If you are a Taliban leader eyeing up the purchase of a Premier League club, today is not your lucky day.
Same goes if you’re a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin, a senior figure in the Iranian regime, or a member of Syria’s ruling Assad family.
Yesterday (Thursday), a shareholders’ meeting at a hotel in central London saw the Premier League and its 20 clubs unanimously approve several changes to its owners’ and directors’ test (OADT) — the set of regulations that effectively dictate who is allowed to control a club in English football’s top flight.
One of the changes means a controlling stake in a Premier League side will now be defined as 25 per cent or more, rather than the previous threshold of 30 per cent. From now on, there will also be an “additional annual due diligence” on those who own one of these controlling stakes.
The league also added several “disqualifying events” for would-be directors as well as chief executives of clubs. This will include being subject to government sanctions and being linked to human-rights abuses, and those convicted of violence, corruption, fraud, tax evasion and hate crimes either in the UK or overseas.
The current rules only cover offences “which could reasonably be considered dishonest”, so these new rules appear to be broader and more stringent. The regulations as they stand also bar those who have an unspent conviction carrying a 12-month unspent prison sentence. Any overseas conviction must be in a “competent” jurisdiction.
When it comes to who is a human-rights abuser and therefore not welcome to own a Premier League football club, the league points to the UK’s global human-rights sanctions regulations.
The British authorities publish a lengthy list of who is sanctioned around the world, from senior figures in the Afghan government to oligarchs close to Putin. Other countries heavily represented include Syria, Venezuela and Iran.
But there are a lot of notable absences.
You might be casting your mind to those who own or would like to own a Premier League club and wondering who might be affected by the new rules.
Newcastle United’s majority owner is the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia — a country which does not feature on the list mentioned above. Nor does Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s leader, who has been linked to human-rights abuses.
Saudi Arabia is a close ally of the UK and its officials will certainly not be found on any banned lists. (That country does crop up multiple times on the sanctions list, as several Saudi nationals are leading figures in terrorist group ISIS.)
Added to that, the Premier League received “legally binding assurances” when approving the club’s 2021 takeover that Newcastle would not be controlled by the Saudi state, and there is no reason to believe Thursday’s changes to the OADT would see them come to a different conclusion now.
The new rules will also not be relevant to Manchester United and their potential new owner Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani, a Qatari with close links to a state heavily criticised by human-rights groups.
Qatar is another ally and trading partner of the UK and certainly not on any government lists and, again, Sheikh Jassim has stressed his separation from those in charge of his country throughout the bidding process.
This takes us into the past — and there are indeed two former Premier League directors on the banned list.
One is Alisher Usmanov, who owned over 30 per cent of Arsenal in the early 2010s. After that he had close ties to Everton, where the majority shareholder is Usmanov’s business associate Farhad Moshiri.
Usmanov co-owns USM Holdings and MegaFon, who were two of Everton’s major sponsors until the deals were pulled in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine around this time last year, when Usmanov was sanctioned by the UK government.
Also on the list is Roman Abramovich, who was the impetus behind this new announcement by the Premier League.
After Russia invaded Ukraine last February, then-Chelsea owner Abramovich was swiftly sanctioned by the UK government, plunging the west London club into turmoil.
The sanctions meant an individual’s UK assets were frozen and it was illegal to do business with them. There was no precedent for the situation Chelsea found themselves in, and the Premier League itself was blindsided.
The club eventually went through a forced sale process, under the watch of the UK government, and have ended up in the hands of a consortium including US financier Todd Boehly and the Clearlake Capital group.
These tests aim to ensure that if an Abramovich-style situation happens in future, the league has a protocol in place and the individual will be automatically disqualified if they are sanctioned by the government.
But those looking for a beefed-up test which would prevent clubs being bought by people linked to sovereign states which abuse human rights will be disappointed — if the nation concerned is an ally of the UK, that is.
It wasn’t just the OADT on the agenda during Thursday’s meeting. Several other topics were raised including:
Regarding gambling firms as teams’ main shirt-front sponsors, the clubs are eager to get ahead of any government ban and are in the process of agreeing a voluntary deal to phase such deals out by the 2026-27 season. Betting companies will only be able to advertise on the sleeves of players’ matchday shirts after that.
Clubs also discussed new proposals about using technology to make offside decisions in the Premier League for next season. In the event of a potential offside as things stand, Video Assistant Referees (VARs) study a replay of the incident and “lines” are drawn on a paused image to determine whether the attacking player is beyond the relevant defending player or not. But during last year’s World Cup, “semi-automated” offside technology was in place.
When such a semi-automated system is used, there is no need to draw or activate lines. A virtual offside line is generated automatically while identifying various points on the bodies — head, toes, upper arm and knees — of multiple players simultaneously. Ball-tracking then highlights precisely where the ball is when it is kicked and all of this is communicated to the VAR via a real-time alert system using artificial intelligence.
The system is already in place in the Champions League. Different leagues and tournaments have used slightly different versions of the technology and the Premier League has not yet decided which of these is its best option, but clubs are interested and open to the idea of introducing it next season.
Remember the unusually large amounts of stoppage time at games during the World Cup? Well, get used to it. Although not as extreme as during that tournament, where sometimes 10 minutes were added on at the end of the regulation 90, Premier League officials have been playing more stoppage time this season, and this is being viewed positively by the league, which wants less time-wasting and more entertainment for those paying to watch either in person or on TV.
Measured by the amount of time the ball is in play during a match, the change has indeed seen an improvement in the pace of games. The Premier League wants to go even further next season, which might be bad for those match-going supporters sweating on catching their last train home, but hopefully good for those who like entertaining football and get frustrated by time-wasting.
Finally, there is the matter of the increasingly congested football calendar.
After pausing for three months at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago, more games have been squeezed into less time, and things are only moving in one direction in this regard.
World football’s governing body FIFA is introducing a 32-team Club World Cup to be played every four years from the summer of 2025, usurping the annual seven-club mid-season version and on top of the World Cup and individual federations’ championships such as the Euros, Copa America and Africa Cup of Nations. It will mean our best footballers will be in action almost constantly, all while clubs want their players to have a full three-week break to recharge between seasons.
There is also frustration about domestic football not being consulted about the increasing march of the international game.
(Top photo: A pro-Roman Abramovich banner at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge home in May 2022; by Catherine Ivill via Getty Images)
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