All the other countries have a soccer league, so why can’t Moneyland?

Hi, welcome to Oligarchy, where we are tracking how the super rich are changing the world for the rest of us. 

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

I’m a bit confused about why we still talk about soccer “clubs.” I know that Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, and the rest started out as actual clubs that anyone could join but – over the ensuing decades of increasingly rampant commercialization – they have strayed so far from the original model that still using the word “club” to describe them seems a little like going along with North Korea’s self-designation as a “democratic people’s republic.”

This is not to say of course that there aren’t such things as actual soccer clubs – I wrote about one, AFC Wimbledon, a few years ago and it remains an extremely admirable enterprise that deserves to have a film made about it (producers: I’m available) despite its decision to muscle out the local greyhound track – it’s just that once your team is owned by an oligarch, a sheikh, or rapacious venture capitalists, it is no longer a collective, and you are just a consumer of its product.

So, I was a little surprised by the ferocity of fans’ opposition to the world’s richest soccer clubs’ announcement that they wanted to form a league of their own, which looked to me like Nike customers getting angry about the firm’s remuneration policy. They might associate strongly with the brand, but why would they expect to have a say over company affairs?

As I wrote in my book Moneyland, the world’s wealthiest people have basically been living in a nation of their own for decades already, and that applies to the ones that own soccer clubs as much as if not more than the others. I imagine the oligarchs’ thought process went like this: ‘all the other countries have a soccer league, so why can’t Moneyland?’

Still, public opinion is so furiously opposed to the plan that even UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has condemned it.

  • “Plans for a European Super League would be very damaging for football and we support football authorities in taking action. They would strike at the heart of the domestic game,” tweeted Johnson, a man not previously known for disappointing the owners of vast wealth, but who is apparently now prepared to legislate to stop this new league from happening.

I am uninterested in top flight soccer, which for me has all the appeal of waiting to see who’ll be the world’s next centibillionaire. It has, however, been grimly ironic to watch so many of the companies that did the most to pour money into the coffers of the big clubs lining up alongside Johnson to defend soccer’s soul from those same clubs.

Sky Sports, the Rupert Murdoch-backed broadcaster which first injected proper money into English soccer in the 1990s (but which has been left out of this new venture), has been full of pundits venting against the proposals. Rival broadcaster BT Sports, which has helped bid up broadcast rights to extraordinary heights in recent years (and which is also excluded from this venture) has been vociferous in its opposition.

The soccer governing bodies, whose belief in the purity of the game did not stop them awarding the World Cup to Russia and Qatar despite allegations from both an internal report and the US Department of Justice that the awards process were marred by bribery, have strongly criticized the proposal.

So, my initial reaction to hearing about the new league was to post snarky things on Twitter about soccer fans suddenly discovering that money corrupts. But, when the news broke late on Tuesday that the opposition from fans, politicians, broadcasters, etc., had forced the mega-wealthy club owners to cancel their plans, I realized I’d been wrong.

When it comes to standing up to oligarchy, we need all the friends we can get, and we can’t afford to turn away potential allies just because they’re late to the party. If the mega-wealthy only support regulations limiting wealth’s influence because they’re suddenly being outcompeted by the ultra-wealthy, so be it, they still want the right thing. Let’s face it, we were all new to the party once.

A self-defeating instinct for a misplaced form of purity is an easy one to give in to, but it is harmful, and is one of the reasons why the world is doing a poor job at combating financial skullduggery far beyond the soccer pitch. In the United States, for example, payments to whistleblowers are key tools in persuading them to reveal secrets: whether that’s in finance, crimes against nature, or other wrongdoing. As a result of reports from whistleblowers, last year, the U.S. government recovered a huge $1.6 billion from fraud and false claims cases – fully three-quarters of all the money it recovered.

  • “The continued success of the department’s False Claims Act enforcement efforts are a testament to the dedication of the civil servants who pursue these important cases as well as to the fortitude of whistleblowers who report fraud,” said then-Acting Assistant Attorney General Clark.  

European countries, however, traditionally decline to reward whistleblowers, precisely because of the same kind of misplaced scruples that made me mock Everton Football Club for opposing the European Super League that fierce cross-town rival Liverpool had signed up to. The merely rich might only be opposing the oligarchs’ take-over of the world because it’s now in their benefit to do so, but they’re still opposing it, so welcome aboard.

