I would like to highlight an important football integrity issue which I have blogged about previously. The issue relates to third party ownership in football players (TPO). For an understanding about what TPO is and its advantages and drawbacks click here. This piece however is to examine an issue where the integrity of a football match could potentially be under threat. There have been many recent examples of football match manipulation. An extension of this very problem would well be happening right now in European (and world) football.
Take the following scenario: Football Club owner A whose club plays in the Champions League owns 100% the economic rights of a player playing against his club. Even taking away the perception that the player could be influenced, the football authorities and football fans should be aware at the very least of the potential conflict of interest. It begs the questions of whether club owners or directors could also be third party owners and have multiple players playing in opposing teams and competing against each other? The simple (and worrying) answer is that nobody knows.
It has been reported recently that FIFA’s Football Committee is recommending that TPO be prohibited on a global level. Regardless of the merits of such a proposal, such a prohibition, if ever enacted, is not going to be a quick process. In the meantime, there are games occurring on a global scale where individuals who have influence at a football club (owners, directors etc) also have shareholdings in an entity that owns economic interests in football players.
The current scenario means club owners may be playing against players they own and can potentially influence. What if two players owned by the same club owner are playing against each other? It is clear that conflicts of interest could arise where a third party owner of a player is unscrupulous. If the third party owner is is involved in a football club, the player could be instructed to play badly against that owner’s club. One might ask how much influence one player can have on the game but if, for instance, the player was to purposely get himself sent off, deliberately hand ball the ball, score an own goal, keep someone onside or give away a penalty or free kick such actions can clearly have a major impact on the game. With further revelations in the press about betting and allegations of players wiping out debts by, for example, getting deliberately sent off, illustrate that a player can have a significant influence over a football match. If one starts to think that such a person could own several players in opposing teams throughout Europe, the collective impact could be much greater. There currently is no rule against an a club owner, director or influencer owning one or more players.
The question remains whether a club owner or someone who has influence at a club also owns players in the same league/competition? I’m not sure too many people would argue that such a scenario is not a significant integrity of competition issue. There is a threat to footballing integrity and as importantly there becomes a need for greater transparency through disclosure of such information. It begs the questions as to whether a publicly available list of third party player owners who are involved with any UEFA club should be required by UEFA (as part of their licensing regulations) to avoid any perceived UEFA club competition conflict to disclose such interests.
Does UEFA need to add additional measures to ensure the highest levels of transparency to fend off accusations of conflicts of interest?
To my knowledge, there is currently no UEFA-wide register highlighting such potential conflicts of interest. Just as the PL has stated that information on any person or company owning 10% or more in a Premier League club would be publicly available from the 2009/10 season, perhaps every club owner whose club plays in a UEFA tournament should be required to disclose their connections or affiliations with any entities that own directly or indirectly any type of economic interest in a football player playing in a UEFA club tournament.
Transparency was highlighted by the ENIC decision as a pre-requisite for ensuring fair competition, but there appears to be few safeguards in place to inform the general public and prevent conflicts between player and club ownership from occurring. Paragraph 129 of the ENIC decision stressed that:
“among the myriad of rules needed in order to organize a football competition, rules bound to protect public confidence in the authenticity of results appear to be of the utmost importance. The need to preserve the reputation and quality of the football product may bring about restraints…”
The ENIC case only highlighted instances where a company could not own more than one club, and crucially not where a club owner had a third party player agreement in place. Whether there is such a substantive logical distinction between the two types of ownership is debatable. However, bearing in mind CAS’s forceful words in needing to protect football fans from any potential conflict and the “need to preserve the reputation and quality of the football product” (CAS 98/200, para 129) perhaps UEFA should consider taking a lead in order to maintain confidence in European club competitions.