Saturday, September 30, 2006

Panorama Bungs Scandal

Bungs.
Another Pyrrhic Victory? - Panorama "Bungs Scandal"

The BBC thought they had scored a hit with their recent documentary supposedly exposing the kickbacks involved in English football but was it the opening salvo of hope in the fight to reclaim the Beautiful Game or just another blank being fired?

The Panorama documentary "Football's Dirty Secrets" was much billed in the national press as the exposé that would lift the lid on a can of worms that is Premiership football and precipitate a major clean sweep of the top division with some top-level casualties along the way.

While it was alarming to realize just how ingrained the tradition of managers seeking to cream off a percentage of a transfer fee is now, thanks to the connivance of unscrupulous agents, what was revealed really ought not to surprise us one jot.

After all, Arsenal's George Graham was forced to resign back in 1995 after it was revealed he had profited to the tune of £425,000 from transfer dealings involving a bent Norwegian player representative called Rune Hauge.

Fast forward eleven years and we are still dealing with exactly the same issue; in this case Bolton Wanderers' boss Sam Allardyce accused of pocketing pounds on transfer fees with his son as the broker [Allardyce has claimed he is "utterly innocent" of any wrong-doing and is planning to sue the BBC].

Harry Redknapp, the alleged prince of bungs, had expected to be shot to pieces by the Panorama programme and had issued a pre-emptive statement in the press, but he need not have worried as his involvement in the documentary was limited to expressing interest in signing a player under contract elsewhere.

Alas, the latest exposé of wrongdoing will fail to clean up the game unless powers from beyond football intervene to enforce the law. Football has shown itself to be spectacularly incapable of policing itself so many times before and has operated more like a private betting syndicate in the back of a pub than an open and above board industry that involves millions of participants and 360-degree media coverage.

Let anyone complacent about the morality of the sport merely take a look beyond Italy's fourth World Cup triumph in 2006 at the astonishing scandal that engulfed their domestic game in the run-up to the tournament.

Now soccer is a multi-billion pound global business, it behoves governments to treat it as such and apply the laws that are enforced on similar concerns.

This entails not only scanning the industry for under the table payments but also enforcing competition laws which would place restrictions on the amount of money any club can spend on wages and possibly the number of foreign players they can employ. If it means the European Union, via UEFA, must impose a salary cap across the continent, then what are we waiting for - ten consecutive Premiership titles for Chelsea?

Regulation of this out-of-control wildfire is ever more pressing now clubs in the English top division are being snapped up by random international venture capitalists, who often unashamedly admit to having no roots or interest in the game, in a 21st century version of the Scramble for Africa in the 1800s.

Talking of Africa, the protracted battle over Nigerian Jon Obi Mikkel's signature, an unseemly squabble eventually won by Chelsea over Malcolm Glazer's Manchester United plc, saw Rune Hauge's name surface again after all these years, still working as an agent and still apparently tricking his way in a fight for a slice of the cake (Hauge was one of several agents who claimed to represent Mikkel)!

Another young African, Freddy Adu, in the news ever since he debuted in Major League Soccer aged 14, has reportedly been the target of Reading FC this week. That a player aged 17, with no national team caps or European Union passport could even be considered for a work permit in the UK speaks volumes of football's sell-out to the morality of the free market.

There is a school of thought that says this is all a storm in a teacup, that fans simply do not care what happens to their gate money as long as there is a team to cheer about on the field and who appear to be playing for the shirt.

How anyone can entertain thoughts of player loyalty in 2006 is ridiculous enough, but there is some mileage in the apathy of fans in the face of exploitation, which allowed characters like Newcastle directors Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall, in 1998, to laugh at fans forking out a fortune for polyester replica shirts.

In Newcastle's case, the fans must shoulder some blame for turning out in such huge numbers and buying so much merchandise no matter how unscrupulous or inept the owners have been.

Boycotting a product is one way to punish its makers, but in the case of the "Geordie Nation' amongst others, this course of action is unrealistic.

I attended Arsenal's first home game after George Graham's stunning resignation in February 1995, and watched as the home fans really took exception to the traveling Nottingham Forest supporters taunting them about their corrupt former employee.

The Gunners' fans had enjoyed such a golden age under Graham they were prepared to turn a blind eye to his creative accounting with their money.

So where do we go from here? The FA have announced yet another enquiry in the wake of the Panorama programme, but no one with more than a toe in reality thinks that will solve anything.

Until governments realize there are no votes to be lost in interfering with a popular public pursuit, the solutions lie elsewhere. More football chairmen like the outspoken Simon Jordan would help. No one has tried harder than the Crystal Palace boss to fight back against agents' hijacking of player loyalties, to the extent that Jordan has refused point blank to deal with them:

"I see so many of them happy to sow division if it means they get a better deal, often working against the interests of clubs, players and supporters - and yet the game still opens its arms and embraces them," he told The Observer in 2005.

The other source of hope could be an unlikely one: FIFA President Sepp Blatter. Whereas his predecessor, ‘the great dictator' Joao Havelange, happily encouraged all manner of commercialism and profiteering in the Beautiful Game, Blatter is increasingly critical of the mishandling of the sport by unregulated markets.

While he is still in many ways the man with "50 ideas a day, 51 of which are bad," such as enlarged goals or women players wearing skimpy outfits, the Swiss soccer chief may yet surprise us with a decision from the heart that will help stop the commercial rotting of the game.

Make no mistake, with the top Premiership teams fielding eleven foreigners with a foreign coach and foreign owners swanning in to buy up the ‘franchise' for marketing or vanity purposes, we are living in strange days in football's history.

As Simon Jordan aptly put it, "This isn't the real world - it's a banana republic. And if people in the game can't see that - and think things can't get any better, fairer or more decent - God help us."

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