The world is not going to change unless we can gain more allies, and that means holding our noses and welcoming everyone.

  • As Bradley Birkenfeld, the ex-Credit Suisse banker who exposed Swiss banks’ wrong-doing and received a $104 million pay-off as a result, told me a few years ago: “was I part of it? Of course I was. It wasn’t like the janitor’s going to come in and be able to expose this.”

Before I change the subject: Roman Abramovich – the Russian billionaire who owns Chelsea Soccer Club, one of the 12 would-be founders of the new league –- is suing journalist Catherine Belton for writing that he bought the club on the orders of Vladimir Putin back in 2003, something that he strongly denies. There is not yet a date for the case to come to court, and of course it may well be settled without ever doing so, but it will be extremely interesting to see the allegations getting an airing if it does.

Considering that the owners of so many European clubs – Manchester City, PSG, Sheffield United, potentially Newcastle United — are already closely allied to the rulers of oil-rich states, the prospect of Chelsea also being so would clearly be an alarming one.

NAVALNY

Alexey Navalny, the indefatigable Russian anti-corruption campaigner, has been moved to a hospital at last, after three weeks on hunger strike, although his condition is still desperately serious. The details of his imprisonment are terrifying but – judging by his Instagram account – he has retained his sense of humor. He wrote that parents could use his photograph to scare their children into finishing their food.

  • “You sit in a cell, without really knowing where you are. You are engaging in a prisoner’s most important task, driving away the feeling of loneliness. And you remember one thing, the villains want you to feel alone. But last night a lawyer got through for literally five minutes and told me about your huge support, both in Russia and around the world. That moment was worth a lot,” he wrote.

The Russian authorities are not holding back on their efforts to undermine his influence. Last week, prosecutors in Moscow applied to court to have three of Navalny’s organizations banned as extremist, as if he were a terrorist rather than someone revealing how corrupt they are.

  • “Under the cover of liberal slogans, these organizations are engaged in creating the conditions for destabilizing the social and socio-political situation. The actual goals of their activities are to create the conditions for changing the foundations of the constitutional order, including by using the scenario of a ‘colored revolution’,” the prosecutors’ statement said. The case is due to be heard next week, and all related documentation is apparently a state secret, and thus can’t be revealed to the defendants’ lawyer until the day of the hearing.

Putin has been terrified by the prospect of losing power in a popular uprising, ever since street demonstrations overturned corrupt and unpopular governments in Georgia and Ukraine in the early 2000s. His administration has consistently tried to undermine Navalny’s messages, and to block his investigations into the kleptocracy of the Kremlin’s elite.

Navalny’s recent video showing a palace by the Black Sea, which he said was Vladimir Putin’s. It now has more than 116 million views, which isn’t far off the country’s entire adult population. If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend it.

Navalny’s supporters have called on well-wishers to demonstrate their support on the central squares of their cities at 7pm local time on April 21. Details are here. So far, more than 465,000 people have said they will demonstrate, in 117 different places. There’s an interactive map, showing where supporters are located. The most remote I can find are two supporters in the village of Ayan, in the Russian Far East. Good luck to them.

WHAT I’M READING

I currently have a digger here ripping apart quite a lot of the house, so I haven’t been reading quite as much as I’d like, but I have been researching the contested history of Russian avant-garde art for a project I’m working on. This led me to Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov’s fascinating Stolen Treasure, the hunt for the world’s lost masterpieces.

The way that oligarchs now use fine art as a shadow banking system by securing it in freeports, then using it as a way of raising money, is of course new. But the tyrants of the 20th century coveted art for their own purposes, and it is extraordinary to read about how their efforts were hidden for so long. It’s a fun and racy read, I’d recommend it.

If you’re interested in reading about corruption in the UK (and I’d understand why you wouldn’t be, it is an extremely depressing topic), then this report from ex-copper Tristram Hicks is very much worth your while.

See you next Wednesday,
Oliver

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Oliver Bullough

Oliver Bullough is an author and journalist from Wales, who specializes in writing about financial crime, often when it has links to the former Soviet Union. His most recent book is Moneyland, why thieves and crooks now rule the world and how to take it back, and he is currently trying to write another one despite lockdown.

@OliverBullough