English game threatened with greater regulation

LONDON, (Reuters) – English soccer must clean up its  financial mess or face government intervention to save the  national game’s reputation, the UK opposition Conservative  Party’s spokesman for sport said.

Dozens of clubs have gone into administration in recent  years because of cash flow problems and unpaid debts, including  the most high-profile casualty so far, Portsmouth, the first  Premier League club to call in the accountants.

Soccer governance must be dragged into the 21st century, and  cannot be exempt from measures introduced in other parts of  society and business, Hugh Robertson said in a Reuters interview  ahead of this week’s general election.

“Football clubs will always go bust,” he said. “I’m afraid  sadly from time to time this will happen, but I am just not  convinced at the moment that the regulatory regime around  football is as tough as it should be to prevent it happening.”

Robertson could be sports minister if the Conservatives win  what is expected to be a close-fought election to be held on  Thursday.

He wants the game’s three powers, the Premier League,  Football Association and Football League, to tackle the issue by  tightening the ‘fit and proper person’ test for club owners.

He also wants greater financial transparency, controls on  the level of debt clubs are allowed to carry, and independent  governance.

Reform has been talked about over a number of years, even  when soccer was in a better state financially.

But the plight of Portsmouth, which went into administration  in February with about 60 million pounds worth of debt, has  brought the issue into sharper focus.

The English Premier League is the richest in the world, but  it is being held back by vested interests on the boards of clubs  and soccer institutions, Robertson said. As a result, too many  clubs are going into administration.

The game’s bodies have been given until the end of the  summer to come up with their own ideas. Failure to do so will  mean the government will “have to intervene”.

“I am not entirely decided yet whether that would be by  means of primary legislation…or whether simply we set up and  put an independent football regulator into motion, which you  could do much more quickly,” he said.

Since 2000, more than 25 professional clubs in the Football  League and the lower tier such as the Football Conference have  gone into administration, some more than once.

The ruling Labour party prefers to focus on making it easier  for supporters’ groups to buy stakes in soccer teams and  allowing greater scrutiny of club takeovers.

Attempts at stricter self-regulation were dealt a blow in  March when the FA’s Chief Executive Ian Watmore suddenly  resigned at a time when he was believed to be to close to  delivering reform ideas.

His departure showed something was “badly wrong” with the  structure of English football, Robertson said.

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