Fans pay for the success of the ‘beautiful game’

“We need a billionaire,” wailed Everton Football Club chairman Bill Kenwright, ‘only’ a millionaire himself. That was his response to the takeover of Manchester City by the Abu Dhabi United Group, the investment arm of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates.

Kevin Parslow

For the moment, City fans may well be over the (blue) moon about their new owners, which straight away led to the acquisition at the ridiculous cost of £32.4 million of Brazilian international Robinho from under the noses of Abramovich’s Chelsea. But they and other fans would do well to ponder what this and other developments mean for football, both in this country and internationally, and for the predominantly working-class fan base who watch it.

The Independent called it “a move that will transform the shape of global football”. In fact, football club ownership has been going in this direction for some time.

No longer does the local butcher, baker or candlestick maker own the local football club, but huge corporations, sovereign wealth funds and wealthy robber barons, who are taking football away from the masses and turning clubs into playthings for the rich.

All of these new owners have made their money by robbing and exploiting workers and the environment around the world.

Football clubs are now commodities to be bought and sold like anything under capitalism. Most of the new owners are from outside Britain. Manchester City was previously owned by Thaksin Shinawatra, multi-millionaire former prime minister of Thailand, who has been described as a “human rights abuser of the worst kind”.

When his ownership of the club came under investigation two weeks ago, he promptly sold out, making £130 million profit for two years’ ownership! Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, has few democratic or human rights and treats its large migrant workforce particularly badly.

Does this takeover of football clubs by wealthy individuals and entities come without a cost? Supporters of Newcastle and West Ham this week won’t think so, as their managers left, both protesting they had no control over the players bought and sold by their clubs, thus affecting the choice of players from which they had to pick the team.

The lifestyles of the top players have become more remote from the fans – we might admire his footballing skills but how can we identify with the ‘slave’ Cristiano Ronaldo surviving on around £6 million a year?

There are also huge financial implications as well, both for the clubs in general, and for fans. Commentators sometimes suggest there is a ‘bottomless pit’ of cash for football, as lucrative TV rights deals add to the influx of cash from the owners. But despite being owned by Russian and US billionaires respectively, Chelsea and Manchester United, the two top teams in the Premiership in England, have combined debts of £1.5 billion! In any other industry, bankruptcy would loom.

In fact, fans are being made to pay for success. Ticket prices continue to rise, which has led to a big turnover of season ticket holders at many clubs, forcing out many working-class fans who can no longer afford to go to a match regularly.

They are largely being replaced by those once described as the “prawn cocktail brigade” by former Manchester United captain Roy Keane.

Unlike the Financial Times, that suggested a “geopolitical face-off between two teams with foreign owners” might make football spicier, football fans want to keep the game simple, supporting their local club.

Economic and political developments in the world, not just this country, could easily throw many clubs into crisis if their owners decide that they can no longer subsidise the losses.

Then, big business’s ownership of football clubs will come into question alongside the existence of the capitalist system as a whole.