A wake up call for the national game
December 3, 2010
So the recriminations begin in earnest. Only our elimination from the footballing competition proper brings more soul-searching than the repeated failures of England to secure the right to host the World Cup since 1966. First in line the media. The Sunday Times and BBC’s Panorama investigations about FIFA corruption will be regarded as pivotal. Next the process itself. For the first time FIFA insisted that the decisions about hosting the 2018 and 2022 tournaments should be made at the same time. Those wily Russians and Qataris cut their deals…
Well, that’s football politics for you, I fear.
Rather more muted has been anything beyond mild criticisms of either our bid team (in place for some years before this week’s frenetic Zurich activity) or the organisation of the national game itself. For sure the Premiership has transformed itself into an awesome global brand and the success of the Championship (the English game’s second tier) in both financial terms and match-day attendances puts to shame all but the top divisions in Spain, Italy and Germany.
The squalid vote-bartering in Switzerland at the awarding conference reflected simply that FIFA is the ‘only game in town’. Depressingly our taking part in this whole process continues to legitimise the opaque institution that runs world football, an organisation which makes the discredited International Olympic Committee seem like a paradigm of transparency and sporting virtue.
However, these sordid manoeuvres should also bring into sharp focus the multitude of regulatory failings that affect our domestic football organisation.
There is something quaintly English about the way our national game is governed. Why make it simple, when between them the Football Association, Football League and since 1992, the Premier League, can engage in all manner of turf-wars to determine the future direction of football? For sure history has its part to play in all this. But a simple solution like reforming the structure into a simple body is a non-starter largely because this is now a multi billion pound industry.
The Football Association (FA) was created in the Olympian Victorian age, and it is not only its plentiful critics who argue that it hasn’t changed much since. Given the commercial explosion over the past two decades, how on earth can it expect to still have an influence? It has failed to adapt, even when Lord Burns’ review gave it ample opportunity to, so football is dictated more now by financial interests.
As a result, why would the increasingly international nature of successful Premier League clubs (with their global brands) listen to the FA issuing instructions from its ivory tower about the future of the game? The Football Association is charged with providing serious oversight for the policies and rules of the game and that is exactly what it should do. However, that is often not enough for an organisation whose favourite pastime is ‘mission creep’, leading to a focus on policy development that is out of kilter with the rest of the game.
The FA must change its culture to understand it alone is there to enforce the rules and policy agreed by the game as a whole. The overall direction of football in this country should now have significant input from the Premier League and The Football League. This is not a takeover, but a partnership. Just think how much more successful the FA could be with more input from the acknowledged leaders in the leading tiers of global club football.
With this approach must come more power for the FA Executive. In recent decades it has been neutered by an all powerful Board of domestic football’s vested interests. As a result, we have had non-expert non-execs “running” the game’s biggest projects. The financially disastrous new Wembley development is a classic example of what goes wrong when the experts are forced to dance to the tune of FA’s non-executives.
To strengthen its executive further, I believe that the FA needs urgently to appoint three respected, top flight independent directors to its board to stop ‘vested interests’ overruling the national interest. We need one additional technical football expert appointed to its Board – a leading international coach. Other leading football nations have done this to great effect; there is no reason why we shouldn’t follow.
It is time to get real about the running of English football. Only then can we hope to punch our weight in future World Cup bids. A change in the culture that will see the FA participate alongside the rest of the football family in creating policy, with a focus on oversight. More independents should examine the game’s policies at a Board level and more power should be handed over to the expert executives who will initiate them. If this institution, or the wider football family, fails to heed the warning of this depressing World Cup failure, or conspires to delay change, then the pace of change needs to be forced upon it. In short that means an independent regulator for our domestic national game may soon be the only way forward.
Mark Field MP
Cities of London & Westminster
Vice-Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Football