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Foreign money taking over English soccer

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

Eight of the 20 top-flight clubs are owned by foreign investors going into Saturday’s season openers and others could be ready to follow. Birmingham is in negotiations to sell outside Britain, and Arsenal is reported to be the target of an American businessman. The phenomenon has grown during 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 CEO Richard Scudamore said. “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 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 sizable debt and transforming the traditional underachieving Blues into a two-time Premier League champion. Manchester United followed suit in 2005, when Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer snapped up the Old Trafford club for $1.47 billion. Last year, Aston Villa came under control of American businessman Randy Lerner, who owns the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, in a $118.8-million deal. West Ham was bought by an Icelandic consortium led by Eggert Magnusson, and Russia’s Alexandre Gaydamak took over Portsmouth. In March, George Gillett Jr., owner of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens, and Tom Hicks, owner of baseball’s Texas Rangers, completed a $431-million takeover of Liverpool. They bankrolled the purchase of five new players this offseason as well as a planned 60,000-seat stadium estimated at $615 million. Last month, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra gained control of Manchester City with an $162-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 the league is seen as an attractive investment. Interest worldwide in the Premier League led to a three-year international broadcasting deal that starts this season and is worth $5.5 billion. No clubs in Germany are owned by foreigners, nor in Spain or Italy, where club presidents usually hail from the team’s region. At Juventus, 7.5% of its stock owned by a Libyan company. 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 rulebook,” he said.

Newcastle bucked the foreign trend when it was taken over by British businessman Mike Ashley in June. Birmingham is in the process of selling to Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung, who bought 30% of the club in June. Arsenal has repeatedly said it would not sell to American real estate developer Stan Kroenke, who owns the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids. Kroenke owns 12% of Arsenal, with speculation he plans to launch a takeover with former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein. Managing director Keith Edelman said the majority of Arsenal shareholders had committed not to sell. “Anybody who invests in a club, particularly from overseas, who maybe doesn’t love the club the way our shareholders do . . . will be looking for financial returns in the short, medium or long term,” Edelman said last month. “And if someone is looking for financial returns, they will, in the long term, take more money out of the club than they put in.” (winnipegsun.co)