Over the course of a 45-minute interview with Gary Neville, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin mostly reinforced the perception that he is a serious, considerate figure — reassuringly immune, so far, to the type of megalomaniac tendencies seen in some of those who rise without trace to assume positions of power and prestige in world sport.
A lawyer from Slovenia, the president of European football has a clear sense of right and wrong. He appears genuinely contrite over the chaos at the Champions League final last May, in stark contrast to those French politicians who have yet to retract the appalling, inaccurate slurs they made in its immediate aftermath.
He likes to talk about defending the interests of smaller leagues and smaller clubs in an era when the biggest, richest, most powerful clubs — the “sharks”, as he called them on Neville’s Overlap podcast — are threatening the game’s ecosystem.
But Ceferin (pictured above) appeared strangely ambivalent when it came to one subject. He highlighted the need for clarification on multi-club ownership but said he was “not sure yet” whether that would mean doubling down on the existing regulations or removing whatever barriers might exist at present.
It is a hot topic right now because the two parties bidding to buy Manchester United are strongly linked to other clubs — directly so in the case of Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS, which owns Nice and Lausanne-Sport, and more obliquely in the case of Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamid Al Thani, son of the former prime minister of Qatar, given that Paris Saint-Germain are owned by Qatar Sports Investments, which also has a stake in Braga.
Ceferin proposed that the present UEFA legislation would prevent a Qatari-owned United playing PSG or an INEOS-owned United facing Nice in the Champions League or Europa League. “Those are the current rules,” he said, “which we have to rethink. The options are (either) that it stays like this or we allow them to compete in the same competition”.
The first thing to say is that Ceferin seemed to be overstating the strength of those rules, which did not stop Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig facing each other in the Europa League in 2018. Despite UEFA’s initial statement that the integrity of their competition was jeopardised by Red Bull’s “decisive influence” over both clubs, the governing body ended up being persuaded that “several important governance and structural changes” in respect of “corporate matters, financing, personnel and sponsorship arrangement” had removed any such concern.
In other words, two clubs can be as closely aligned as the Red Bull clubs undoubtedly are — just the 19 permanent transfers between the two over the past the decade, with another two lined up for this summer — and still compete against each other.
And if Salzburg and Leipzig could reassure UEFA that there was no integrity issue to worry about there, then it is pretty much inconceivable that Article 5.01 of the Champions League regulations would prevent two clubs owned by the Qatari establishment — one acquired by a sovereign wealth fund, the other purporting to be a personal investment by an individual with friends in high places — would be barred from competing against each other.
Neville and Ceferin seemed to reassure each other that any concerns about sporting integrity were overstated in any case. Neville felt the footballer’s moral code — “It’s not the way we’re brought up, we’re from working-class backgrounds, we don’t get bought, we fight our hardest” — would act as a safeguard against those threats to integrity.
But… surely there is more to this debate than whether multi-club ownership is compatible with the rules and whether two affiliated clubs — who in any case will always be able to make a few adjustments, Red Bull-style, and insist things are not as cosy as they appear — should be able to compete in the same European competition.
The real question here is more fundamental: is multi-club ownership really such a positive thing? And as so often, it is a question the game has never really faced up to, preferring to stand by and do nothing for years before finally stopping to wonder if it is now so widespread that they might as well just legitimise it.
The arguments in favour of multi-club ownership are clear. As well as the Red Bull empire, you could just look at the success of the City Football Group.
Manchester City are at the top of the tree, Premier League champions for four of the past five seasons. But Melbourne City (men and women), New York City, Mumbai City and Yokohama F Marinos have won league titles as part of the group and Girona, Troyes and Montevideo City Torque have won promotions, all of them benefiting from a shared network of players, coaches and scouts as well as data, knowledge, infrastructure and strategy.
With the investment of Brighton & Hove Albion owner-chairman Tony Bloom, Royal Union Saint-Gilloise have not only been promoted to the Belgian top tier for the first time in 49 years but finished as runners-up last season and are second again now. They took their place in the last -ight of the Europa League draw alongside Manchester United and Juventus on Friday.
But these are groups or individuals who have demonstrated, over a long period of time, that they are among the smartest in their field. It is little surprise that Bloom has brought expertise and good times to Royal Union, just as he has to Brighton.
City Football Group is led by Ferran Soriano, who spent a great deal of time exploring the potential for multi-club ownership during his time at Barcelona in the 2000s and arrived in Manchester in 2012 with a clear sense of how he would implement his ideas over the long term.
The potential benefits of belonging to a multi-club network are clear for clubs that have fallen on hard times (as Royal Union had) or clubs that are newly formed (like New York City) or nearly-new (like Mumbai City, Montevideo City Torque, Melbourne City). RB Leipzig was spawned from the playing rights of fifth-tier club SSV Markranstadt, while the Red Bull rebranding was nothing new for the club once known as SV Austria Salzburg but named, at various stages, after a supermarket chain and a financial services corporation. Some things are not sacred, particularly when Red Bull are offering to give you wings.
But the more entrenched and the more widespread the multi-club model becomes, the more the success stories will come to be outnumbered by the failures. In its annual benchmarking report on the European club football landscape, UEFA stated that no fewer than 82 of its top-tier clubs now have a “cross-investment relationship” with one or more clubs — and it goes without saying that the majority of them will not be successful.
