Inside World Football
If there is one subject everyone agrees on is that FIFA needs to be more accountable and transparent. Yet even as there is unanimity on this subject in one area of football there is so little transparency and information is so tightly controlled that it makes those who run the politburo in China look liberal and media friendly. This is in the area of how clubs communicate to the world.
Much has been made of Mike Ashley, the owner of Newcastle, barring all but one print media access when he appointed Steve McClaren as manager. But while this was extraordinary nearly all clubs make sure that information they give out regarding transfers, or other club activity, is on their terms and, increasingly, only to their own media outlets. So gone are the days when a new signing was paraded before a press conference. Now, somebody from the club’s in house PR team interviews the player and this is then posted on the club’s website. The same goes for almost all other clubs news.
Yes, managers do hold pre-match and post-match press conferences but this is more in the nature of a ritual with very limited information provided, not a genuine exercise in being open and accountable. And what makes the whole thing truly remarkable is such tight control by clubs has come when the appetite for football news is such that there is almost saturation coverage of football and a Premier League result can even make the mast head of a broadsheet paper.
So keen is the media to cover football that football is not only the only sport but the only activity in Britain where newspapers report events two days old. So Monday papers in Britain carry match reports of games played on a Saturday, matches that have already been reported in the Sunday papers and televised live in the preceding 48 hours. In no other walk of life does this happen. Of course this reflects the fact that this country has separate Sunday papers but that such reporting still continues shows the hold of football. Yet, while the sport has never been more dominant, football news has never been more controlled and is an amazing contrast to the world of football that existed 40 years ago when I first started reporting the game.
Then there was not much interest in how FIFA, UEFA or other sports bodies were run. When I first started reporting on their activities I had to fight very hard to get sports editors to accept that we must report what men in suits are saying and doing as their activities affect what men in shorts can do on the playing field.
I am well aware that the media world was very different. Internet, let alone social media, had not even been imagined and most newspapers devoted no more than four pages to sports. This was so restrictive that in the Sunday Times if I was assigned a match that did not involve a London team I would not even get to see my match report. A match between two Midlands team would only be reported in the Midland edition of the paper and one between two northern teams only in the northern edition. So being London based I always hoped I would get a north-south, or midland-south match to make sure I could actually read what I had written. And then, of course, football had not devoured all other sports so in early May and then again in August there was, unlike now, decent coverage of county cricket. That period was known as the cross over season. Now since the football season never ceases the term has no meaning.
Against this background the idea of examining what Joao Havelange and Sepp Blatter, then President and general secretary of FIFA, were doing to the organisation did not excite much interest. Indeed for a long time the activities of sports’ governing bodies were considered so boring and of such little interest that reporting them was seen as exotic and confined to a few specialists like the great John Rodda, and he concentrated mostly on the Olympics.
Yet, ironically this was a time when clubs were eager to have their voices heard and both players and officials were very accessible. But despite this many newspapers, certainly the broadsheets, felt little need to pay any attention to what they were saying. This was certainly the case in the Sunday Times where I started and where Brian Glanville, the paper’s legendary football correspondent, had put his stamp on football reporting. Such was his aura that his influence extended beyond the paper to much of what could then rightly be called Fleet Street. He, for instance, made all of Fleet Street aware of ‘Catenaccio’, the Italian system of defensive play.
I owe a great deal to Glanville and his wonderful knowledge of football. I was reading him even when I was a schoolboy, and consider him one of the two best match reporters this country has ever produced, his only peer being the incomparable David Lacey of the Guardian. I am aware this excludes such legendary reporters as Hugh McIlvanney and Geoffrey Green but I see them more as wonderful general sports writers, McIlvanney on boxing producing some of the most memorable lines ever written in the English language.
Glanville, perhaps because he is also a novelist and a dramatist, brought to football writing such an informed air that the younger reporters were allowed to be quite imaginative in how they reported the match. In one famous match report a colleague did not report what had happened on the field of play but concentrated on how a fellow reporter behaved in the press box during the match. The major Glanville dictum was we had been sent to tell readers what we thought about the game not what the managers made of it. He made it clear that he felt there was no need to go to post match press conferences to listen to what the managers said. In any case, as he pointed out, managers in a post-match press conference rarely said anything worth listening to let alone recording. He very rarely went to such press conferences and while, unlike him, we could not finish our match report almost as soon as the referee had blown the whistle we instinctively accepted his advice.
