I recently watched an episode of the ABC’s news program Four Corners where they dove in on the foreign ownership of Australia’s professional football clubs. The premise of their episode was to place the foreign ownership of the clubs into a very dark and murky underworld of sorts. Now I personally have no doubt that some dodgy dealings have taken place but isn’t that just business?
The Australian professional football league is known as the A-League, it now consists of 12 teams, 11 from Australia and New Zealand having one entry with the Wellington Phoenix. Out of those 12 teams only 5 of them have disclosed foreign ownership. Now there is a murky side to this, no matter if you are a domestic or foreign investor you do not have to be financially transparent. So this is where the ABC took umbrage of such dealings.
The most successful of these foreign owned clubs is Sydney based and aptly named Sydney FC. They are owned by Russian David Traktovenko. There isn’t much about him online, he was in 2011 worth (A$) 550 million. Part of his reason to purchase the club was that his daughter had moved here and married an Australian. Not to mention that Mr Traktovenko’s new son in law is Sydney FC’s chairman Scott Barlow. The only notoriety I could find on Mr Traktovenko was that he had ties to President Putin via a St Petersburg Bank where President Putin held several accounts.
I will quickly mention two of the five clubs whom have foreign ownership where I couldn’t find any negativity or mass murder on their resumes. They are the unknown Dutch owners of Adelaide United and the consortium behind Western Sydney Wanderers led by Hungarian Billionaire Paul Lederer. As far as we know both of these clubs have been run rather ethically opposed to the belief of the ABC.
Although this club has just won their first silverware under their new owners Melbourne City who are owned by The City Football Group. Abu Dhabi based Sheikh Mansour who is an Emirati Politician and Deputy Prime Minister of the UAE and a member of the Royal Family of Abu Dhabi. His vast fortune is to be estimated in excess of (A$) 500 billion. The war crimes that was touched on during the show was not related to Sheikh Mansour but rather members of his Royal Family. Melbourne City is just one club among quite a few well known clubs that are owned by the City Football Group. Their ownership was deemed as United Arab Emirates’ attempt to “sportswash” its image and as an instrument of foreign policy by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The remaining club on this list is the Brisbane Roar who are owned by Indonesian Bakrie Group. The Bakrie family are notoriously known in Indonesia and are known to have strong attachments to the political class in their country. Aburizal Bakrie, the founder and former chairman, was once the chairman of the Golkar Party that counted the former Indonesian president Suharito as a close confidante. Not only this but also former director of the holding that owns the club, Joko Driyono spent 18-months in jail in 2019 for his part in trying to contaminate evidence used in football match fixing in Indonesia.
We can sit here and try to be social justice warriors and pass judgement on these owners, but if it wasn’t for them then the league wouldn’t be where it is at the present time. Football Victoria CEO Neos Kosmos back in 2018 called for more foreign investment of the country’s professional clubs, as the supporter membership base are not enough to sustain the financial needs to run a club successfully.
When you take a look at football across Australia as a whole you can see the positive effect that these foreign investors has had on the footballing community. So the League set up here is that if you finish the league season on top you are awarded the premiership. The top 6 play off in a round robin style format in a finals series, and the winner is then crowned the Champions. The A-League is 15 seasons old and in those 15 seasons the clubs with foreign owners have amounted to 20 of the 30 Premiers and Champion titles.
All of those clubs have reached out to the grassroots level and have created academies and pathways for younger players to break in to the professional ranks without having to go abroad and leaving their families behind.
For me it isn’t the potential for dirty money that floods these shores that is damaging the game in this country. It is the salary cap. Yes there should be a cap that holds the clubs financially responsible but it hamstrings the potential that the game has. When I was a kid my friends and I would wear jerseys from clubs all around Europe, but today I am seeing kids wearing the jersey of their favourite A-League side. The game has come so far, but still the commercial viability of the league drags the proverbial can behind in the landscape of Australian professional sport. Football is a world game, our fans shouldn’t have to live like owls to watch their favourite players. Increasing the cap and scrapping the contract types encourages those foreign billionaires to snap up a club and sign that wonderkid or world class player. It is only a win win. The Australian economy would only thrive under such outcomes and especially during these times of Covid-19 it would be a welcome income.
Just take a look at smaller clubs such as Salford City in England where Manchester United’s famed Class of ’92 took ownership of the club who were a non league club and having an amateur status. In the years since they have taken over they have become a professional club, installed an academy they have risen in the ranks and have gained numerous promotions and now sit firmly inside League 2.
There are so many of these success stories when smart money enters football. In a society where we are very quick to cancel everything that goes against the current grain of the social agenda, let’s just stop and look at the greater good that these investments have done to the game in this country. You never know, in twenty years the A-League could be as big as the Premier League. Wishful thinking but without investment it will just be a fools hope.