Since this blog’s inception in July 2007, we have employed three distinct evaluative lenses for looking at Thaksin Shinawatra’s chairmanship at Manchester City. The first has to do with the impact of Thaksin’s involvement with a high profile football club on developments in Thai politics. The second has to do with the impact of Thaksin on Manchester City Football Club itself. The third has to do with the impact of Thaksin on football and the Premier League itself.
As noted in the last post, the consensus opinion is that Thaksin’s flight from Thailand and his inflammatory remarks about the supposed bankruptcy of Thai institutions marks the end of his political career (though even now one or two people are saying never say never). The only real question left is whether as some have speculated Thaksin’s exile is part of a pre-existing deal of some kind that will eventually end in a pardon and return of some of his frozen funds. As noted yesterday, that seems unlikely given the tone of Thaksin’s comments and the umbrage they have caused in Thailand. Indeed, reports on Wednesday indicate that the Thai government is preparing to throw the book at Thaksin by confiscating another 79 billion baht (over one billion pounds) from the Thaksin family and by preparing an extradition request.
The key point for our purposes, however, is that if Thaksin is truly done as a politician in Thailand, that removes one set of concerns about Thaksin’s ownership of City from the table.
The second evaluative criteria has to do with whether Thaksin is good for Manchester City. Even now, roughly half of supporters on City message boards (according to a poll on mancityfans.net) say they support Thaksin. Others of course are strongly opposed and pray a new buyer can be found soon.
I’m not sure it has fully sunk in among City supporters that Thaksin is not now likely ever to get the large amounts of funds that have been frozen, or that he is an international fugitive from justice. On the message board Blue Moon on Tuesday I asked Thaksin fans to supply some reasons why his continuing to own the club would be a good idea. Some cited Thaksin’s connections to the Asian market, improvements in sponsorship deals he has signed, and the past investments he has made in buying players. Others simply said they would support whoever was in charge of City until that person was removed or departed, for the good of the club.
None of those reasons appear particularly compelling, at least to this observer and City supporter. (I see, for instance, no evidence other than wishful thinking that the Asian market can be the mechanism for allowing a middle-tier club like City to gain a competitive advantage.) The really big promises Thaksin made about becoming a leading club in Europe have now been acknowledged by City executive Garry Cook to be off the table; no major new investments will be forthcoming. Thus the promise that enticed so many City fans into overlooking all the rest has been removed.
What’s left is a modest sum in the positive tally (raising the club’s ambitions, the players already bought) and a large sum in the negative tally: sacking Sven (both the decision and the unprofessional manner in which it was done), the constant stream of rumour and speculation that marked the end of last season and the beginning of this one, financial shortfalls requiring repeated loans from John Wardle, and in general a less-than-mindful approach to running the club. Thaksin marketed himself as a consummate business professional; what he’s delivered has been almost-continual chaos. Most fundamentally, Thaksin has shown (in my estimation) terrible judgment in dumping Sven and pursuing Ronaldinho at the same time that he claimed he wanted a more disciplined squad and a tighter shiip. On top of all this, the association with the less savoury aspects of Thaksin’s past puts Manchester City in ill repute. As long as Thaksin is in charge, City will be known to some as a club that tolerates an owner who authorized brutal violations of human rights and due process as leader of Thailand.
Thus count me in among City supporters hoping Thaksin goes away soon, for the good of the club. Indeed, the guess here is that the vast majority of City fans would welcome a new owner willing to take the challenge on, and that many of those still in the pro-Thaksin camp are there largely because they believe there are no viable alternatives. Be that as it may, probably many if not most City supporters would be glad at the moment to have a new owner with no baggage and some hint of resources and ambition, even if he (she or they) lacked the extravagant promises and extravagant (frozen) bank accounts Thaksin offered in 2007.
But there is another deeper and more fundamental reason for judging it’s time for Thaksin to go that has less to do with Manchester City in particular and more to do with the integrity of football itself and the Premier League. The concern, in a nutshsell, is that it sets a bad example to the world and to England to allow a soon-to-be-convicted crook who has fled his nation to escape legal sanction to run a nationally prominent institution such as Manchester City. Precisely this theme has been sounded in recent days by the veteran Telegraph writer Henry Winter as well as by a staff editorial of The Guardian.
A similar argument was raised in this blog a year ago when I suggested that the Premier League as well as the UK government should consider whether it really wants a person associated with serious human rights abuses running a major business and taking a leading role in football. The Premier League at that time decided that prohibiting Thaksin from buying into the league on the basis of charges unaccompanied by any formal convictions would be unfair, and refused to broaden its definition of the Fit and Proper Person test in any way. A more cynical interpretation is that the League (as per usual) prioritized the possibility of bringing in new investment to the league over ethical considerations.
In any case, the Premier League in August 2007 decided that Thaksin was a fit-and-proper person, implicitly rejecting all morality-based arguments to the contrary. Consequently, the question has been dropped from consideration by this blog since then.
But now the issue is about to be raised again, in fuller force. This time Thaksin will have not just “allegations” but firm convictions of criminal offences attached to his name. And this time, the Premier League must not fail to act.
At issue is not simply the narrow question of whether Thaksin violated the Fit and Proper Person Test as currently written; Thaksin’s lawyers surely would argue to the bitter end that whatever he is convicted of in Thailand does not correspond exactly to the offences listed in the test.
The broader issue is whether the Premier League should tolerate someone who has escaped justice in their own country (and indeed helped an already convicted and sentenced person to escape as well) , a country with a democratically elected government and a ruling party sympathetic to Thaksin in power.
Sport at its must fundamental level is about fairness in competition, and also about integrity. That is why it will strike many people as wrong that a convicted criminal who has not yet served their obligation to society should be allowed a prominent role in England’s leading sport. To permit such a person to own a club is to express tacit approval for the person’s past actions, and to send a message that it’s okay to break the law as long as you are clever enough to get away with it. It would also reinforce the cynical view that the modern Premier League is so enamoured with money that it can recognize no other moral obligation or concern.
Ultimately it’s up to the Premier League and its members to decide whether they want to allow criminals to own clubs or not. If they decide they do not, they must act against Thaksin (and also should take steps to revise the fit-and-proper-person test to prevent a similar scenario from arising in the future). Conversely, if they decide it’s okay to have someone who shown disregard for the law to operate a club, they must accept responsibility for degrading football itself.