘For All’.

There is no doubting the strength and influence of the big clubs, their owners and in many cases the leagues which have undoubtedly been enhanced in recent years with greater finance and commercial opportunities. In some cases, a league is no longer solely a competition organiser but actually, in essence, a club cooperative in which the member clubs want to understandably protect their own status and interests. As an example some English Football League chairmen, I believe, would clearly state that the power of the English Premier League has rendered the say of the league clubs minimal, and ultimately the financial clout, growth, and strength of the Premier League has been to the detriment of the Football League and its clubs hence the desperate clamour of clubs to reach the Premier League ‘land of milk and money ……… sorry, honey’ sometimes at whatever cost.

 

The Curious Case of Wolves, Mendes, and Fosun

One case relating to the ‘integrity of the competition’, where I have been asked my opinion multiple times in recent months, is that of Wolverhampton Wanderers, their owners Fosun, and the agent, Jorge Mendes. This is probably because of my connection to the club (as a football supporter), my knowledge of the agent’s regulations and my skepticism of football governance as a whole (not least identifying the weaknesses in the intermediary/agent regulations).

On the evidence that has been openly available thus far, I can see no signs of regulations being breached whether they are based on FFP, FA Intermediary (agent) regulations, and even the objective matter of influence by an agent is again so open to manipulation and cannot be measured on a figure such as 5% (let alone any subjective judgement). I do have my suspicions as to how ‘loopholes’ in the regulations may have been exploited for the benefit of the clubs, players and agents involved but then again I don’t foresee any breaches – in the same way, the regulations have been exploited by others in other ways.

Whilst some representatives of other clubs are happy to ‘point the finger’ at Wolves and cry ‘not fair’, in my opinion with the evidence at hand thus far they should firstly be ‘pointing the finger’ at the FA (and FIFA) for poor regulations. With the intermediary (agent regulations) alone possessing so many holes, they resemble a round of Emmental rather than a robust governance structure for a major sport of huge significant financial and public interest. In addition to this, the various leagues and governing bodies having rules and regulations are so fractured between various organisations it makes it difficult to apply regulations effectively.

It seems that there is more regret from some club owners that they and their clubs haven’t identified similar loopholes and thus exploited them, rather than maintaining the integrity of competition and this in turn not only places a question mark of their naivety in regards to the regulations but also their own ethics in regards to the integrity of competition in to quote one of them “I want to understand the rules so I can act like them (Wolves),”

The whole matter of ‘exercising influence’ over a club’s affairs is more a subjective one rather than an objective one, as under current regulations and having worked in the ‘agency’ business for several years there are so many cases where agents and other third parties could subjectively be accused of exercising influence over the likes of managers, club executives even clubs as a whole often for their own interests and thus breaching regulations …………. but I would argue this is not down to clear breaches, but more so unclear regulations.

 

A Question of Responsibility and Who is in Control

So, whilst the football authorities flail about somewhat aimlessly in trying to fight fires (sometimes of their own making) who are they answerable to? In essence, it is difficult to say, preferring to pass blame and responsibility between ‘stakeholders’ rather than take responsibility. As I have queried previously are the likes of the FA truly ‘fit for purpose’, to what extent and where do they need assistance?

In light of this you would hope that the likes of government would ‘step in’ and address matters that are ultimately in the public interest (like they have done in Italy and France) as despite what anyone says the finance for football ultimately comes from the fans through such things as ticket sales, tv subscriptions, merchandise, sponsor affiliation or even gambling ………… and thus it is a matter of public interest.

We often hear the same old ‘smokescreen’ and excuse used by football and government officials (e.g. Sports Minister); that Government cannot intervene on football matters due to FIFA regulations on ‘Government Interference’. However, for some, this FIFA stipulation is somewhat questionable based on how applicable it is, it’s true definition and any differences between ‘Government Interference’ and ‘Political Interference’. After all, if FIFA allowed in its regulations something that was against the law in this country or allowed for prejudice against and/or exclusion of a specific group of people, would a government stand idly by and allow for it to happen and not intervene?

Not to mention the government announcement that no government or members of the royal family would attend the imminent World Cup in Russia based on political/government matters. Would making such an announcement via the Prime Minister be considered ‘government interference’, especially as one of those Royal Family members is also President of The FA.

Some may even accuse some government officials along with members of the media that they are shirking their public responsibility in challenging some of the most important issues on football governance and deflecting away from key governance issues either on the grounds of (I) the subject isn’t ‘sexy’ enough to address, or (ii) fear of upsetting the football establishment not to mention possibly risking their hospitality at football events and access to the ‘sexier’ football stories.

 

Football Governance matters in the public interest poorly presented

As I mentioned previously I started to compose this article based on the comments from a member of the print media (note this is a reputable publication) when talking about such subjects as agent influence, and the attitude of the media. And at risk of tainting some of the relationships I have with members of the media, they are many times guilty of failing to report or misrepresent on governance matters in football.

Now I appreciate most football supporters sole interest is to see the scores, reflect on the glories of their team in the match report or even savour the suffering of rivals…… but over recent years I have been saddened by how much neglect has been demonstrated by many media outlets in reporting on matters of football governance and the things that underpin the competition and game preferring to focus more on which manager has compared his teams playing performance by means of an analogy of say a ‘lobster and a lifejacket’.

It seems that unless there is an easy story that embraces huge public outcry and clear misdemeanors in football it is rarely worth column centimeters let alone column inches or a major article.

This was no more clearly identified than at a DCMS Commons Select Committee hearing in 2017 where mass ranks of the sports media were present to see the ‘grilling’ of a selection of FA representatives including Chairman and Chief Executive following in this instance allegations of bullying and racism. However, after a few days the whole affair seemed to be sadly consigned to the waste paper basket until the time when the next FA debacle draws their attention (which in recent times to scheduled as smoothly as a bus timetable), with the only remnants of the hearing being comments made by the FA Chairman in reference to the PFA and their chairman, if only to deflect from his own organisations apparent failings.

This was rather reminiscent of the previous select committee hearing in 2016 addressing possible corruption in football and poor governance, where instead of the media benches being packed there was only a handful of media in attendance, and sadly reflects the focus of the majority of media in not addressing the key regulatory issues that underpin the sport so many love. Instead of focussing on the stories that have been fed to them by preferred sources, or indeed those where there is a proverbial bandwagon to jump on.

This leads me to ask whether the focus of some of the media is to allow football governance failings to continue, in the hope it all blows up at some point in the future for their next big scoop such as the misdemeanours of a national team manager, allegations of match-fixing or a players gambling habit rather than address the problem early; no matter who the victims may be or the damage that may be caused.

 

Goes without saying football is more than just a sport

It has to be accepted that football as a worldwide sport, is now primarily a business at a professional level, and those who invest in clubs expect some return on their investment (however short-sighted an expectation that may be …. if you ask some former club chairmen and their bank managers).

Those who run football clubs have a difficult balancing act to make between satisfying the owners and investors whilst also satisfying the media and sponsors …… and last but not least the supporters. But as the financial implications and rewards in football get greater so does the need for success both on and off the pitch and to obtain a competitive advantage is very important.

For me, the purpose of effective football governance is to maintain the sport and as part of this its integrity for the benefit of all of its participants as without proper ‘caretaking’, ‘safe-guarding’, governance and regulations, many participants will suffer.

 

The Snake That Eats Itself

Many a time I have likened football to the snake that eats itself and although the metaphor of Ouroboros leads to a cyclical process and self-preservation in its meaning, the ultimate outcome is a certain amount of collateral damage as the needs of some are ignored and ultimately, they are excluded or lost with the tail thus being consumed by the head