First it was FIFA, with a corruption scandal that seemed to engulf half of its senior members. Then UEFA was dragged into the affray, with the ousting of Michel Platini for receiving illicit payments. Now it seems not even the FA, so often applauded for standing up to the backward Sepp Blatter, is beyond reproach, and is, we are being told, in dire need of reform.
Accusations have been aimed at its lack of diversity; only eight of the 122 members of the FA council are women and only four from ethnic minorities, 90 are aged over 60. It is secretive and closed in its decision making and crucially, more and more it represents the interests of the Premier League and the big clubs, who have continually gained influence in not only the FA council, but also the board structure, which also has considerable power.
But all these reforms need to be put in the context of the battles that lie at the heart of all of them. That is the large clubs, and the money, versus the interests of everyone involved in football. And it is a story that has been playing out in England since the 1992 breakaway of the top clubs to form the Premier League. It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who is interested in football that the FA has been accused of putting money first, that the Premier League has too much influence, and that it is not representative enough.
One only has to remember the floated arguments for a lucrative 39th game of the Premier League season to be played abroad or the failure to implement rules to encourage and nurture British players. And how many black managers are there currently in league football? Three. Out of 92.
There have been some concessions. There is now a quota of English players in squads, there is a “Rooney Rule” being implemented in the Football League, where one black candidate must be considered (although not in the Premier League), and the hostility to a 39th game meant that those ideas were quickly shelved. In this light, you may argue that changes aren’t necessary, that the clubs will be sated by the influence that they have in UEFA and FIFA, where four champions league places have been guaranteed from 2018.
But the problem is that these changes won’t satisfy. With the Premier League riches increasing exponentially, which two of the six big clubs – Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool – do you think will settle for life without Champions League football? The answer is none of the above and you can throw ambitious Everton in the mix of clubs who will be clamouring for more Champions League places at the expense of other European leagues.
Even if there is reform, fighting the vested interests in the game will be arduous and bitter. I wrote for The Saint about the election of Aleksander Čeferin as head of UEFA, a triumph for football over financial interests in the game; someone who would represent the interests of all the associations, rather than the prominent five. I said then that it was symbolic of his struggle, that the previous president, Michel Platini, was able to address the UEFA congress. My fears appear to have played out by Ceferin’s silence so far on the issue of the changes to the Champions League in 2018. The clubs appear to be winning. Ceferin is concentrating on getting his UEFA reforms through first, and ensuring that his senior colleagues obtain positions. And for FIFA, you only have to look at Infantino’s new expanded World Cup, with 48 teams and three team groups, to see that money still rules.
And if you wonder why these reforms are necessary, just take a look at domestic sport in the United States. Several league games are already played outside the United States, with more planned. And if you go to a game, you realise how much the sport has been changed by corporate backers.
Adverts are played in every break, along with competitions sponsored by a car company or a headphone brand. These are read out by the announcer who becomes really an advertiser; so monotonous is the repetitive, “Sponsored by…”
But what really clinched it for me was when I enquired of my American friend whom I was at a game with, why there was a pause in the play. “For the TV adverts”, was the reply. FA reforms may not achieve the perfect game we wish, but it is absolutely necessary to prevent it from descending into this.