Archive for August 2008

Thaksin Considers Stepping Down from City Board, But Not Selling Out; Garry Cook Announces He Knows How To Run Football

August 23, 2008

Never a dull moment at Manchester City. This week the club announced the surprise signing of highly-rated defender and defensive midfielder Vincent Kompany from Hamburg. Kompany, who played for Belgium in the Olympics, could well supplant Gelson Fernandes as City’s holding midfielder.

More extraordinary news comes in the form of a wide-ranging interview City executive Garry Cook provided to the British media. Read the links for yourself, but the biggest item is Cook’s revelation that Thaksin is “embarrassed” by the negative attention he has brought to the club and is considering resigning from the board in order to avoid getting caught up in the fit-and-proper-person test. Thaksin intends to remain the primary shareholder, though Cook believes new investment will soon be on the way from some of Thaksin’s rich friends, including supposedly the second richest man in China. Cook also reports that Thaksin has acknowledge perhaps making some mistakes last year.

All that is remarkable enough, but there is more. Cook spoke extensively about his desire to turn City into a world power and eventually win the Champions League, but along the way made a number of comments City fans and others will find disturbing. Cook believes the Premier League should eventually shrink itself and avoid relegation and promotion, in the process making a disparaging comment about Stoke City. He said City needs to bring in a superstar, because Richard Dunne doesn’t sell shirts in Asia. He said Mark Hughes would have to accept the need to get a superstar. He defended the recent discussions about selling Ireland and Corluka, going so far as to say “everyone is for sale.” He confirmed the club had recently taken out 30 million pounds in loans. And he criticized Sven Goran Eriksson’s signings.

All in all, it’s hard to believe that this remarkable interview will go down well, and may trouble the likes of Hughes as well, insofar as the comments imply Cook controls the transfer policy and that he regards the manager as a bit quaint and old-fashioned. It’s also unprofessional to criticize even obliquely the team captain, or to disparage a club like Stoke. Cook’s comments are also embarrassing to City supporters who don’t think the club need to be in the vanguard of turning the Premier League into something modeled on American professional franchised sports. The promotion and relegation structure of English football has worked successfully for over 100 years; Cook has not been in the Premier League two weeks and already he thinks he knows how to fix it.

Links:

Guardian, I

Guardian, II

Telegraph

A Tale of Two Owners; Season of Struggle Ahead for City?

August 19, 2008

Manchester City’s tumultuous week concluded with a 4-2 defeat away to Aston Villa in their Premier League curtain-raiser. City conceded three goals in quick succession midway through the second half, then piled on the pressure the final 10 minutes to earn one consolation goal and a more respectable scoreline. Fans will be encouraged by the endeavour shown by City players until the final whistle.

Indeed, City played some decent stuff on Sunday. Still, the result coupled with the Blues’ shocking UEFA Cup first leg defeat to FC Midtjylland of Denmark on Thursday raises the question of whether a season of struggle might be ahead for City under Mark Hughes. The squad has not been notably improved in the transfer window to date, pending the arrival and possible impact of Jo, now playing in the Olympics. For the most part, Hughes has the same squad Sven Goran Eriksson left behind, minus a few fringe players and plus youngster Ched Evans. Talented striker Valeri Bojinov would have counted as equivalent to another new player, but the snake-bitten Bulgarian is out to another long-term injury.

All this is not to panic, only to observe that City’s current squad must improve its form to something approximating what it accomplished in the first half of last season if it is to come anywhere near challenging of Europe. Conversely, continuing to give away poor goals and failing to take chances could produce the dreaded downward spiral of confidence. Events off the pitch as well as injuries have conspired to deprive Mark Hughes of the normal honeymoon and enthusiasm boost associated with a management change. All this means City’s upcoming game against West Ham has something of the feel of a must win, even so early in season, in order to get the ship headed in the right direction.

How is all this relevant to Thaksin? In two ways. First, continued bad results will certainly contribute to the growing discontent with the current regime among City supporters. Second, and more treacherously, a really bad run of results that put City into the relegation scrap would not only be demoralizing to fans but also potentially financially ruinous, especially in light of reports this week that the club has secured a large loan against future television payments. City cannot afford to go down, and a financial crisis at City would make the club less, not more, attractive to potential buyers.

