English game threatened with greater regulation

LONDON - English football must clean up its financial mess or face government intervention to save the national game's reputation, the UK opposition Conservative Party's spokesman for sport said on Monday.

Dozens of clubs have gone into administration in recent years because of cash-flow problems and unpaid debts, including the most high-profile casualty so far, Portsmouth, the first Premier League club to call in the accountants.

Football governance must be dragged into the 21st century, and cannot be exempt from measures introduced in other parts of society and business, Hugh Robertson said in a Reuters interview ahead of this week's general election.

"Football clubs will always go bust," he said. "I'm afraid sadly from time to time this will happen, but I am just not convinced at the moment that the regulatory regime around football is as tough as it should be to prevent it happening."

Robertson could be sports minister if the Conservatives win what is expected to be a close-fought election to be held on Thursday.

He wants the game's three powers, the Premier League, Football Association and Football League, to tackle the issue by tightening the 'fit and proper person' test for club owners.

He also wants greater financial transparency, controls on the level of debt clubs are allowed to carry, and independent governance.

Reform has been talked about over a number of years, even when soccer was in a better state financially.

But the plight of Portsmouth, which went into administration in February with about 60 million pounds worth of debt, has brought the issue into sharper focus.

The English Premier League is the richest in the world, but it is being held back by vested interests on the boards of clubs and football institutions, Robertson said. As a result, too many clubs are going into administration.

The game's bodies have been given until the end of the summer to come up with their own ideas. Failure to do so will mean the government will "have to intervene".

"I am not entirely decided yet whether that would be by means of primary legislation...or whether simply we set up and put an independent football regulator into motion, which you could do much more quickly," he said.

Since 2000, more than 25 professional clubs in the Football League and the lower tier such as the Football Conference have gone into administration, some more than once.

The ruling Labour party prefers to focus on making it easier for supporters' groups to buy stakes in football teams and allowing greater scrutiny of club takeovers.

Attempts at stricter self-regulation were dealt a blow in March when the FA's Chief Executive Ian Watmore suddenly resigned at a time when he was believed to be to close to delivering reform ideas.

His departure showed something was "badly wrong" with the structure of English football, Robertson said.

Robertson added that a new man in 10 Downing Street would not affect plans for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

"I have been very closely involved in the delivery of the Olympics from the word go," Robertson said. "And of course we are already, as a party, quite wrapped up in it."

Various parliamentary committees have expressed concern about continued funding outside the current spending round and the number of security projects yet to be signed off, but Robertson said all the monies were in place.

"There is no threat to it at all," he said.

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