Sacrificing your club’s identity — signing up to be a satellite of a much bigger club in a much bigger league — might be perfectly acceptable if a) that identity is yet to be fully established, as in the case of some of the City Football Group’s acquisitions or b) there is the promise of success. It will be far harder to tolerate for fans of those clubs whose fortunes decline or even stagnate.
Take the case of 777 Partners, which over the past few years has bought stakes in clubs in Belgium (Standard Liege), France (Red Star), Italy (Genoa), Spain (Sevilla), Brazil (Vasco da Gama), Australia (Melbourne Victory) and Germany (Hertha Berlin) and has been considering a move for Everton.
Let’s be fair here and say that Genoa had flirted with relegation before they dropped out of Serie A last season (and that they are on course for an immediate return); that Hertha were in relegation trouble this season long before 777 Partners pitched up this week; and that, while the situation at Sevilla is complicated, a minority shareholder cannot be held responsible for the crisis that has left the club two points clear of La Liga’s relegation zone.
But 777 Partners still has plenty of convincing to do when it comes to the “deep sector knowledge, underwriting expertise and depth of vision” it boasts of on the sports section of its website.
Likewise NewCity Capital, which last year had the unwanted distinction of three relegations in one season when Barnsley, Nancy and Esbjerg dropped down from the second tiers in England, France and Denmark respectively. Or “United World” in which Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad Abdulaziz Al Saud is the owner not just of Sheffield United but of Beerschot (Belgium), Chateauroux (France) and Indian club Kerala United.
Todd Boehly had barely emerged from a chaotic first transfer window in charge of Chelsea when he started extolling the virtues of the multi-club model, explaining that “what we need is a place to put our 18/19/20-year-olds to develop them”. The appeal is obvious from a Chelsea perspective, but it sounded so unedifying to hear Boehly talking so airily about the need to “get them out of South America” and put them “somewhere in Portugal or Belgium or something like that”. If City Football Group’s buzzword is holistic, this sounded like the opposite.
Then there is Bill Foley and his Black Knight Football and Entertainment group. He completed his takeover of Bournemouth in early December and barely a month later he acquired a 33 per cent stake in French club Lorient.
Lorient’s ultra group, Merlus Ultras 1995, responded by publishing an open letter expressing “deep concern” and saying that Lorient “has been boasting for years of being a family club, with a strong identity and its own philosophy of play… so why introduce an American into its capital who knows nothing of our history?”
Notwithstanding the whiff of xenophobia, it is a valid question. It isn’t about Foley (or Boehly or 777 Partners or whoever) and it is not about America. It is about identity. As Merlus Ultras 1995 added in their statement, “It is out of the question that we become a vulgar satellite club, a simple training centre of the English parent company.”
That is the real point here. Football clubs are not pawns. They are socio-cultural institutions which exist to represent and bring pride and joy to their communities (which these days can mean not just the immediate area but a huge global fanbase).
No club, unless established for that purpose, should be a mere satellite to another — or to a sovereign wealth fund, an energy drink manufacturer or anything else. Nor should any club see its entire purpose redefined for the benefit of an investment group which could easily lose interest and allow an underperforming club to fall into managed decline.
To say this and repeat this can attract accusations of handwringing, or of being blind to the state of the game in 2023, but it is obvious.
We can all recognise the success of what City Football Group and Red Bull have done, and how it benefits the clubs in question, but surely there is also a recognition that this proliferation of multi-club ownership groups (some of them trying to five or six clubs before they have even begun to demonstrate they have the competence to run one) is dangerous — not just for the integrity of competitions but for the future and the very fabric of the game.
Taken to its logical (or crazily illogical) conclusion, the multi-club model raises a potential scenario where football could be dominated by three or four rival networks who own the biggest clubs in every league in every continent and where, even in the bigger European leagues, one historic club after another sacrifices its identity, its hopes and its ambitions to become subordinate to another.
And whether those all-powerful networks are owned by energy drink manufacturers or, more likely, venture capitalists or, most terrifying of all, sovereign wealth funds, it is a dystopian vision for a game whose popularity, dating back to the 19th century, has been based on a straightforward and totally sustainable model where clubs exist as separate, independent entities with ambitions and dreams…or at very least the vague hope of a better day.
The direction of travel is worrying, but nobody seems to question it. The only barrier UEFA has raised relates to its own competitions — and even that one proved easily surmountable for the Red Bull clubs. And now Ceferin is talking about possibly removing that obstacle? Why? Why on earth would UEFA remove rules which exist (in theory) to preserve the integrity of their competitions?
Ceferin presents himself as someone who stands up against what he calls the “sharks”. When it came to the European Super League ago, he did that.
But what are the clubs and the entities buying up clubs further down the food chain, if not sharks? What happens when the sharks in question are the same clubs who he accuses of “attacking football’s system and the football pyramid, attacking everything that has been here for hundreds of years”?
And what about when the next “Super League” push comes with the tacit support of clubs in small leagues, all falling into line behind dominant clubs in their ownership group? Will alarm bells start ringing at UEFA then? You would imagine so.
But it will be too late by then. The best time to address the many questions raised by multi-club ownership was 15 years ago. The next best time is now. And that shouldn’t mean taking the barriers down. It should mean the opposite.
(Top photo: Jurij Kodrun/Getty Images)
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