Meanwhile, enjoying the match Sunday in the Villa Park director’s box was Aston Villa chairman Randy Lerner, who has quickly become a model of the competent foreign owner. Lerner has neither made exorbitant promises nor caused off-field controversy in his tenure owner the club; he has simply made some prudent investments, found an excellent manager (Martin O’Neill) and stuck with him; and even shown a bit of backbone in fending off Liverpool’s bids for Gareth Barry. Villa seem to be a club slowly but steadily moving in the right direction.

As for City? With an owner on the lam, an increasingly mortgaged future, and still-simmering uncertainty behind the scenes, the only thing left for City fans to hang on to is the possibility of improved performances on the pitch. If that doesn’t happen, the basement may be the limit.

Note to readers: we’ll be going on another semi-hiatus over the next few weeks, barring major new developments. Look for some further commentary in mid-September, when Thaksin’s land corruption charges are expected to be settled in Thailand.

Bad Week for City Continues; How Thaksin Will Fight Extradition

August 15, 2008

Interesting commentaries continue to pour out on the dramatic events of this weeks; Thaksin’s flight from Thailand is worldwide news, as evidenced by this analysis from The Economist and an editorial chiding Thaksin published in the International Herald Tribune after first appearing in the Boston Globe.

A key point made in the IHT piece is that Thaksin’s own actions in defending himself and also using the Thai courts undercut his claim that the Thai courts are illegitimate. That is an important point, because it speaks to the likely tenor of Thaksin’s arguments to British authorities in defending himself against extradition efforts and possibly in seeking political asylum.

The argument (as laid out by my friend and sometime sparring partner Cheburashka from the City message boards) is that the cases against Thaksin were set in a motion by a coup government, a coup government which inserted clauses into the new Constitution that exempted themselves from prosecution for the 2006 coup, and hence are politically motivated to the core. Further, political influences are at work driving the judiciary’s decisions.

There is a lot to unpack here, but what’s at stake is whether we should regard Thailand’s basic institutions, however flawed and imperfect from a rigorous democratic point of view, as essentially legitimate. It is true that the current cases against Thaksin were set in motion by the investigations of the Assets Examination Committee, a body set up by coup leaders to investigate corruption during the Thaksin era. The AEC did not have authority to prosecute charges, only to investigate them; cases themselves are to be decided by the Thai Supreme Court. The Supreme Court could and may decide to refuse to hear any or all of the cases, depending on the strength of the evidence, and has the power to render verdicts. This is an important distinction because it is simply not the case that the people who orchestrated the coup are now also the people who have the capacity to evaluate the assembled evidence and cast judgment on Thaksin. I have seen no compelling evidence that the cases against Thaksin have not been carried out according to the letter of Thai law.

It is certainly true that the provisions of the current Constitution providing amnesty for coup leaders are problematic from a democratic point of view; but they were also probably a precondition for any hopes of achieving political stability in post-coup Thailand. That clause prevented the spectacle of the newly elected PPP attempting to raise charges against coup leaders, a spectacle that the Thai political system would likely have been too fragile to bear.

The crux of the issue is whether the Thai Supreme Court is truly independent and is making a good faith evidence to weigh these cases on their merits. The Supreme Court is appointed by the king, and it is open to impartial observers of Thailand to argue that the conflicts around Thaksin have much to do with the perceived threat to royal power he represented, and that there may be tacit royal approval for action against Thaksin. On that note, it is open to the impartial democratic theorist to argue that system of constitutional monarchy (and its attendant legal system) is badly flawed and too constricting on democracy.

But it’s not clear that Thaksin Shinawatra can make that point. The imperfections of the Thai legal system and political order are ones he has lived with and indeed thrived under. His use of the legal system for his own purposes suggests that he considered the courts legitimate when it suited him. For him to claim now that the courts are stacked against him can only be considered a self-serving argument that flies in the face of the fundamental principle that no man can be the judge of his own case. Moreover, he cannot consistently argue that Thai’s legal institutions are fundamentally unjust and also continue to profess loyalty to the king.

The British judges who likely will soon be assessing these matters will be focused with the question of how to evaluate the institutions of less-than-perfect democracies. Thailand’s version of constitutional monarchy has numerous features that make it problematic from the standpoint of liberal democracy. But does that mean that the institutional framework itself, and hence the charges against Thaksin, is illegitimate and not worthy of international respect? I doubt authorities in the UK would go that far (though it’s not impossible they might). To win, Thaksin will likely have to show that the cases against him somehow violated Thailand’s own legal framework. That may be hard to do, especially considering that most leading analysts and academics in Thailand appear to regard the pursuit of the cases against Thaksin as legitimate and reasonable (if not long overdue), and as the IHT argued an important step in showing that no one however powerful and rich is above the law.

