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Premier League clubs are divided — but courts are not the solution

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Published Time: 11.02.2024 - 11:40:12 Modified Time: 11.02.2024 - 11:40:12

Vote on financial regulations revealed the consensus that held elite game together is under threat of falling apart Alex Livesey/Getty Images The Premier League only narrowly passed its proposal this week for further controls of club finances with 12 votes, although it was what came next that was arguably more telling when it came to the future of football in this country and Europe

Vote on financial regulations revealed the consensus that held elite game together is under threat of falling apart

: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The Premier League only narrowly passed its proposal this week for further controls of club finances with 12 votes, although it was what came next that was arguably more telling when it came to the future of football in this country and Europe.

The threatened legal challenge to the rule change by one unnamed club argues that the new amendments to associated party transactions (APTs) are incompatible with UK competition law. This is disputed by the Premier League. The dissenter is alleged to be Manchester City and while that has not been confirmed by either side, City’s recent history with the Premier League has been, to say the least, difficult.

Yet City would not be the only club currently taking issue with the Premier League, as the voting this week demonstrated.

APTs’ rules are a complicated piece of work. They deal with clubs’ relationships with the commercial partners with whom they might share a common owner or even a looser connection. In the case of those with nation-state owners or fossil-fuel dynasties, it is – as the Premier League already knowsno simple knot to unpick. Bound up in that is the trading and loaning of players between clubs in multi-club ownership groups or with investors who own other clubs. All that comes as part of a package of measures that went to vote.

The rules were passed on just 12 votes rather than the usual threshold of 14, reduced because of two rare abstentions. The key sticking point, understood to be around the personal liabilities directors have to assume for their clubs breaking financial regulations, is less important. More telling is the principle: the threat of a legal challenge and the suggestion that football’s governance – effectively the handshake that clubs operate upon – will have to take its chance in the courts.

The vote on Friday might have passed but it was hardly a ringing endorsement of the Premier League. The old consensus that football was governed by rules debated, amended and endorsed by those who participated, is slowly splintering and what emerges looks ever more like an invitation to legal claim and the erosion of the power of the authorities that have run it.

Whatever might come out of a reckoning, the problems will be the same. There will be clubs who seek to have looser or perhaps no financial constraints on the spending of their owners, and there will be others who seek the opposite. If it is to be the former then that has huge implications for the competitiveness of the game.

The game demands regulation and then rejects the punishments that come with it. The answer to who can govern seems to be evermore divided, based on whatever entity is prepared to give a club what it wants. Whether that is in English football or further afield in a European Super League (ESL) that keeps the elite preserved in a top division immune to fluctuations in domestic league form. Or a Fifa Club World Cup that selects its competitors up to four years in advance.

Elite teams need to put aside self-interest

How does football’s consensus survive? The Premier League was finally born, in 1992, out of a breakdown of the consensus between the leading clubs and the Football League – driven in no small part by the greed for the broadcast revenue on offer. That consensus created 32 years ago is now being tested.

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