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'By 2016 foreign owners had bought, or held significant shares in, 15 of the Premier League’s 20 teams'

Read an extract from ‘The Billionaires Club’ by James Montague.

Chelsea's owner Roman Abramovich (file pic).
Chelsea's owner Roman Abramovich (file pic).
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from The Billionaires Club.

Football in the 21st century is unrecognisable from the working-class game that captivated and captured the world in the 20th. Sky and BT paid over £5 billion for the 2016–19 three-year Premier League broadcasting deal. Once foreign rights sales are taken into account, that figure rises to above £8 billion.

The sale of the English league’s foreign rights alone are comparable to the entire TV rights deals of Spain, Germany and Italy. The 2016–19 deal will likely secure just as much. In comparison, the Premier League’s first five-year contract signed with BSkyB in 1992 was for £191.5 million, less than 4% of the 2016–19 deal.

Less than three decades earlier, the game was very different. The story of 15 April 1989, Hillsborough – the 96 Liverpool fans who died in a stadium crush during the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest; the Taylor Report, which painted a picture of a dilapidated game housed in decrepit, crumbling, Victorian stadiums where supporters were treated little better than cattle; and the subsequent rebranding of the game that would consign football’s negative image to the past – has been well documented elsewhere.

But 1989 also saw a year of seismic political and social upheaval that would go on to play an important role in football’s economic evolution. In November of that year the Berlin Wall finally fell, which marked the beginning of the end of Europe’s communist partition, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and what seemed to be total victory for free-market capitalism and liberal democracy over state-dictated socialism.

It was dubiously dubbed the ‘end of history’ by political theorists like Francis Fukuyama, and marked a fundamental shift in the global economy, the roots of which had been laid by the free-market economics of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US that preached the gospel of privatisation and deregulation. The fall of the Berlin Wall brought freedom to millions but also heralded a period of plunder unseen in modern times. It handed the opportunity to a group of businessmen to take advantage of the chaos to make fortunes in an opaque fashion. It gave rise to the oligarchs – a Greek word that approximates to ‘rule by the few’ but which is largely now used in relation to Russian business figures connected to the country’s political elite.

Around the world, the post-communist economic settlement accelerated a system of privatisations and deregulations that concentrated wealth and increased inequality, whether in the United Kingdom or Russia.

As the historian Niall Ferguson wrote in the Boston Globe after the election of US president Donald Trump: ‘Back in 1989, we thought we were witnessing the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy. Alas, we were wrong. It turns out the winners were oligarchy and the populism that legitimises it.’

Millionaires became billionaires, and football, in particular the Premier League, was in the right place at the right time to benefit from the largesse of this new class of super-rich.

Within years the Premier League model was being frantically copied, with minor cultural tweaks, everywhere from Australia to the US to India, attracting a new breed of club owner, one that had been largely unseen in world football until the mid-1990s: members of the super-rich with little or no local connection to the club they had bought, who, at best, possessed hazy motives and even hazier pasts.

By the end of 2016 foreign owners had bought, or held significant shares in, 15 of the Premier League’s 20 teams. Dozens more, from Charlton to Blackpool, had bought clubs further down the league pyramid.

But more important than nationality was wealth. 14 billionaires from Russia, Iran, China, Thailand, the UAE, Germany and Switzerland, the US and the UK now had a say in the fates of Arsenal, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Everton, Leicester City, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Sunderland, Stoke City, Southampton and Tottenham. And it wasn’t just in England.

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In France, Paris Saint-Germain had been bought by Qatar Sports Investments, an investment vehicle funded by the Qatari state. Qatar was now one of the richest countries – when judged by GDP per capita – on earth.

Other investments had spanned the globe, with money from Sheikh Mansour connecting Manchester City to New York City FC to Melbourne City FC. Clubs in the Netherlands, Italy, France and the UK had been bought by Chinese billionaires.

How and where they made their money was often unknown. It wasn’t that big spending hadn’t existed before. Jack Walker pumped his many millions into buying his beloved Blackburn Rovers the Premier League title in 1995, while Mohamed al Fayed sunk anywhere up to £200 million into turning third division Fulham into a Premier League club.

What had changed was the scale of the resources needed to compete, along with the internationalisation of the investors. Gone were the days that Manchester United could be controlled by a successful local butcher, as Louis Edwards had done when he took control of the club in 1964.

Now only plutocrats, oligarchs, royalty and global captains of industry need apply, untethered from geographical constraints.

The Billionaires Club is not really about the business of football, although it touches on it. Nor is it about the football business, as such. It is about the new Masters of the Universe that have now made football their business.

The book began life wanting to ask questions that are rarely answered. Who is this new breed of super-rich football club owner? Where and how did they make their huge fortunes, now being funnelled into the wage packets of £200,000-a-week footballers? And, most puzzlingly of all, why did they decide to sink huge portions of their vast fortunes into football in the first place?

In essence, how did a former rubber duck salesman from Moscow, turned owner of Chelsea, rise to become one of Vladimir Putin’s most trusted oligarchs? Why would a quiet, unknown member of the Abu Dhabi royal family ‒ an absolute monarchy permitting little freedom of speech and built on the back of dwindling oil revenue and virtual indentured slavery ‒ decide to buy a mid-table English club? Why does a slew of Chinese consortiums suddenly own all the clubs in the West Midlands?

By visiting their home countries, their businesses and the clubs they have bought, we can begin to build a picture of what football’s future might look like in this brave, sometimes frightening new world.

‘The Billionaires Club’ by James Montague is published by Bloomsbury Sport. More info here.

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