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May 13, 2009

Assuaging the politicians

Last year the UK's Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham, challenged the Premier League to ''reassess its relationship with money'' after shining an official light on a variety of uncomfortable issues from debt levels and foreign ownership, to the need for a greater competitive balance across the league and improved opportunities for English players.

To its credit given it was under no obligation to do so, the Premier League this week responded by announcing a retooled ''fit and proper persons'' test and promising to introduce greater transparency over club finances and ownership.

Given that Burnham has absolutely no power whatsoever to sanction change over how the Premier League governs itself, that chief executive Richard Scudamore even bothered to respond can be seen as a significant and positive reaction.

The Premier League will ask its 20 clubs to vote in favour of introducing the new rules ahead of the 2009-10 season at their summer meeting next month, but whether the new rules go far enough to placate Burnham and the league's other critics is open to question.

Crucially one area that appears to have been left out of the league's response to Burnham's original line of open questioning concerns the thorny issue of takeovers achieved by debt financing. It is a particularly contentious issue given the current economic climate and because it has seen high-profile and controversial takeovers at Anfield and Old Trafford, which have been leveraged in such a way that the two clubs have been lumbered with a combined debt in excess of £1bn.

The financial element of the Premier League's new regulations mirror the rules set out under UEFA's existing club licensing system - a set of criteria with which teams must comply with in order to be granted entry for European competitions. In the Premier League version, clubs will be asked to submit to independent auditing of their accounts and present forecasts for the coming year in order to prove they are a going concern.

Any transgressions could see clubs banned from buying or selling players, or forced to sell to ensure they remain solvent.

The ''fit and proper'' person element of the new rules will ensure that anyone sentenced to more than a year in jail will be blocked from owning a controlling stake in a club or serving as a director, while another test will allow the government to decide whether an individual is fit to be a businessman in the UK. Clubs must also publish the identity of all individuals and companies that own more than 10% of a club even if they are based abroad.

The Premier League will hope that the new regulations will ensure there is no repeat of the situation which allowed former Thailand Prime Minister Thakshin Shinawatra to assume control at Manchester City, despite being an effective fugitive from his homeland where he faced corruption charges and accusations of human rights abuses.

That episode damaged the Premier League's image both home and abroad, leaving it open to accusations that, thanks to its collective greed, any of its 20 member clubs were for sale regardless of how unattractive the suitor was.

It is the backlash from the Shinawatra affair, much more than Burnham's toothless politicking, that has resulted in the Premier League's new raft of regulations, the overriding objective of which is to repair any damage to the league's fiercely protected, and highly valuable image. If, as a happy bi-product, the public's concerns are soothed and media hungry politicians' criticisms are placated at the same time then so much the better.

While many feel the Premier League is guilty at times of being venal and crass, the same accusations have been levelled at the very politicians who are seeking tighter controls on the game; that the league has made no attempt to exploit the ongoing furore has been a surprise to some.

The UK is currently captivated by an all-encompassing political scandal which has seen the majority of the country's elected officials lose all credit with the general public after it emerged that well-paid officials have been claiming expenses for a variety of ludicrous goods and services ranging from the incredible - chandelier and moat cleaning - to the banal - dog food, light bulbs and lemons.

While most of the affected MPs have sought to remain contrite and keep a low profile, others, like Burnham, have taken a different tack. The Member of Parliament for Leigh in Lancashire last week chose to try and start a fresh fight over money by calling on the Premier League and the top four clubs to share the cash they earn from playing in Europe.

For the record Burnham, who earns a tidy £141,866 for his officials duties, tried and failed to claim £19.99 for an IKEA bathrobe (a mistake, he claims) and battled for months with the parliamentary fees office over an ultimately successful £16,500 claim to buy and renovate a flat in London.

While the Premier League would not have been best served by taking a cheap shot at one of their most outspoken critics, there is an undeniable irony in the fact that the politician lecturing the Premier League over matters of financial morality is embroiled in a scandal over financial propriety.

Of course Burnham makes salient points and, despite not having any mandate to affect change on the Premier League, it is important that he raises the issues and responds to the concerns of supporters.

But there is political expediency at play on both sides with both Burnham and the Premier League striving to turn situations to their advantage.

While the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said it was ''encouraged'' by the Premier League's announcement of plans for greater disclosure and financial scrutiny, there is a sense that the steps taken have been designed more to protect the clubs and the status quo than to assuage politicians.

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