Football supporters seem to have a higher tolerance for cognitive dissonance than the rest of the general population. You see a lot of it on the eve of the financially and competitively crucial midweek Champions League fixtures. For example, the Telegraph today features a classic Henry Winter puff piece on Sir Alex Ferguson and Man United’s ”warrior’s edge” on the same day it went with a story on Thomas McKenna, a Manchester United fan taken to court by the club for leaking the names of its corporate clients, who describes his own club as “bullies.” New Arsenal majority owner Stan Kroenke is praised by Arsenal supporters for wanting to maintain what one columnist describes as the club’s “break even” model, as if balancing the books were some sort of business novelty (which, as we know, it is, at least when it comes to football), even as some of those fans expressed anger at Arsene Wenger for not spending more of Arsenal’s carefully guarded cash in the January transfer window. And some journalists are now casting Carlo Ancelotti as the innocent victim of a ruthless Abramovich, even if though they once delighted in Chelsea’s bank-rolled ascendancy when the more successful Jose Mourinho was in charge.
The moral here is money is good when you’re winning and bad when you’re losing. Stan Kroenke’s Arsenal purchase is apparently the end of a marvelous Victorian era where clubs owners were actual “custodians,” as David Conn put it, even if foreign investment has been a driving force behind the Premier League’s ability to compete for the best players and managers and, by extension, in the global televised sports market. While Wenger famously doesn’t spend much on his young prospects and reaps the revenue rewards, it’s hard to imagine he would be able to attract players like Samir Nasri if the Premier League was on financial and competitive par with the Eredivisie, or even the Bundesliga.
It’s certainly true that the neoliberal ethos of earning money on private investments in entities widely considered to be of public interest—namely, one hundred year-old football clubs—comes with some horrendous side effects. As many have already pointed out, while Stan Kroenke is a “nice guy,” there is nothing stopping him from using his investment in the club to spend money on his own private financial interests. It’s these lax regulations that leave club supporters at the mercy of the investment market. Manchester United gets the sickening leveraged buyout of the Glazers while Manchester City gets the limitless petro dollars of the Abu Dhabi United Group.
As is constantly reiterated in English media reports, preventing financial abuse in English football comes down to governance; even a minimal amount of effective financial regulation, like that in the Bundesliga which prevents investors from taking control of clubs via the 50+1 fan membership rule, would go a long way to ensuring the Premier League does not become a high risk investment for fly-by-night billionaires. But therein lies the problem. If English football were to get its financial act together, it’s naive to assume there would be no on-field effects. Despite Schalke’s recent success in the Champions League and the Bundesliga’s ascendency in UEFA co-efficient rankings, the German top flight simply does not have the same financial resources to compete for the same calibre of player as La Liga or the Premier League.
This isn’t EPL propaganda; it’s simply to say that Premier League supporters cannot have their pie and eat it too. They can’t deride the negative effect of money and foreign investment one day and then bemoan the lack of transfer spending and competitive growth at their club the next. Despite fantasies that the success of the English top four is all down to sound management and prudent buying, or that the popularity of the Premier League is driven by style and culture alone, foreign investment, in tandem with negotiated TV rights, plays a leading role in the Premier League’s success. There is no guarantee that tightening these regulations may not come with a cost, despite the significant gain of ensuring the long-term financial health of England’s historic football clubs. With UEFA’s Financial Fair Play initiative waiting in the wings, the EPL may not have a choice. We may finally get to see what life in a post debt-spending Premier League really looks like.