Sun, Aug 05, 2007 - Page 22 News List

Foreign owners take over league

AP, LONDON

The Premier League has long attracted players from around the world. Now it's foreigner owners who seem to be taking over English soccer.

Eight of the 20 topflight clubs are currently owned by foreign investors and others could be ready to follow suit -- with Birmingham in negotiations to sell outside Britain, and Arsenal reported to be a US takeover target.

The phenomenon has grown over the past year, with six clubs changing ownership in the richest and most-watched league in the world.

"I am sure that there are people who wish every player was English and every owner was a local businessman made good who supported the club as a boy," Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore said earlier this year. "Clearly it is not where we are at and we cannot go back there. It is not about who the owners are. It is about how they perform and how they behave."

Fulham started the trend in May 1997 -- when it was in the third tier of English soccer, and before it was promoted to the Premier League in 2001 -- by selling to Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al Fayed, owner of Harrods.

But it was Russian oil tycoon Roman Abramovich who made the first major impact when he bought Chelsea in 2003, wiping out its sizeable debt and transforming the traditional underachieving Blues into two-time Premier League champions.

Manchester United followed suit in 2005 when US businessman and Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer snapped up the Old Trafford club for ?790.3 million (then US$1.47 billion).

Last year, Aston Villa came under control of US businessman Randy Lerner, who owns the NFL's Cleveland Browns, in a ?62.6 million (then US$118.8 million) deal. West Ham United was bought by an Icelandic consortium led by Eggert Magnusson and Russia's Alexandre Gaydamak took over Portsmouth.

In March, George Gillett Jr. and Tom Hicks completed a ?218.9 million (US$431 million) takeover of Liverpool. They bankrolled the purchase of five new players this offseason as well as a new 60,000 seat stadium worth ?300 million.

Last month, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra gained control of Manchester City with an ?81.6 million takeover and installed former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson as manager. Eriksson, a Swede, promptly went out and bought eight players, all foreigners.

The Premier League has welcomed the influx of foreign money, and is proud that the league is seen as an attractive investment.

Interest worldwide in the Premier League led to a three-year international broadcasting deal worth ?2.7 billion which kicks in this season and has already contributed to increased transfer prices.

England is unusual in welcoming foreign ownerships. No clubs in Germany are owned by foreigners, nor in Spain or Italy, where club presidents usually hail from the team's region. Juventus has 7.5 percent of its stock owned by a Libyan company.

In France, only Paris Saint-Germain has any foreign stake, with 66 percent owned by US banks Morgan Stanley and Colony Capital.

Scudamore said foreign owners brought a new professionalism to the Premier League.

"I don't see any evidence that they have ripped up the old traditions or that they are riding roughshod over the rule book," he said.

However, the Premier League has had to defend its newest owner. Thaksin lives in self-imposed exile in London after being ousted in a Thai military coup last September.

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