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The future of football - are we heading towards state ownership of big clubs across the board?

After several tumultuous years, the ownership of Sunderland AFC is thankfully settled and stable - though, that’s not the case for a number of England’s biggest clubs.

Photo by Nigel French - PA Images via Getty Images

The ownership of Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs is all up in the air - and with the trend towards state ownership of clubs of this size then how this all pans out will have significant consequences for the future structure of football in England and throughout Europe.

It seems an age ago when local football clubs were owned by local businessmen – self-made men who made a few quid in a particular city or town, whether that be motor dealers such as Tom Cowie at Sunderland or steel magnates such as Jack Walker at Blackburn. Walker was a rich man who invested his fortune in his team Blackburn Rovers, and he was delivered a Premier League title in return for that generosity.

Given the sums needed to reach that level these days, is it even possible to do it that way in the modern era? I doubt it. Cowie was, sadly, less successful as we all know.

There’s been talk of the Saudi state being interested in acquiring Manchester United. Given the size of that club it would take someone or an organization of unimagined wealth to acquire it, to fund it and to bring it back to its former position of dominance. Liverpool are in a not dissimilar position, with similar potential buyers hovering.

Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Lee Parker - CameraSport via Getty Images

Old Trafford and Anfield - like many of the older grounds sadly including the Stadium of Light - require refurbishment, and the United and Liverpool squads require improvement to compete at the top of the European competitions again.

The numbers to get back there are frightening and can’t be generated by the football clubs themselves, as Jurgen Klopp has more than hinted at recently.

Two items of related news this week are also worthy of consideration in relation to this and the wider consequences of what is likely to happen.

This week’s reports that Qatar Sports Investments are looking to acquire a stake in Spurs was a surprise. This is the group that currently owns PSG and have an interest in Braga of Portugal. The existing rules prevent them from taking a controlling interest in another club but they are permitted to take a minority stake, as they did with Braga.

So, what is their motive? Spurs haven’t won a trophy in years but consistently compete at the upper end of the Premier League, with regular Champions League appearances. They are London based and have a magnificent stadium. So far, they haven’t been able to compete financially with Manchester City, Liverpool or Manchester United - adding funding could see them do so. But a minority stake? Why?

Does that make any sort of rational business sense? Sense rarely comes into it when investing in football, but maybe at this level it is different.

Argentina v France: Final - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Traditionally football clubs were either seen as part of the social return to the community for local owners or an ego trip for the owner, or an expensive hobby, or a mixture of all three. Rarely has anyone made a profit by owning a football club, so this brings us to the second interesting story this week.

This was an interview in Thursday’s Guardian with The President of La Liga, Javier Tabas. In that interview, Tabas questioned whether the Premier League is financially sustainable in the long run given that it has been “converted into a competition where all clubs lose money”.

Only three Premier League Clubs were profitable in 2020/21 – those being Leeds, Wolves and most likely after some very clever accounting, Manchester City. Every club needs to spend more than it generates to progress and to survive, hence the need for richer and richer owners to fund those losses - ultimately leading us to the state ownership of clubs.

Tabas – who it must be remembered is President of La Liga – went on to say in his Guardian interview that Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona would soon announce revised plans for a European Super League. That is hot on the heels of FIFA unveiling plans for a 25 club World Club Championship to be held in 2025.

Is this the motivation for states to acquire clubs? Do these plans add some rationale to the decision to invest? A Tuesday night Premier League away game at, say (and no disrespect) Bournemouth, surely isn’t their dream or something which influences their investment decision - instead, big city venues, big stadia, world stars competing, global media and TV audiences along with the gambling revenues is surely the prize that they are after.

Paul Gascoigne Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

Italia 90 was a World Cup that represented the time when football went on to change and start the journey to where we are now. That tournament helped the game become popular again, and the Premier League and its riches which have grown and grown since then have followed.

There is a desire, a thirst, a requirement for more and more financial resources to feed the monster that has been created and is running down the hill and gathering speed each year.

It now feels like the recent World Cup in Qatar is a similar watershed moment.

The World Cup was held in the part of the world that is providing most of this additional funding and providing state ownership of clubs. There is an increase in talk of a European or World Super League – the aim of such talk is to normalise the idea over a period of time. It won’t take long for such a concept to be accepted into the human mind.

This is all just the natural extension to the story of football finance over the last 30 years. I wonder when the time will be right for the big state-owned clubs to decide that the time is right to break cover and move.

I expect that it won’t be too far into the future given the current direction of travel.

Our club won’t be involved in any of this, of course, it is likely that we never will be.

That’s fine by me, I just enjoy watching my team play a game of football these days but we need to be prepared for the changes, for better of worse, which will surely come.

If and when it happens it will change football forever, and there will be no route back to what we grew up with.

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