Indeed when we did go to post match press conferences the idea was to see if we could make the manager sound like “tight-lipped, ashen-faced supremo Ron Knee (59)”, the legendary manage of Neasden FC in the famous Private Eye spoof on club football. Once or twice I and my fellow reporters did manage that feat much to the delight of the Sunday Times sports desk which, like Glanville, also believed and indeed valued left field sports reporting.
This did make the Sunday Times football reporters appear to be mavericks except at the City ground where Brian Clough, the then Nottingham Forest manager, did not give post- match press conferences. Once very accessible he had become so disillusioned with the press that he no longer wanted to share his thoughts. The result was that for matches at the City ground there were no post-match Clough sound bites and the Sunday Times reporter could leave as soon as the match was over confident he was not missing anything.
All that has now changed but what is striking is that even as clubs have closed their doors a whole new generation of football supporters have emerged who are very knowledgeable not only about the clubs their players sign or, in rare cases, produce from their academies, but also what is taking place in the boardroom, how much their clubs earn and how they spent their money. There are many such extremely well informed supporter groups, like the ones at Manchester United and Arsenal to name only two, and they are run by some very smart people who bring their City experience to clinically analyse their club’s accounts and other activities so often hidden from the public. Back in the early 90s when I reported on Robert Maxwell’s financial dealings at Derby such stories of financial goings on at football clubs were very rare. Now some of the best insights into clubs come from their own supporters who are both passionate about their clubs, have the expertise to look into the small print of the accounts and are ready to devote their time to do so. Maybe it is in reaction to this that clubs are ever more inclined to clam up.
And it is amazing to reflect that so great is the desire to hide that for all the talk of disclosure clubs even now never reveal the actual amount they have paid for a player. The figure quoted in the media is always a well-informed guess. The press will suggest a figure and the club will usually say, “You would not be wrong if you used that figure”. The actual sum and the details of how the deal is made up is not revealed. How very different to the disclosures made in America when players are traded and a world removed from the transparency demanded from institutions like FIFA.
Of course, FIFA and individual FAs could disclose what clubs have paid in transfer fees as the paper work goes through them. But despite calling themselves governing bodies they neither have the power to do so nor the inclination to seek such power. And as club officials have often told me they do not like disclosing real transfer figures because, as one top official put it to me, “It would hinder our efforts to strike a good deal next time round”. So secrecy serves the business of modern football.
Clubs can argue that what matters is not what they tell the media but the good they do for the community. Consider for instance the annual 2015 European Club Association awards. Four clubs FC Barcelona, FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, Arsenal FC and FC Levadia Tallinn have been, say the ECA, “rewarded for their outstanding achievements – on and off the pitch.” This is the 6th Edition of the ECA Awards and according to the ECA were “first introduced back in 2010 with the aim of rewarding outstanding club performances, encouraging best practice and highlighting successful club management.”
Arsenal’s award is for the ‘Arsenal Employability Programme’ which was set up in 2011 as a direct response to the growing levels of youth unemployment in the club’s local community. According to the ECA, “The unique connection Arsenal FC has with the community provided an ideal platform to help unemployed individuals who have few pathways into the world of work… Since its inception in 2011, over 300 people have gained jobs as a direct result of Arsenal’s employment programmes. As part of the project, relationships have been developed with a range of employers that offer real job opportunities. Participants are supported throughout the recruitment process and in work support is also provided. The tangible job outcomes created through this project provide some of the most disconnected members of the society with genuine opportunities, building their confidence and propelling them into employment. In turn this has a positive impact on many levels in society, not only at a community level but also easing the burden on the public purse.”
Now what could be more worthy and deserving of an award?
Yet Arsenal is one of the most secretive clubs in the land with an attitude that makes the old Soviet-run Kremlin appear transparent and accountable.
It must be said that there are clubs, Crystal Palace and Watford come to mind, whose approach is very different. But it is the big clubs that set the standard and this standard is: we shall control what we say, how we say it and to whom we say it.
Football has changed but not all the change has been for the good. So if we want accountability at FIFA level we also need more accountability at club level. The worrying thing is getting that at club level may prove much more difficult than at the FIFA level.