Stop selling off our national game

by BARRY COLLINS, Daily Mail Online

Last updated at 12:29 12 May 2004

With Liverpool on the verge of selling a multi-million stake in the club to foreign investors, we ask whether the flood of foreign investors could be the ruin of our national game.

How many more of our football clubs must be auctioned off to foreign investors before we finally realise that the crown jewels of our national sport have all been sold abroad?

First Chelsea fell into the hands of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who buys multi-million players like sweets. The world's biggest club, Manchester United, are constantly exposed to speculation that the club will be taken over by American tycoon Malcolm Glazer. Now Liverpool are openly courting the cash of the Thai Prime Minister, who says he may even dip into public funds to secure his £60m share in the club.

Why should fans care who own their club? After all, Chelsea supporters can hardly complain when there is £50million worth of talent that cannot even force their way into the first team. And Liverpool supporters will surely welcome a fresh injection of cash into their under-achieving squad.

Russian's plaything

But what happens when the novelty wears off for our foreign sugar daddies? For Abramovich, Chelsea is a fun way of spending his pocket money and impressing his business associates on a Saturday afternoon. Not to mention, a huge ego trip.

Yet, will the roubles keep rolling in if Chelsea don't win the Premiership or the Champions League next season? Abramovich is still playing the role of the devoted fan, but until 18 months ago he had never set foot inside Stamford Bridge.

So what's to stop the fickle Russian deciding he's had enough and taking his money elsewhere? And where would that leave Chelsea? In the same debt-ridden state that he found the club in when he arrived. Look no further than Leeds United to see the devastating effect of what happens when the cash runs dry.

The position for Manchester United and Liverpool is even more worrying. Their suitors are ploughing the cash in purely as a business prospect. If they don't see an immediate return on their investment, do you think they would think twice about selling off England stars like Rio Ferdinand or Michael Owen to recoup their cash? The wishes of the fans wouldn't even come into the equation.

The questionable backgrounds of the overseas owners also seem to have been swept under the carpet. The attitude from the clubs seems to be, 'as long as they've got the cash, who cares how they earned it?' Yet, Abramovich is facing a wide-sweeping investigation in Russia into whether he exploited the country's citizens whilst acquiring his fortune.

Amnesty International has also criticised Thailand's Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra,

for his deplorable record on human rights. Have the suits in the boadroom even taken these warning signs into account before handing over their clubs? Of course not. And why has the FA stood passively by without even raising an eyebrow about British football's new landlords?

Fans alienated

The foreign sell off has also driven a further wedge between the clubs and their fans. The relationship between the boardroom and the terraces is often strained. But look how Abramovich has treated the fans' affection for Claudio Ranieri with complete disdain. The Italian is only in the job now because Sven-Goran Eriksson couldn't be prised from his England post, and he still faces the sack this summer against the wishes of the vast majority of Chelsea supporters.

Contrast this to British owned Southampton, who earlier this year tried to bring back Glenn Hoddle as manager but were forced into an embarrassing climb down when it became apparent that he remained deeply unpopular with the St. Mary's faithful.

Would Abramovich have backed off in such circumstances? Or would he have ridden roughshod over the fans' wishes and appointed his own man? I suspect he would have taken the latter option without a second thought.

That's why we have to hope that local tycoon Steve Morgan manages to convince Liverpool's board they don't need the Thai PM's money - that it is in the best interests of British football to keep club ownership within these isles, where people appreciate the history and culture of a club, and are in touch with the fans' desires.

Otherwise we may look back in ten year's time and wonder how our national game became international property.

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