England's football clubs play offshore

Bryan RobsonFormer Manchester United and England football captain Bryan Robson (right) did not come well out of this week's Dispatches exposé 'How to buy a football club'. He was filmed giving advice on how to circumvent FA rules on club ownership, but the investigation raised wider questions about who owns clubs.
Robson was filmed by undercover reporters alongside representatives of London Nominees, a Bangkok-based fund which lists its purpose as "investing in football clubs, players, franchises, merchandising and sponsorship in this outstanding growth industry".

The former Old Trafford legend, who is now a 'global ambassador' for United, alongside London Nominees' chief executive and its lawyer, are shown discussing how to circumvent rules which prevent a single investor from having a stake in more than one club.

Sky money

Robson says: "I disagree with people when they football is a sport. Football lost its sporting thing when the money started coming in and Sky and all that. Football's a business." And what shocked fans was how a number of clubs were tossed around like poker chips as the group weighed up what to buy.

The undercover reporters posed as investors looking to make an investment and get out with a profit within five years. At one stage they are told they may be able to "get out" within three years. The programme once again highlighted the serious concerns many have over the ownership of English clubs.

Dispatches, in this writer's view, failed to control the ball as well as it might on this point, choosing instead to concentrate far too much on claims by various individuals – including Robson – that they could use their contacts in the game to get players on loan to help the investors' club get into the Premiership.

Most people in most businesses would expect to use their contacts where they could, so there was no great scandal here. It was the discussion on how to conceal the involvement of the investors that was the meat of the matter, because it revealed how difficult it is to find out who owns clubs.

Tax havens

It did make the point that the ownership of many English clubs are is registered in tax havens, about which we have written extensively on this site. Last year a report by Christian Aid, backed by the Football Supporters Federation and Supporters Direct, found 25, including 15 in the Premier League, were based offshore.

The report, 'Blowing the whistle: Time's up for financial secrecy' says "Finding out who owns a football club should be straightforward". But by registering in secrecy jurisdictions many clubs ensure that it is anything but simple. Calls for greater corporate transparency in the wider world are growing, and in football it should be no different.

Christian Aid's report points out that in the Republic of Ireland, a law called the Registration of Business Names Act 1963 stipulates "if you're going to trade as the Blue Football Club for example, then you must register that fact and say who is the legal owner of the business of that name".

The report concluded: "financial opacity obscures the truth, whatever its nature. An unknown or unknowable owner can still have the best interests of the club at heart – but anonymity can also be used to hide unpalatable financial truths.

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