Thaksin’s case would be strengthened, however, if the judiciary fails to pursue other cases of corruption against figures from other parties, or if it takes other steps which hint at unfair, politicized treatment of Thaksin. It also would be strengthened if it reaches one or more guilty verdicts that are not well-supported by the available evidence. That’s why the news Wednesday that the courts will not start trial in the other cases pending against Thaksin in his absence, which might initially seem like good news for the exile, may actually work against Thaksin in the long run. The stated reason for not starting those trials is that trials of that seriousness cannot be started without the defendant present to acknowledge the charges at an initial hearing. The judiciary’s respect for the letter of its own law actually strengthens the case that it is following its rules to the best of its ability, contrary to Thaksin’s charges.

A great irony of all this is that one of the central criticisms of Thaksin’s rule in Thailand was the way it undermined due process in the 2003 War on Drugs and contributed to a culture of state-sponsored violence in the country. An Amnesty International blogger this week thus sardonically discusses Thaksin’s new found love of individual procedural rights.

Apart from all this–or perhaps not so far apart–Manchester City did little to dispel worries that off-the-pitch turmoil might affect performances on the pitch by losing 1-0 at home in the first leg of their UEFA Cup qualifier against Danish outfit FC Midtjylland in a performance City fans are describing as dire. Just 17,000 fans (reportedly) attended the match in the 48,000 seat City of Manchester Stadium. Perhaps the highlight of the night for City was the post-match remark by Midtjylland manager Thomas Thomasberg that City played like a “stupid” side, a remark that might provide some motivation for the second leg.

Why Thaksin Must Go, and What the Premier League Should Do

August 13, 2008

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.

Assessing the Fallout

August 12, 2008

Literally every paper in the UK Tuesday is running a prominent “Manchester City in crisis” story (see the end of the post for an array of links). The most alarmist perhaps is The Sun, which has made Mark Hughes’ future as manager its lead sports story. Other papers are weighing in with a range of details about City’s financial problems, the Corluka and Ireland transfer stories, and the fact that the Premier League will be seeking an early meeting with Thaksin Shinawatra demanding an explanation for why he is a fugitive from justice.

There’s plenty of fact, speculation, and attempts to connect the dots in the various stories to chew on. Here though is our assessment of the most important developments to date.

1. Thaksin is done as a politician in Thailand. The virulent attack on the Thai courts in Thaksin’s handwritten fax to Bangkok TV stations (translated and reproduced verbatim here) has not gone over well in Thailand, and it’s clear Thaksin cannot go back for quite a long time, if ever, let alone return to a position of power. Thaksin has in essence renounced Thailand.

That is a hugely important development for Thaksin, and more especially for the future of politics in Thailand. It is also relevant to Manchester City insofar as one of this blog’s key reasons for being critical of Thaksin’s ownership of the club is the worry that he would use the club as a prop to boost his legal and political aspirations. He certainly tried, but it didn’t work. Consequently, in evaluating whether Thaksin should own the club going forward, the evaluative criteria naturally will shift more towards whether his doing so is good for City and less as to its possible impact on developments in Thailand.

This is not to say Thaksin’s influence will or can totally dissipate in Thailand. Reporting in the Bangkok Post today indicates that Thaksin’s departure was planned two weeks in advanced with knowledge of top government officials. The key, however, is that the ruling PPP party recognized Thaksin as a liability whose presence was making governance difficult-to-impossible. Wanted by no one, Thaskin has become a man without a country as well as politician without a party.

2. Thaksin has probably kissed his frozen fortune away. Even with Thaksin skipping bail, some analysts could still imagine a grand bargain being struck in which Thaksin was convicted, then received a royal pardon, and then ended up getting at least a large chunk of his frozen assets back. That seems much less likely now; Thaksin’s statement is unlikely to be received warmly by the king, and it’s unlikely whatever continuing legal efforts Thaksin makes in absentia to recover those assets can succeed while he is a fugitive from justice.

