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English Football’s Own Goal: A Game of Dodgy Money & Foreign Influence

The beautiful game has become a way for foreign aggressors to gain leverage over British politics, writes Adrian Goldberg

Prime Minister David Cameron with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak, head of the Elite Development Patrick Vieira and striker Sergio Kun Aguero during a visit to the City Football Academy in Manchester. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Archive/PA Images

English Football’s Own GoalA Game of Dodgy Money & Foreign Influence

The beautiful game has become a way for foreign aggressors to gain leverage over British politics, reports Adrian Goldberg

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Since the dawn of the Premier League in 1992, English football has never been overly worried about the source of global money swilling through its coffers, with major clubs only too happy to plump their bank accounts with cash from kleptocrats, oil states and oligarchs – and even the occasional harmless philanthropist.

Proud of its status as the most popular league in the world, the English Premier League’s (EPL) unofficial stance seems to have been ‘take the money now, worry about where it has come from later’.

However, it seems that ‘later’ has now arrived. 

A time of reckoning is at hand, fuelled not least by the Government’s increasingly combative foreign policy. It is certainly difficult to see the prospect of new investment by Russian billionaires anytime soon, after last week’s devastating parliamentary report about Moscow’s malign influence in British politics – combined with the treatment of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who is seemingly in a dispute with the Government about a new UK visa.

Author Catherine Belton, for instance, has claimed that Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea was personally ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who won’t be too pleased by the Government’s treatment of his ally. According to Belton, the aim of the Chelsea takeover was to extend Russian influence in London, as part of a larger infiltration of the West, sometimes using “dirty money”.

MPs on the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) said that the UK’s investor visa scheme had been abused by Russians, providing an “ideal [mechanism] by which illicit finance could be recycled through what has been referred to as the London ‘laundromat’”.

According to Zarina Zabrisky, an expert in Putin’s rise to power, business people who became seriously wealthy after the collapse of the Soviet Union can only have done so with “krysha” – paid protection – from what has been described as a “Mafia state”.

She told the Byline Times podcast: “If you refuse to live by the rules of the organisation – the whole ‘Mafia State’ – it’s not like you won’t just be able to be a part of it. You will be eradicated, murdered.”

Bournemouth is another club that has been funded by a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in the anarchic wreckage of post-Soviet Russia, but a Siberian chill in relations between the UK and Russia will hardly encourage more to come forward – at least in the near future.

Listen to the latest episode of the Byline Times podcast

China, meanwhile, relegated television coverage of the climax of the Premier League season from its main football channel to a less popular network, despite splashing out on a mammoth £564 million deal.

This appears to be in retaliation to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to ban Huawei from Britain’s 5G telecommunications network and his invitation to up to three million Hong Kong citizens to settle in the UK, after Beijing pressed ahead with the passing of its new national security law on the island.

Supporters of half a dozen professional clubs with Chinese owners – including top flight Wolverhampton Wanderers, Southampton, and newly promoted West Bromwich Albion – will be waiting anxiously to see what happens next.

Professor Simon Chadwick, director of the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry at Emlyon Business School, told Byline Times that close relationships with China have been fostered by successive UK Prime Ministers – using football.

“Back in the late 90s, Tony Blair courted the Chinese Government in part through football,” he said. “Blair really saw the value and power of football as an instrument of diplomacy and so he frequently used it in trade missions to China.”

When Labour was ousted in 2010, the incoming Conservative-led Government continued to use football as an expression of UK soft power. Prime Minister David Cameron was famously pictured with Chinese President Xi Jinping alongside Manchester City player Sergio Aguero, during a Chinese state visit to the UK in 2015.

Around this time, Chinese investors became seriously interested in the Premier League, prompted by a declaration by President Xi that his country hoped to become a force in world football.

In some cases, Chadwick said, Chinese business owners who had acquired their money by nefarious means took the President’s message as a sign to safely move their money offshore to the UK.

In part an effort to secure the patronage and good favour of their country’s leader, Chinese businessmen bought heavily into European football, taking stakes in clubs in France, Italy, as well as England. “You saw a feeding frenzy of investment overseas,” Chadwick added.

But it didn’t always turn out well. Birmingham City found itself in the hands of Carson Yeung, a Hong Kong-based investor convicted in 2014 of money laundering and sentenced to six years in prison, while Wigan Athletic was recently forced into administration after its Hong Kong-based backers lost patience with the club’s heavy losses.

There have been brighter stories too – notably the ownership of Fosun International, which has turned Wolverhampton Wanderers into Champions League contenders. But the competitive nature of English football makes it a risky business – a fact which has not gone unnoticed in Beijing.

In 2017, Chinese officials criticised “irrational investments” – interpreted as a heavy hint against buying any more overseas football clubs – after which the number of new deals has virtually dried up. Add this to the recent diplomatic spat between the UK and China and, as Chadwick describes it, there is a “perfect storm” which could have a “profound impact” on English teams with Chinese owners.

If this all seems a long way from the ‘jumpers for goalposts’ ethos of old-school footy, that’s because it is. The sport at its highest level has allowed itself to become the play-thing of the super rich and is none too fussy about how that wealth was acquired.

It is a strategy which leaves much-loved local clubs too often reliant on dodgy cash, absentee owners and the whims of foreign politicians – an own goal which, in the long run, could prove costly for the English game.

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