Football club ownership regulations need to be made tougher

The current rules can be easily bypassed and club ownership exploited for money laundering.

English football entities have rules aimed to protect football clubs from abusive ownership [File: Catherine Ivill/ AFP]

Vanity, insanity, love and profit. There are many reasons why people want to own football clubs.

The most sought-after clubs are in England where the globally popular Premier League offers the prospect of fame, prestige and potentially vast riches.

But Al Jazeera’s investigation, The Men Who Sell Football, exposes a disturbing, murky side to football club ownership and a failing system of governance.

Watching the documentary, I was left with a deep sense of unease about our most popular national sport, once known as The Beautiful Game.

The undercover investigation – in which reporters pose as the agents of a convicted Chinese criminal who wants to buy a football club – shows how crooks, helped by middlemen, can buy clubs and use them to launder the proceeds of crime.

Those middlemen see legal and sporting governance statutes as an inconvenience to be circumvented rather than as a means of protecting the sport.

In the film, we see them explain how they can submit fake due diligence reports, use “dirty tricks”, hide dirty money behind impenetrable offshore trusts, and help criminals to acquire false identities.

The undercover reporters even come very near to striking a deal for the criminal investor to buy Derby County, one of England’s oldest football clubs.

This investigation should be a wake-up call for England’s football authorities.

England has three bodies responsible for football. The English Football Association is in charge of the national team and “grassroots” football.

The Premier League, which consists of 20 clubs, was formed in 1992 and is the world’s most lucrative football entity.

The English Football League (EFL) looks after the three divisions below the Premier League. Clubs in the second-tier championship – which can be bought for as little as $20m – can win promotion to the Premier League within 12 months.

Each of these entities has rules that aim to protect football from prospective owners whose ambitions might not be in the best interests of the game. The owners’ and directors’ tests (OADTs) are enforced by the football authorities, but their resources to do in-depth investigations into prospective owners are limited.

The OADTs state clearly that anyone with an outstanding criminal conviction cannot be a club owner.

The Al Jazeera documentary shows a middleman, Christopher Samuelson, an offshore trust specialist, who appears to see this block on criminals simply as a problem that he can solve.

There is nothing wrong with making a persuasive case to assist a legitimate, prospective owner to acquire a club, but Mr Samuelson goes far beyond that.

It is also alarming that he is prepared to use a private investigations company to assist in this process, employing a number of questionable, even potentially illegal methods.

Organising phone tapping and false passports are discussed, which are serious criminal offences that would pose a significant threat to the integrity of the OADT if carried out.

Mr Samuelson’s willingness to use offshore trusts to hide the fictitious criminal’s money and identity is also worrying. Good governance depends on transparency and openness and the use of such investment vehicles makes linking clubs to their owners very difficult.

The documentary also features Keith Hunter, a private investigator and former Scotland Yard detective. Using third parties, he says he provides “services”, sometimes called “dirty tricks”, to push deals through. Hunter introduces the undercover reporters to contacts in Cyprus who offer to help the criminal investor obtain a passport.

The film presents powerful and deeply concerning evidence that middlemen with scant regard for the rules – and for UK law – are moving in the shadows of English football.

It is clear that the sport is infested with people who have created an environment in which safeguards can be bypassed. The rules that govern football are being abused and need to be made much tougher.

Since the fiasco of the breakaway European Super League in April, which prompted an angry backlash and was dropped within 48 hours, the UK government has taken the first steps in this direction.

It commissioned a “fan-based review” of the game led by former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch. Her interim report stated “… the evidence has been clear that football clubs are not ordinary businesses. They play a critical social, civic and cultural role in their local communities. They need to be protected – sometimes from their owners who are, after all, simply the current custodians of a community asset.”

Football clubs are unique in the central role they play and sense of identity they give, to individual towns and cities, not just in the UK, but around the world.

They should be protected. Al Jazeera’s documentary shows that the battle for what remains of the integrity of the world’s most popular sport is far from over.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.