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Third parties owning player contracts challenges traditional loyalties.
By Ed Draper
LONDON (Saturday, May 5, 2007) -- So, West Ham United fans breathed a huge sigh of relief recently when an English Premier League hearing decided the Hammers wouldn't have standings points deducted for the signing of Argentinean duo Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez. The club did receive a hefty $9-million fine for its transgressions, though.
The Premier League's problem was that the players were owned by a third party. The most conspicuous member of the players' parent company was an Israeli businessman called Kia Joorabchain, who later headed a failed attempt to buy the East London outfit.
When the dust had settled and the reverberations across the sports news outlets across Britain had started to subside, the most obvious outcome was that West Ham manager Alan Curbishley and Company were now free to continue their fight against relegation from England's top division.
While West Ham's shady signing saga has to come to an end, however, there is an intriguing sub plot, which is surely only beginning. With the market for football players becoming increasingly global, as top European coaches look to unearth budding talent from all four corners of the Earth, English soccer may soon to have to confront the specter of third-party ownership head on.
Right now, as West Ham's case illuminated, the Premier League sees player ownership as illegal. But according to the rumors drifting across the Atlantic, third-party ownership is becoming increasingly vogue in the soccer hotbed nations of South America.
With many clubs in the likes of Argentina and Brazil unable to pay their players wages, rich businessmen can now invest in football talent -- paying the young men's way in their formative years and then reaping the financial rewards when the players earn a big-money move to a top European club. So, it seems the Premier League's battle with third-party ownership is merely on pause. There'll be more wars to come and when the fight is over, it remains to be seen whether third-party ownership will still be outlawed in English football.
I don't know whether the Premier League will eventually accept Latino practices and allow the befuddling situation whereby a player wears the colors of a club while really only being obligated to his owner. But the whole concept conjures up fascinating possibilities. Could it become like playing the lottery? Could it come to the stage where young entrepreneurs throw a few pounds or dollars a month at a young Guatemalan, for example, and hope he blossoms into the next Pele, or in terms of financial remuneration, a marketing godsend like David Beckham?
And what about the stars of the game, the world names? Could they become the target for the super rich? For Hollywood movie stars, owning a Premier League or Serie A player could replace the kudos currently gained by owning their own plane. Imagine it. Tom Cruise, rather than just make friends with Beckham, could buy him (although, maybe even Maverick would be stretched by Golden Balls' price tag!)
Perhaps the men and women with mega bucks could buy whole teams -- perhaps they could even form their own leagues. It takes the concept of fantasy football to a whole new level. Rather than fretting about Wal-Mart shares, stockbrokers on the trading floor in London, New York and Tokyo could shout "buy" and "sell" as reports of a player's latest performance in training filter down to them. An injury to a top star could lead to bankruptcy for thousands of shareholders.
Of course, I'm being glib. As bizarrely enthralling as the possibilities of third-party ownership are, it's a future that will never appeal to die-hard fans. Every supporter's favorite is the homegrown talent, the local boy who bleeds the club colors. Even if it's a big-money star who arrived at the club in his mid-20s, the home faithful can usually be wooed by the player making flattering comments about his new home. But the term "mercenary" takes on an unprecedented level if the team's top striker is only loaned by a rich sugar salesman or a media magnate. A player's connection thus becomes so weak, his relationship to the club so distant, that supporters wouldn't tolerate the situation if it became commonplace.
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