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Supporters need greater clarity in the murky world of club ownership

It’s not always clear who owns English football’s most treasured institutions. Shadowy figures lurk behind the glitz and glamour of the Premier League.

Searching for clarity in the murky world of club ownership

English football, and the Premier League in particular, has risen to a position of global pre-eminence in the world’s most popular game.

The vast wealth of England’s top flight has helped capture the best players, the most coveted managers and the eyes of the world. But the Premier League’s mega-watt glare has obscured the shadowy figures behind some of the game’s most celebrated teams.

Fans know that their clubs are no longer owned by the benevolent businessmen of the past. What is less clear, however, is exactly who has replaced them.

Who owns English football?

Earlier this week England manager Gareth Southgate was asked about his decision to select Jordan Henderson for the national team. At one point in his answer, Southgate said: “Given the situation with Russia we are reliant on Saudi Arabia for a lot of our oil” - a phrase rarely uttered in the managerial press conferences of yesteryear.

In explaining why he’d selected Henderson, who recently signed for Saudi Pro League side Al-Ettifaq, Southgate hinted at the messy web of interweaving interests that now spans English football and British society.

In his answer Southgate compared the links between the Gulf State and the UK government to the Saudi ownership of Newcastle United. It was a well-reasoned and thoughtful response, but one which prompts another question.

Namely, does Saudi Arabia own Newcastle United?

In October 2021 the Premier League issued a statement confirming that Newcastle had been acquired by PIF, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. But added that they had “received legally binding assurances that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will not control Newcastle United Football Club.”

For many, this seemed like a contradiction and the other 19 Premier League clubs demanded an emergency meeting in response to Newcastle’s takeover.

The PIF was allowed to take control of Newcastle, a 130-year-old footballing institution, but earlier this year the ownership controversy reared its head once again. Court documents filed in the United States listed Newcastle chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan as a “sitting minister of the government” and the PIF as “a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

So who really does own Newcastle United, and what does this murky situation mean for supporters?

For Ashley Brown, Head of Supporter Engagement and Governance at the Football Supporters’ Association, confusion over club ownership is a growing issue in English football.

“The people who own football clubs are sometimes individuals, sometimes nation states. We’ve now got pension funds, hedge funds, as well as other corporate conglomerates.”

“We have a range of types of owners and quite often we have football clubs where we don’t actually know who the owner really is,” he explains.

Government issue

As concerns over ownership have grown the UK government has been drawn into the issue. In February the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published a policy paper entitled ‘A sustainable future - reforming club football governance.’

The report includes a plan to introduce an new regulator to oversee the governance of English clubs. It also advocates the establishment of a compulsory ‘Football Club Corporate Governance Code’ which it claims will “improve transparency and accountability” within the game.

But will government intervention necessarily bring about greater transparency?

Earlier this year an investigation from The Athletic uncovered emails between UK government officials that warned that a breakdown of the proposed takeover of Newcastle United posed an “immediate risk” to its relationship with the Saudi state. It was reported that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the UK could face economic consequences if the Premier League blocked the sale.

Premier League chief executive Richard Masters has assured fans that there was “no pressure applied” by the government regarding to the takeover. Nevertheless, the government’s stance on the Saudi takeover demonstrates the potential for conflicts of interest regarding club ownership.

In response to the takeover lifelong Newcastle fan John Hird founded supporters’ group ‘NUFC Fans Against Sportswashing’. He is unconvinced that a government-backed regulator would have prevented his club being taken over.

“When it came to it, money talked,” he says. “We can talk about legislation, but from a fan’s point of view what direction is football going in?”

“In the Champions League draw we’ve got Saudi Arabia vs Qatar... We have to take a step back and say ‘Where do we want football to go, do we want this?

What next for English football?

At a first glance, English football appears to be thriving. A Premier League side are European champions, as has been the case in three of the last five seasons, and its clubs dominate financially, spending a record-breaking £2.36 billion ($2.97bn) this summer.

But there are signs that the foundations are becoming increasingly precarious. Both Newcastle and perennial champions Manchester City are reliant on the backing of an oil-rich nation state. Manchester United, the Premier League’s most successful club, have also been the subject of numerous takeover bids from Sheikh Jassim of the Qatari royal family.

Last year, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Chelsea and Everton were affected by government sanctions due to their owners’ links to President Vladimir Putin. Throughout the league it is clear that greater corporate oversight is needed to ensure that the best interests of clubs and their supporters are protected.

The quality is high, the stadiums are packed and interest in English football is truly global. But it is increasingly difficult to discern who is in control of this free-wheeling footballing juggernaut.

The owners, veiled by the glitz and glamour of the world’s most-watched league, may not be who we think they are. English football needs a moment of clarity to cast a light on the future of the game.

SIGA Sport Integrity Week

On Wednesday 6 September, AS USA hosted a session of SIGA’s Sport Integrity Week, the the global thought-leadership event held from 2 to 9 September 2023, which aims to to unite the global sporting industry, share best practice and find solutions to current and future challenges to enhance sports’ governance, protect sport’s integrity and ensure sport’s long-term, sustainable development.