Layla Moran: Premier League's Ownership Test Must Consider Human Rights

The Lib Dem MP said we allow our most prized cultural assets to act as a cloak that "sportswashes the reputations of kleptocrats and despots".
Layla Moran
Layla Moran

Football is the beautiful game. And one of these islands’ most famous and proud exports.

More people are interested and engaged in football around the world than any other thing.

The Premier League is the pinnacle of professional football. It is the most-watched sports league in the world, broadcast in 212 territories to 643 million homes and a potential TV audience of 4.7 billion people.

We have all been so proud of how the football family has shown its support for the Ukrainian people, especially the warmth of spirit towards Ukrainian footballers in the Premier League; Andriy Yarmolenko, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Vitaliy Mykolenko.

Former Chelsea and AC Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko has recently praised the solidarity displayed in football stadia up and down the country, commenting on Yarmolenko’s goal for West Ham that: “I’m sure there was millions of people in Ukraine that watched that moment and it’s something that’s very important for the people of Ukraine.”

The Premier League is a thing of pride in this country, and therefore it pains me to say that it has let people down, especially those who need our support the most.

While I appreciate that we mustn’t politicise football, football has an incredible soft power effect. We are kidding ourselves if we think no one is watching.

How on the one hand can we claim to be leaders on the world stage, upholding the international rules based order, and yet we allow our most prized cultural assets to act as a cloak that sportswashes the reputations of kleptocrats and despots.

I must concur with the sports minister Nigel Huddleston who told the DCMS committee that the sanctions placed on Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich should act as a ‘wake-up call’ to the Premier League and should spearhead wholesale change as to who can own football clubs. Newcastle United, look away now.

While the minister is saying the right thing, he and the Premier League have failed to take action. The Premier League’s fit and proper “Owners’ and Directors’ Test, which was introduced in 2004, the year after Abramovich took the helm at Stamford Bridge, is clearly not fit for purpose.

The minister said he wanted a ‘more robust’ test, referencing it being a key recommendation from Tracey Crouch’s fan-led review last year, and yet the government have done nothing on it.

The Premier League’s test for who can own our football clubs must clearly include human rights questions. The Premier League should change its rules now.

That being said, football fans, including Newcastle and Chelsea fans should not be taking the hit on this. It is those in the footballing authorities and the government that must be held to account.

Government restrictions mean that Chelsea aren’t allowed to sell any extra tickets except for those already obtained by season ticket holders. It isn’t in the interest of the sport or fans to have empty seats inside grounds.

So why couldn’t the government have allowed tickets to be allocated? Of course, Abramovich should not continue to make a penny from any asset owned in this country, but why punish supporters and hit them where it hurts the most?

Those seats could have been sold and the money could have gone towards helping humanitarian charities supporting the innocent victims of Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Chelsea supporters didn’t allow Abramovich to own their club, and he did for almost two decades.

Would this have happened without the Russian invasion of Ukraine, last year’s purchase of Newcastle United by the Saudi state suggests not.

All too frequently we have witnessed Boris Johnson’s inconsistent approach to morality, and it is time that the matter of football club ownership was taken into the hands of the law and away from politicisation with a rigorous fit and proper person’s test.

This is not a new idea, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could implement changes to prevent problems, rather than making them in reaction to a storm.

Too many clubs, which are key parts of communities and the daily lives of millions of people, have fallen victim to owners who fall far short of the standards we wish to see - and the stakeholders, the supporters, are the ultimate victims.

It is absurd that government is on the one hand saying we do need the tests and they will seek to bring the legislation through, but on the other hand, not putting these laws in place for the sale of Chelsea which they are in control of.

Football may be a game of two halves, and at the moment, the government are trailing at half time.

Layla Moran is the Lib Dem spokesperson for foreign affairs and international development and MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.


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