That development is important for Manchester City insofar as funds used to bankroll the spending spree of the past two years, as well as possibly to buy the club itself, may have been provided (or borrowed) with the expectation that by now, the cash would be there. That is to say, if Thaksin has been using his presumed eventual capacity to access all his wealth to gain access to further money used to bankroll City over the past year, then he and the club naturally will face financial difficulties once the bills come due.

I cannot pretend to know the specifics of Thaksin’s financial dealings with City but scenarios such as the above (cheers to Prestwich Blue from the boards for some good posts on this) seem highly plausible, especially in light of multiple reports that as late as July Thaksin had borrowed money from John Wardle to help meet payroll. Minimally, lack of access to funds Thaksin had been banking on mean he is unlikely to have the resources to convert City into a European power, as promised.

3. The third and final key development is simply the obvious fact that the Premier League is on full alert to this situation and will presumably be beginning legal inquiries in preparation for the near-certainty that Thaksin will soon be convicted in absentia on corruption charges. Richard Scudamore has already stated that the league will be taking heavy guidance from the judgments of the Home Office; reports also indicate that Scudamore wants to meet with Thaksin (who was photographed shopping in London on Monday) to discuss recent developments.

One interesting question, yet to be probed by the media, is whether the offenses Thaksin is likely to be convicted of in fact correspond to the schedule of offenses listed under the Fit-and-Proper-Person Test. Specifically, it seems unclear whether a conviction for the general offense of corruption is sufficient to trigger the rule, or whether Thaksin must be convicted of breaking a law for which there is a UK equivalent.

Those are the most important developments to this point. Tomorrow we’ll weigh in with a few scenarios (good, bad, and ugly) about how this situation might ultimately reach a resolution, and also with some comments about what the Premier League need to do to address this situation.

Now as promised, links from Tuesday’s papers:

The Independent

The Sun

The Mail

The Guardian, I

The Guardian, II

The Times

Thaksin Officially in Exile; Warrants Sought for His Arrest; City Fans Demanding Answers

August 11, 2008

Thaksin Shinawatra announced himself as an exile in a statement from London, citing fears for his family’s safety and a conspiracy in Thailand to punish his family. Thaksin asked for continued support from his loyalists in Thailand and expressed loyalty to the king and his wish to die in Thailand. But every indication is he will not be returning there of his own volition any time soon. Thai courts have responded by issuing a warrant for Thaksin’s arrest.

In comments to Reuters, Thaksin biographer Chris Baker has underscored the severity of Thaksin’s actions and especially his rather inflammatory remarks about the Thai courts, noting “He has defamed the court, and so he’s gone for good.” Even political allies in the PPP are scrambling to distance themselves from Thaksin’s remark, which is being interpreted by some in Thailand as an act of bridge burning. For further interesting commentary from Thailand, check out Bangkok Pundit’s analysis, including an assessment of Thaksin’s chances of gaining political aslyum in the UK.

Thaksin has made no comment about how all this relates to Manchester City. The Manchester Evening News’s beat writer Chris Bailey has taken the unusual step of publicly dressing down the current regime and demanding that the club provide some answers with respect to the the club’s future as well as the swirling rumours concerning Corluka, Stephen Ireland, and even Mark Hughes.

One interesting development is that the stock market in Thailand briefly had a rapid gain in response to the news. Many in Thailand believe that having Thaksin disappear from the political scene there for good would be best for the country, and some speculate that the judiciary allowed Thaksin and his wife to travel to China full well knowing the couple might never return.

As to City, the fate of the club will soon be in the Premier League’s hands, assuming Thaksin is as expected convicted of at least one corruption charge. Look for more commentary in this space on what the Premier League should do and why in the very near future…

Thaksin, Pojaman Flee to London

August 11, 2008

The action is coming thick and fast these days, as Thaksin Shinawatra and his wife have been confirmed as arriving in London rather than Bangkok where they were expected for a court hearing on a land deal corruption case. A press statement from Thaksin will be forthcoming Monday.

Meanwhile, the club’s official website announced that defender Vedran Corluka will be staying at City, but rumours on City message boards suggest that the story may be complicated, with some claiming that Tottenham have already signed the player and that a lawsuit may be imminent. Other rumours claim Hughes would have quit City if the transfer had not been blocked. Such speculation may be baseless, but at the moment almost any story about what might really be happening at City seems plausible.

Chaotic times, but the main story is that Thaksin appears to be on the verge of being officially declared an international fugitive from justice, a development which would force the Premier League to make some difficult but important decisions.