These are not great times for the Football Association (FA).
There has been criticism for years over the Premier League’s dominance, wasteful spending on Wembley and the failed Lilleshall School of Excellence, and underfunding of grassroots football. This has been reinforced this year by England’s risible performance in the Euros and new manager Sam Allardyce’s resignation after just one game in charge. More seriously, it is suggested that football authorities ignored evidence of sexual abuse of young players for many years.
Could it get any worse? Well yes, if Greg Dyke and his gang of “elderly white men” get their way.
Dyke, whose career high was the apotheosis of Roland Rat, recently left the FA after a frustrating three-year stint when he couldn’t get his way over proposed reforms. Many, however, will have breathed a sigh of relief. His wheezes included the insertion of Premier League B teams into the Football League and restrictions on foreign players, both mysteriously intended to boost England’s World Cup chances.
The B team proposal was slated by lower-league teams: record low crowds for an experiment on similar lines in this season’s Checkatrade (EFL) Trophy suggest that fans agree. As for reducing the number of foreign players, I’ve never been convinced that restricting competition, in markets or for team places, improves performance.
Dyke and his cronies now demand forcible reform of FA governance structures by government intervention. They claim there are insufficient women and minority representatives. Twenty-five ancient life vice-presidents apparently block “even the most minor of changes”.
In reply, the FA points out that it is already working towards adherence to the Governance Code for Sport, now mandatory for sporting organisations accepting National Lottery or government funding.
More robustly it should remind people of the FA’s proud 150-year-old record of independence from government and a set-up reflecting the historical development of this country’s football – which, strangely, did not begin with the Premier League in 1992. Its roots are deep, with every town and village having teams with histories going back into the nineteenth century. Football has changed and is continuing to change, but this community base remains important and is rightly reflected in National Game representation on the FA Board.
Just why is government intervention a good idea? What principle is involved? The FA has broken no laws and has stolen no money from the public purse. Child protection failings revealed in current investigations are the failings of a generation now departing the scene. They are clearly not confined to football.
The Dyke gang’s argument boils down to a call for what they call “modernity of approach” and greater independence from the Premier League. Is this really a market failure to justify the state wading in? The argument from Damian Collins MP, chair of the Culture, Media and Sport committee, who plans to put forward draft legislation, is no stronger. His main beefs are that there is insufficient female representation and that fans should be given a bigger voice. This could make a case for government barging into almost any private organisation in the country.
Liberals should resist calls for intervention on principle. Moreover experience in other countries shows that, once politicians get their fingers in the sporting pie, trouble follows. Even Fifa, that international den of thieves, has sufficient sense to recognise this.