Sunday, 7 June 2015

The shame of FIFA

Now this is a tough blog to write. I started a week ago and every day something sensational happens and I have to rewrite it. By the time you read this Desmond Tutu will probably have taken over as interim head of FIFA, Jack Warner will have been arrested again, this time for attacking Sepp Blatter with a baseball bat, Greg Dyke and Michel Platini will have been hauled in by the FBI and the results of all the corrupt World Cups going back to 1962 annulled. Now there's a thought...

With all the disgust in the air following the circus act that was the FIFA congress and Blatter's subsequent resignation it is all too easy to feel over-emotional and even down-right revolted about the sorry state of football administration.

When a governing body, association or league gets to the point where there is neither sense nor morality in its rules, finances, governance and transparency then the corruption, in every sense, has to be arrested.
Thanks to the free spread of information around the internet and social media there is now a spirit of revolution in the air; we can now take stock of all these years, during which the ultimate control of our worldwide game and its huge financial resources have been stolen by a group of evil men in suits, who resemble the henchmen around the dinner table in a mafia movie. 

And 'evil' they certainly are. Look at the obscenely huge amounts of money stolen. This very theft deprives millions of football fans the world over, including those in very poor countries, of improved football facilities capable of dramatically lifting their quality of life. It's all very well FIFA claiming they gave loads of money to poor football nations. Maybe they did but how much more money should have been given if they hadn't all been stealing it?

It all reminds me of an equally sickening scandal involving people abusing trust in France a few years ago, when the CEO Jacques Crozemarie was convicted of stealing millions from the leading cancer research charity Arc. It just beggared belief. 

How could it come to this? How could we end up allowing this situation to go unchecked for so long? One reason is simply that we, the fans, are a long way away from the FIFA debacle. Our game is administered by national associations, which in turn are administered by continental associations, which then come under FIFA

So the question perhaps needs asking differently: how come all the well-paid football suits in the other governing bodies didn't intervene earlier to stop this embarrassing mess happening? It's not as though the Sunday Times and BBC hadn't pointed the big finger years ago. How could they have let it get this bad? How far down the tree does the corruption, the incompetence, the disregard for the ordinary football fan go?

And of course in football, as in politics, vile regimes thrive on apathy. You let the bad guys get away with more and more and suddenly you realise they've taken everything. And that is exact what has happened here. 

So what next? I think the FA and UEFA need to keep the pressure up for total reform under a new President. Clean out the dirt, all of it, every single crook and start afresh in rebuilding a world football body serving the world and not taking from it.

Change the mad voting rules (not the first time I have criticised the mad voting rules of a governing body before...) to give votes to countries based on numbers of football players.

Limit the length of Presidential office to 10 years maximum so it's harder to establish a corrupt fiefdom.

Let Russia keep the World Cup, unless evidence suggests it's significantly more corrupt than previous World Cups in the Blatter era have been.

Let Qatar keep it too if it's played in the winter and if they reform their treatment of site workers and pay significant compensation to families of workers killed because of appalling working conditions. 

Fan-owned clubs

How does this follow on from the tirade on FIFA I hear you ask ....? Well there is a link here believe it or not. The theme is fundamentalism. The placing of one idea (or governing body) on a pedestal and not questioning it; discarding any alternative idea as worthless; rejecting critics as heretics.

In recent months there has been a torrent of praise and passion in favour of fan-owned clubs. These are what football is all about. Give the game back to fans and all will be beautiful in the land of milk, honey and cup runs. The game is for fans so let it be run by fans. 

Recent examples are the extraordinary FC United, the rebirth of Hereford and Merthyr Town and now a fund-raising by Bath City. There are several other cases in other areas of the pyramid where fans either control or have a big say in running their clubs.

And in a fundamentalist way we are told that the other traditional business model for football clubs, one or more shareholders, not always fans, often making annual financial contributions to keeping the club afloat, is by definition morally reprehensible and should be scrapped.

The existence of a few headline cases of business mismanagement leading to the demise of clubs such as Salisbury and Hereford, together with cases of clumsy owners trying to change the whole identity of a club (Cardiff) or stripping assets (in the rare cases like Man U where there are assets to strip), means that the traditional business model for football club businesses is rotten and must be discarded.

