Umasking the Game
Evanna Ramly 
Living the Dream… Or Enduring the Nightmare? explores the ups and downs of foreign football club ownership

While numerous football fans grow up idolising their favourite players, not many think about the powers behind them. Yet, the money involved is so massive that it really does matter who owns the club.

“Back in the day, the directors and owners used to be nameless men in suits who would sit there and no one would ever look at them,” says Bob Holmes, author of Living the Dream… Or Enduring the Nightmare? “Even fans didn’t know who they were; as long as they kept the clubs running, that was good enough.”

Having reported on the sport for decades, Holmes came to realise that some stories behind football owners were in fact worth telling. “Roman Abramovich [owner of Chelsea] was the turning point when they suddenly became interesting. Not that he was very charismatic. They used to have a camera trained on him for the first three years but he never did anything more than blink, even when they scored.”

More such intriguing characters would soon follow, a real mix from different countries and backgrounds. “We had American businessmen, a Thai prime minister, Middle Eastern royalty, a Malaysian budget airline entrepreneur, and even a Hong Kong hairdresser, all attracted by the English Premier League and the appeal of owning a football club. Some knew what they were doing and some didn’t.”

Holmes is intrigued by the mix of characters that comprise football club owners today

Holmes took about three years and three visits to the UK to put the book together, speaking to the chairman, the directors and the leader of the fans’ group. “When you listen to their stories, it does sound like fiction sometimes. Portsmouth had five different owners in just over a year and one of them was on the Most Wanted lists of Interpol and Amnesty International for gun running and diamond smuggling in Angola. He was an arms trader and a philanthropist at the same time. He denied that he was the owner but then he ran for mayor of Tel Aviv and had to declare his assets, which included a Premier League club. His son was running the club but he was the owner.”

Then there were the good guys. “Sheikh Mansour has only seen one game at Manchester City but he has transformed the team from a bit of a joke to this mega-rich club now, who are probably going to win the Premier League this season,” he shares. “I wouldn’t say he hasn’t put a foot wrong but overwhelmingly he’s been a positive force. They have gone about doing things the proper way, consulting the fans on everything, even when they wanted to change the badge. Also, they have kept their prices down in spite of all the money they have; their season ticket prices are very low – that’s an example of pretty positive ownership. Of course, it’s for the glory of Abu Dhabi but if he can help Manchester City, it’s a win-win situation.”

Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, the owner of Queens Park Rangers (QPR), has also proved to be one to watch, largely due to his exemplary public relations. “Meeting the fans and drinking in pubs with them – they like that sort of thing. They did get relegated twice and were also promoted so it’s been a yo-yo existence for QPR. But he’s still got the fans on his side simply because of his excellent PR.”

Other fascinating individuals Holmes personally interviewed include Sven-Göran Eriksson, Garry Cook, Marcel Desailly, André Villas-Boas, Trevor Birch and Shebby Singh. “I also met a supporter who hasn’t missed a Blackburn Rovers game for 43 years, home or away,” he adds.

One wonders if there is an element of culture shock for some foreign owners when it comes to a sport as steeped in British culture and tradition as football. “I think there is,” Holmes opines. “Someone said that England and America are two countries divided by a language. We are not actually, but when it comes to sports, we are.”

Holmes is amused at how the terminology Americans use resembles a foreign language. “They think there’s no such thing as relegation and that there are playoffs at the end of the year in the Premier League,” he laughs. “This kind of ignorance shows they still don’t get it.”

He believes the Venky’s London Ltd acquisition of Blackburn Rovers was the most clueless. “Anuradha Desai, the matriarch of the family business, said, ‘I know a bit about sports – I’ve seen cricket and hockey but football no.’ And she’s taking over a Premier League club. It’s shown in the way they run the club. They really haven’t got a clue – it’s been a complete disaster.”

It is almost a given that club ownership is not always a business decision. Take, for instance, Thaksin Shinawatra, who bought Manchester City to maintain a profile in front of the Thai people. “Having been deposed, he was still hoping to come back and become prime minister again. He was advised that the best way of maintaining a high profile with millions of people in Thailand was to run a Premier League club,” Holmes reveals. “You’re guaranteed to be photographed; the camera was on him like it was on Abramovich. All he had to do was put the club scarf around his neck, stand up and wave to the crowd, and he’s got airtime. He’s guaranteed exposure in Thailand and that’s what he did. He’s lucky; he sold to Sheikh Mansour so he did make a profit.”

According to Holmes, football is something that everybody thinks they know better. “It’s a simple game and everyone has an opinion. The fans want to be the manager; they think they can run the team better. Something about it draws them in, even those who start off knowing nothing think they know something after watching a couple of games. There’s so much money in there now, you would think it would be impossible to lose money, yet they still manage to do so.”

Does the large amount of money leave those involved perhaps too alienated and out of touch with regular fans? “It’s an increasing problem,” Holmes agrees. “I’ve been shocked by close friends and family members who were season ticket holders for 20 years but have stopped. They are disillusioned by the money.”

“It’s a worry, especially when the behaviour can be appalling. I think it’s at a point now where, if they are not careful, the bubble could actually burst. The disillusionment is there; it’s rife and if there are any more negative stories, it will turn people off. They begrudge paying money to watch these guys, going into the pocket of some loathsome character who just can’t handle his money and behaves in a negative way.”

The authorities of individual clubs and the Premier League are aware of this but there is only so much that can be done. “They are not allowing the clubs to charge too much and putting in better facilities for fans but they can’t control the wages. This summer the transfer fees went through the roof and it’s difficult to see how that can be stopped in a free market.”

At the end of the day, like it or not, it is politics. “It’s all about putting a country on the map. When Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle, was criticised for not spending enough money on players, he said, ‘I can’t compete with countries.’ And it was actually a fair point. Qatar and the Emirates do it to make a political statement; an individual would struggle to compete with that,” he laments.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 258.