The beautiful game is in sore need of a credible regulator

The author is an economist, former UK government minister and life-long Manchester United supporter

This weekend, Manchester United host Liverpool in what is typically the biggest game in English football. In recent decades, the clubs have been the most successful in the country. But the intensity of the Premier League occasion will also reflect the two cities’ rivalry whose origins, legend has it, lie in the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal.

The first United match I attended at Old Trafford was between these two teams. The Charity Shield game at the start of the 1965-66 season ended in a 2-2 draw. In the spirit of the shield’s name, the trophy was shared between the clubs for six months each.

I have been to numerous United vs Liverpool games over the past 55 years. Their matches often bring out the most emotive behaviour from both sets of supporters. But the disastrous, hilariously botched plan for a European Super League may lead to something I would once have thought impossible.

On Sunday, there is a possibility of a shared protest between Liverpool and United supporters because of the idiotic scheme backed by the two clubs’ owners. Hats off to the owners for this contribution to social peace, at least for now, in north-western England.

At the core of the failed project is the idea of suppressing competition at the top of European football. Yet one reason why United and Liverpool share an intense rivalry is because their clubs and fans are obsessed with winning Europe’s premier competition. United’s first such triumph came in 1968, 10 years after the Munich air crash. The perseverance of Matt Busby after that tragedy, the brilliance of Denis Law, George Best and Bobby Charlton, and the relentless drive of Alex Ferguson are wrapped up with the European Cup, now the Champions League. How could the owners of a club with this beautiful romantic history not get this?

For the plotters to unveil their scheme during the pandemic shows how out of touch some leaders of international business are. Equally, given the mood in society even before Covid-19, some big issues need resolving. Too many people believe that the sharp edges of the globalised world economy and business have hurt them. For a government that cannot stop talking about “levelling up”, this is an opportunity it cannot miss.

For the club owners, the proposed European Super League was primarily about bigger revenues and profits. Other elements of the plan, such as cost controls on the purchase by clubs of players, paled in comparison. But modern society is demanding that business should deliver profits with a greater social purpose. In no area is this more obvious than in football.

The government needs to do two things as a matter of urgency.

First, it must introduce an independent regulator. It has long been clear that no body sets the standards of governance, accountability and transparency required. At present, crucial decisions are not the responsibility of the Football Association, the Football League or the Premier League. The game needs someone to take a grip, just as the Bank of England is once more involved in regulating the world of finance.

Under current structures, none of the main three bodies has powers to set standards, for example, concerning the role and behaviour of footballers’ agents. When I have raised this with senior FA or PL figures, they say it is a matter for Uefa, because that organisation is the governing body for all European football. Then they suggest that, if England were to set its own standards, it would put its clubs at a competitive disadvantage to their continental rivals.

This is akin to saying that we won’t regulate our banks in the way we see best for the UK, because international banks will operate differently. It is not good enough, and it allows many of the distortions that have grown in the business of football. An independent regulator would set standards that participants in the English football industry — owners, agents and others — would be expected to maintain and live by.

Second, the government must reconcile its commitment to a “Global Britain” with the reality of levelling up and make sure the owners of our clubs are not trying to rig the system for personal benefit. Allocating fans meaningful representation on club boards is surely a must. If it is not to be Germany’s “50 per cent plus one” ownership model, then some kind of special shares for fans should be introduced.

In a seeming effort to calm the outrage of fans, Joel Glazer, the Manchester United co-chairman whose US family business controls the club, made public a letter to supporters last week. It claimed that he and his family wanted to do the right thing. If they mean what they say, they could execute the second part of my proposal without government action.

I look forward to the Old Trafford match on Sunday but even more to some dramatic shift in how Manchester United is owned and run.

It is comical that Uefa appears suddenly to be clothed in virtue, given its own peculiar plans for European club football. If they want to be the good guys, they should insist on restoring Europe’s leading football tournament to what it once was — a knockout-based competition for the winners of all the domestic leagues — and stop the vicious spiral towards less competition.

If this were done, and given the power of technology, global reach and advertising rights, I would wager that many of the private equity firms circling around football would be eager to provide financial backing to such a plan.

At a minimum, it would put a semi-permanent dent in the crazy proposal of two weeks ago. Otherwise, we will see the reappearance of a scheme to promote a close cousin of the oligopolies that rule top-level American sport.

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