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Club ownership: The unsolvable debate

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Mihir Bose | 11:56 UK time, Friday, 12 September 2008

We journalists are always told that we seldom allow facts to spoil a good story - yet, in the football business, facts are often not so much ignored, as distorted beyond belief.

The current debate about foreign ownership is a classic case in point.

Andy Burnham, the culture secretary who sparked this current bout of questioning of foreign ownership, wants the football authorities to look at their regulations, and yet rules out government intervention.

Meanwhile, Lord Triesman, the Football Association chairman, agrees the FA needs to do something, but says he would not do anything that discriminated on the basis of nationality.

And given these caveats it is difficult to see what can be done at all.

As is often the case on this issue, the starting point seems to be the belief that there was a halcyon time in English football when Adam and Eve dwelt in a supposed garden of football Eden, roughly seen as the period immediately after the Second World War.

But the reality is that there was no such time.

Indeed, even before foreign money started coming in, football had evolved so much that it would be impossible to go back - and certainly not to the historic community roots that JB Priestley and others were in rhapsodies about.

Post-war football fans are unrecognisable in many ways to today's supporters

'Classic' English football was rooted in the local community, with the club at the centre of it. At the time, all matches started at 3.00 on a Saturday, the supporters, almost all of them male, often worked on the shop floor till lunchtime (there was Saturday half-day working then), and strolled down to the pub before walking to the match. When they left the ground they found a paper boy selling a pink 'un and going to a match did not generally involve any use of public transport.

Is there anywhere in England where this is now possible?

It is now commonplace to find that the communities who live round the club, often ethnic minorities, seldom go to the ground, with match days seeing fans travel long distances to revisit an area their fathers and grandfathers may have migrated from some decades earlier.

And nor will be it be easy to go back to restrictions that governed the sale of football clubs.

Until the 1980s it was difficult to buy and sell clubs. Not all football clubs may have been owned by the classic butcher, baker, candlestick maker, but many of the clubs had clauses in their articles of association which prevented the free transfer of shares.

It did not matter then because there was no money in football. Owning a football club was a matter of local prestige rather than banking money in an offshore account.

And, perhaps most crucially, then we did not have the elephant in the room, which so far nobody has mentioned - the European Union.

It is worth stressing that the father of foreign ownership is really the Bosman ruling, a consequence of defective transfer rules in Belgium leading to a landmark European Court ruling.

I doubt very much if foreign owners would have had much interest in English clubs if the pre-Bosman restrictions on foreign players still applied.

Certainly the idea of buying a World First XI, as the new owners of Manchester City plan, would have made no sense.

So given the government will not follow the US example, where government intervention has allowed sports to have its own special regulations, and Bosman cannot be reversed, what can be done?

I have two suggestions:

The FA should implement in domestic football the homegrown players rule that Uefa now applies to its European matches - that will help moderate Bosman.

Secondly, the government should change the non-domicile taxation rules which allow foreigners not domiciled in this country to gain from very generous tax exemptions.

If foreign owners and foreign players are taxed on their entire world income, as they would be if they lived in the US, then we would soon find out how many would want to come here.

Last year the government, as part of wider policy, did dip its toe in the non-domicile tax issue, but I doubt if those changes will make much difference to football ownership.

And that is the major problem.

Again, we have a lot of hot air but few practical ideas that are properly implemented, all of which makes me think this debate, like so many before it, will lead nowhere.

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