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Saturday, Dec. 9, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Premier League benefiting from foreign ownership of teams


LONDON -- By early 2007 a third of the 20 Premiership clubs will come under foreign ownership.

Christopher Davies

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the world's fifth-richest man whose wealth makes Chelsea's Roman Abramovich seem working class, is behind Dubai International Capital's proposed £450 million takeover of Liverpool.

Assuming the deal goes through, Sheikh Mohammed would become the seventh foreign owner of a Premiership club, a trend that is understandably causing concern in English football where there is a worry that a super-rich league within a league is being created.

He would join Roman Abramovich (Russian, Chelsea), Malcolm Glazer (American, Manchester United), Randy Lerner (American, Aston Villa), Alexandre Gaydamak (French, Portsmouth), Mohammed Fayed (Egyptian, Fulham) and Eggert Magnusson (Icelandic, West Ham) in the Premiership's foreign legion.

It would be impossible to discriminate against any potential owner of an English club on the grounds of nationality.

While there are some thorough "fit and proper person" regulations in place which apply to any individual owning more than a 33 percent stake in a club, they relate generally to previous instances of fraud or whether someone has been banned from being a director of a company.

None of the "magnificent seven" has any previous misdemeanors that would prevent them from joining the Premiership gravy train.

It is difficult to see how the foreign legion has done anything but benefit English football.

Some may argue Abramovich's wealth has created a financial imbalance, but there are a number of clubs who have received probably double what a player is worth because of the new spending power at Stamford Bridge.

They aren't complaining.

The most common argument is that the overseas investors are not fans of the clubs and do not have the same feeling for the English game -- they are just in it for the money.

That pre-supposes British chairmen do not have their eye on the huge profits that can be made by investing in Premiership clubs.

And for years people have been asking: "Why don't football club chairmen run their clubs like a proper business?"

Which is to make money -- and when they do, they are still criticized.

THE CONTINUED success of English teams in the Champions League also owes much to the foreign influence in the Premiership's top teams.

History was made when Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United all topped their groups and will be first seeds when the draw for the knockout stage is drawn next Friday.

English clubs won seven of the eight European Cup finals before the 1985 Heysel tragedy.

However, the subsequent five-year ban from European competition and the inevitable knock-on effect meant that it would be another 14 years before an English team reached the Champions League final, when Manchester United beat Bayern Munich in 1999.

It was a further six for another appearance, which was Liverpool's remarkable three-goal comeback to win on penalties against AC Milan in 2005, with Arsenal reaching last season's final when it lost to Barcelona.

Now, for the first time, one country has produced four group winners. Celtic has also reached the knockout phase for the first time ever.

"It's fantastic for British football," said United manager Alex Ferguson after his team beat Benfica 3-1 to top Group F ahead of Celtic. "I think one of the British teams can win and I just hope it is us."

In the 1970s and '80s the European domination by English clubs came through teams made up of predominantly English players, with a sprinkling of Irish, Scots and Welsh.

In 2006, it is almost a case of spot-the-Englishman.

Arsenal started without a single English player when it drew 0-0 with Porto on Wednesday, while Chelsea featured just two against Levski Sofia.

Liverpool, already assured of qualification, was able to field a few of its reserves in its five away to Galatasaray, plus Welshman Craig Bellamy.

United also started with five, plus a Welshman in Ryan Giggs, who now holds the Champions League record of having scored in 12 separate campaigns after heading a goal against Benfica at Old Trafford.

None of England's four heavyweights has an English manager -- Arsene Wenger of Arsenal is French, Chelsea's Jose Mourinho is Portuguese, Liverpool's Rafa Benitez is Spanish and United's Sir Alex Ferguson is Scottish (his mobile ring tone is Scotland The Brave incidentally).

Yet no one could doubt the passion and pride they have at managing English clubs.

Football 2006 is a truly international sport in every sense.

I NEVER realized the can of worms that would be opened when I asked Luton manager Mike Newell how disappointed he was to concede two goals from corners in its 3-2 defeat to Queens Park Rangers last month.

It was a regulation but relevant question at the after-match press conference. Little did I know that his reply would lead to the Luton manager facing two Football Association charges of improper conduct and not acting in the best interests of the game.

Newell felt that the second corner from which Rangers scored their winning goal should have been a goal-kick.

It was awarded by female assistant referee Amy Rayner and Newell said: "She shouldn't be here. I know that sounds sexist but I am sexist. That's not the way to improve refereeing by bringing women into the game. It's beyond belief.

"When do we get to the stage when it's all women? Then we're really in trouble.

"You start bringing women in then you do have problems. Why are women down for games like this? It's Championship football, not parks football. It's a token effort for the politically correct idiots."

His response ensured Luton's game became an unlikely back page lead the following day.

Newell subsequently apologized publicly and privately to Rayner -- "'she has accepted it but I'm entitled to my opinion and, as far as I'm concerned, the matter is closed."

That view was as naive as the initial comments were insulting and Newell can expect a fine and a warning as to his future conduct when the F.A.'s disciplinary commission decides the case.

Christopher Davies was a longtime soccer correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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