Atmosphere clears to expose foul and corrosive fog of money in football | Simon Burnton

From Newcastle’s takeover to wage deferral dramas, obsessions with the bottom line are in sharp focus without on-field action

Sir Keir Starmer’s first outing at prime minister’s questions in midweek was enlightening, in a number of ways. The content of his exchanges with the government’s stand-in shot-stopper Dominic Raab is best discussed outside the sports pages – though I’d summarise it as a knight against the benighted – but the atmosphere also intrigued. For there was hardly anybody there, a scant scattering of suited souls in the historic old chamber while the rest called in their questions, a situation that contrasted with the appearances in the same forum of some modern PMs, who have metaphorically phoned in their answers.

The absence of so many people resulted in a lack of the noise and bluster they normally bring with them. The whole thing was of course less of a spectacle as a result – with not as much to see and hear to distract us from the fact that watching a bloke talk evasively is not in itself particularly exciting – but also more instructive. With nothing to watch but the action, and denied the shortcut of ranking contributions by the amount of cheering and paper-waving they provoke, observers were left with no way of judging anything except by its own merits.

Residents of cities around the world are reporting that the reduction in pollution during lockdowns has allowed them to see clearly for the first time in years, and viewers of the action in parliament found themselves experiencing, in a manner of speaking, a remarkably similar phenomenon. But the situation facing football is precisely the opposite: deprived of the action that once entertained us, now all we can see is the pollution that surrounds it.

It would be easy to go overboard here, ignoring the fact that clubs are at heart relatively small-scale community organisations largely staffed by considerate people. Hence initiatives such as #PlayersTogether, launched this month by the 20 captains of Premier League teams, and all sorts of smaller, less publicity-hungry schemes including antenatal appointments being quietly relocated from North Middlesex University hospital to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, David Moyes delivering fruit and veg to Lancashire residents, and Watford providing food and refuge for staff at the neighbouring hospital. But it is also impossible to avoid the conclusion that at some level above this sport hangs a foul and corrosive fog.

The Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund’s attempt to buy Newcastle United is the latest kick in English football’s moral goolies, an ordeal the sport has repeatedly submitted itself with apparent alacrity but of which one can only hope it will one day tire.

Newcastle’s potential sale brought protests from Amnesty International, protests about Amnesty International from the portion of Newcastle fans who have already decided that getting rid of Mike Ashley is worth the occasional mass execution, and an angry letter from Yousef al-Obaidly, chief executive of the Doha-based broadcaster beIN Sports, telling the Premier League and its constituent clubs that “the industrial-scale theft of the Premier League’s intellectual property by Saudi Arabia” – in the shape of state-endorsed unofficial match broadcasts – “is, sadly, now notorious”. Obaidly, who also sits on the board of directors at Paris Saint-Germain, was last in the news in 2019, when he was reported to be under judicial investigation in France for “aggravated money laundering”, related to Doha’s bid for the World Athletics Championships. He “completely and categorically denied” the allegations.

Meanwhile, though wage deferrals have been agreed at several top-flight clubs, Arsenal’s Mesut Özil reportedly refuses to take a demure trim to his £350,000-a-week salary. “Deferral is an option but not to agree a cut today when the club may still make the same profit as last year,” his agent, Erkut Sögüt, insisted this month– the pre-tax profit Arsenal made last season being, in fact, a £32m loss (of which Özil’s salary would account for 57%).

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The government was rightly criticised during this crisis for suggesting that footballers should give up some of their salaries while remaining silent, for example, on the hedge fund managers whose donations largely funded their own election campaigns. But it is jarring that the PFA has recommended players in the Championship accept no more than a 25% wage deferral, when their clubs reported pre-tax losses of £307m in 2017-18 – the last season for which every team’s accounts are available – and spending on wages in the decade from 2008-18 increased from £291m to £795m while across the country salaries have slipped from an average of £473 a week to £468.

There seems no obvious remedy for a sport that has simultaneously not enough money and way too much; in which elite players are so used to getting three cherries in life’s fruit machine that any spin without a jackpot payout is incomprehensible; beyond the kind of wholehearted wealth redistribution that would, among other consequences, very swiftly have Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund seeking alternative methods of reputation management. For now, though, we can only watch in horror at a situation akin to a wedding disco from which all the music and all the lithe, young bodies have disappeared, leaving the awkward, ugly movements of those usually glimpsed only on the edge of the dancefloor. The hope from here is that we don’t take too many elbows in the face before someone gets the music going again.

Contributor

Simon Burnton

The GuardianTramp

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