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Jan 7, 2009

The times they are a-changin'

There was a time when it was difficult to conceive of a football club being able to boast a benefactor with deeper pockets than Roman Abramovich. But things change.

No longer can the Russian billionaire claim to be the richest man in football. In fact, thanks to the seismic events of 2008, he can't even claim to be the second richest man in the game.

The shift atop FourFourTwo magazine's British Football Rich List (see first side bar, right) is not purely a result of the global economic meltdown - while the Chelsea owner's wealth did shrink by £3 billion, Abramovich's immense wealth still requires nine zeroes if you write it down in full.

No, the reason Abramovich has been deposed is that two figures with even more in the bank have followed his example and got themselves a piece of the football action.

The new name at the head of rich list is Manchester City's new owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan who, as a member of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family, can lay his hands on a £15 billion fortune.

With a 20% stake in Queens Park Rangers and a £12.5 billion fortune, Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal is second on the list, which has seen Abramovich and his comparatively paltry £7 billion bumped down into third.

Incredibly the rich list's top ten is comprised entirely of billionaires. In joint 10th position with a pot of £1.1 billion are Watford's majority shareholder Lord Ashcroft and Manchester United's owners, Malcolm Glazer and family.

And that leads us to the rather galling truth hidden between the lines of the list. We are talking about the personal wealth of the owners and their families, not the clubs they own. Just because the owner of your club has more money than he will ever know what to do with does not automatically mean you are on the fast track to glory.

If that were true Cheltenham Town would be in the Champions League by virtue of the £966 million belonging to their financial backer Simon Keswick, who is 12th on the list.

Manchester City fans are lucky, in the case of Sheikh Mansour, that it seems their club has an owner ready to splash the cash. The British transfer record-breaking outlay of £32.5 million last August for Robinho and links to many other world class players (and Wayne Bridge) in the run-up to the current transfer window are reminiscent of the epoch-making fantasy football transfers (and Wayne Bridge) of Abramovich's earlier days at Chelsea.

In that regard QPR have so far been less fortunate. Despite the cumulative wealth of their three owners - Mittal is part of triumvirate which also includes the fabulously-rich Formula 1 impresario Bernie Ecclestone and the similarly moneyed F1 team owner Flavio Briatore - the Loftus Road club are yet to see evidence of their owners' financial might displayed in the transfer market.

But while it must be a frustrating reality to be faced with - that the untold riches of your club's owners remain untapped - at least QPR fans can be happy that their club are now debt free and secure.

Far more galling is that while the Glazer family are sitting pretty on the list with a sumptuous family fortune, Manchester United have debts north of £500 million thanks to the complex loans the Glazers used to raise the funds to buy the club back in 2005.

But, for now at least, unless Bill Gates starts to take an interest in the Premier League Sheikh Mansour's position atop the owners' rich list looks safe. Although we said that when Abramovich came to town.


Still on the subject of vast, almost ludicrous wealth the likes of which we will never see, know or even comprehend, the FourFourTwo rich list also reveals the financial pecking order of those players connected with the British game (see second side bar, above right).

Not surprisingly the globetrotting, underpant salesman and sometimes footballer, David Beckham, is the top man with a personal fortune of £125 million, which is more than three times the £40 million his closest rival Michael Owen can lay claim to (but then, Owen doesn't have his own perfume to bring in extra pocket money).

Completing the top three is Wayne Rooney with a rather tidy £35 million, while Frank Lampard (£20 million), Steven Gerrard (£19 million) and Cristiano Ronaldo (£18 million) also feature on the list.

It all seems quite regulation so far, but there are a few incongruous inclusion on the list.

Take your pick from this rogue's gallery: Emile Heskey, the 19th richest player in Britain with £12 million, Damien Duff (!) is somehow the 14th wealthiest player, while Robbie Fowler, perhaps a decade or more after his halcyon days, is the 4th richest player in the UK game with a fortune of £28 million. Not to be sniffed at.

So, what have we learnt? Well, just as the wealth of the owner of a club does not necessarily equate to that club's sporting success or spending power, so player wealth does not necessarily equate to ability, or indeed achievement.


Finally, a little titbit which might just raise a grin after two rather depressing tales of bewildering riches: The leaders of England's 2018 World Cup bid have insisted that £1.5 million provisionally allocated for donation to international projects is not designed to help swing votes in their way. Not a bit of it. Honest, guv.

As details of the England bid were announced, it was revealed that 10% of the proposed £15 million fighting fund would be allocated for international development projects to compliment work already carried out by the Football Association in countries like Lesotho, Malawi and Botswana.

''The bid to bring the World Cup to England in 2018 will further develop the pioneering work of the FA in the last eight years and the bid company, England 2018 Ltd, has therefore set aside specific funds to promote this long-term project,'' said a spokesman.

Let's not be churlish, these are desperately impoverished countries which are in dire need of assistance, and it is laudable that an economic power like England is prepared to lend helping hand.

It just so happens that countries like these also happen to be members of the Confederation of African Football, which could prove to be a vital ally when it comes FIFA voting.

It certainly sounds like a policy designed to influence votes through benevolence, but if they say otherwise, fair enough. Perhaps it's just a rather convenient, not to mention politically expedient, coincidence.

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