David Conn, the talented Guardian sports writer, raves about the FC United revival and attacks single owner models. He recently wrote:

"Many whose enrichment has outraged football lovers have made millions by selling shares in football companies that supporters still quaintly refer to as clubs. The guiding light for running football should be as simple as the game’s essence." 

Except of course it's not that simple. These new-fangled fan-ownership models are hot off the press and have not yet gone past their trial period. It would be only sensible precaution to thread a few questions through the euphory and optimism. 

Such as how will a purely democratic and 'communist' ownership model be able to deal decisively with all the ups and downs which affect football club businesses over the years? Is a 'communist' model likely to be more efficient than other communist political and economic models before it? How will it cope with needs to raise further cash? With questions of salaries, director payments, and cash management going forward? With questions of strategy, profitablity targets and sinking funds? The decision to raise ticket prices in order to raise cash? Resolving grave differences of opinion, which can arise even amongst fans with their beloved team in common? And what about those genuine fans, who for whatever reason will not buy shares in their club? What voice have they got? And what about those genuine fans of those clubs who might feel their club could be better run in a different, perhaps more traditional, way? Perhaps they will feel even less involved now that they are not fan-owners?

FC United may be a fine business model, it certainly is a great story and I sincerely wish them well, but where will they and others be in 5 or 10 years' time? You can only ever judge these things in retrospect. And doing just that let's not forget - or even simply discard as "irrelevant" - a previous system of fan ownership at Ebbsfleet, which time showed to be fatally flawed. 

This need for a balanced view and the wisdom gleaned from the passage of time is equally true of cases where a new and wealthy owner invests heavily in a club and its sustainability is questioned, like Margate. Let's wait and see and judge this model further down the road when the business plan ( if there is one) has run its course. 

Now please don't think I'm saying that these new models of fan ownership won't work. I'm not. I'm just saying we should exercise some caution before assuming in the manner of Candide that they are the panacea for all known evil in the football world at this very early stage in their development.

After all there are still many examples of traditional football club businesses, which seem to function well. Who is to say they would operate better under a different regime? They don't all have hordes of angry fans outside their gates screaming for the Chairman's head on a platter.

These clubs are in many cases run as efficiently and honestly as they can be by their owners, who are also fans themselves. I would hope that this description might even apply to the owners of Maidstone United but that of course is for others to judge.

The point here is that even when a club is owned by a mere handful of fans, it is still fan-owned. Such supporter-owners are as emotionally linked to their clubs as any other supporter and in most cases have business experience and financial resources to boot. They may therefore be in a unique position to combine the (optimistic) desire to see some sort of return on their investment with the desire to preside over a sustainable club serving its supporters and the wider community. It just may be the best solution for  the business in question. 

In some cases it is the only solution because of financial needs. When Terry Casey and I took over Maidstone United in 2010 the club was on the edge of bankruptcy and was losing money hand over fist. Time was of the essence in finding a solution to funding the new stadium for the small amount of £3 million.

We almost immediately tried to widen the ownership in order to raise substantial capital for the stadium project. We thought by offering shareholdings to supporters, admittedly in sizeable chunks because time was so short, that we might flush out a few enthusiastic supporters with funds and the desire to be part of the adventure going forward. No interest was forthcoming.

In addition the banks and the local council all refused to assist financially. We had no choice other than to find a way to stump up the money or the club would have folded. Even if we had had more time I doubt whether sufficient funds could have been raised by offering smaller shareholdings to more fans. Even, say, 2000 fans contributing £200 each would only have raised £400k, a sizeable amount of money but a drop in the ocean when compared to the amount needed.

Now 3 years on our capital structure is established and the value of the club and its stadium is such that no 'fan ownership' business model is possible for the foreseeable future. However the fans remain an integral part of our daily thinking for obvious reasons. The fans are at the heart of the club, they are both allies and customers and it would be nonsensical to ignore their wishes, demands and aspirations.

So let's just keep things in perspective about fan-ownership. Let's by all means doff our caps and admire what our friends at FC United and Merthyr Town are doing while keeping our feet on the ground and respecting other business models too. In 5-10 years' time it will be fascinating to compare the performance of these clubs with clubs like our own and see how we have all performed. Then and only then will it be time to draw any firm conclusions.