Graeme Le Saux: ‘We have to address the pure dominance of money’ | Soccer

“I went to Newcastle versus Chelsea. That game raised an uncomfortable truth about football, ownership and the way our game is run.”

Back in the day proper football men didn’t talk much about politics and certainly not about uncomfortable truths. Probably, people in football should talk about those things a great deal more, if only because they seem so intent on gatecrashing the main stage. Uncomfortable truths: this is the game now.

Graeme Le Saux spent 11 years at Chelsea in two spells, departing the same summer Roman Abramovich arrived, 2003. He works as a Premier League analyst for NBC and also has a non-executive director role with Real Mallorca, a club owned by the US property billionaire Robert Sarver.

If this gives him a degree of inside track, a locus standi on the current shemozzle around football club ownership, then there are other elements, too. Le Saux has always been engaged and politically nonconformist. These things are relative. In pre-modern football any kind of politics, even the most centrist of Guardian-reading, museum-going engagement with the wider world, seemed pretty radical.

If that quality used to mark Le Saux as an outsider, there are certain advantages in being able to speak with a degree of awareness about the challenges the supercharged game faces, as well as in being prepared to go into the kind of difficult places that make you wish the former left-back was still hanging in there as a face on the Match of the Day sofa.

“Of course Eddie Howe doesn’t want to be asked questions about executions,” he says of that afternoon when Saudi PIF instrument met plaything of a sanctioned Putin associate. “It makes him feel very uncomfortable.

“That’s the dilemma. At what point do you put your principles ahead of who you work for? Everyone has to answer that themselves. If he [Howe] is happy fending off those questions with the answers he gave then people will judge him according to that.

“As a player I felt I had principles, that I tried to use my position to include how I felt about stuff. It’s not as easy as just saying this is abhorrent, is it? Or maybe it is.”

The issue closest to Le Saux’s heart is Chelsea’s ongoing sale, from the treatment of the club at the hands of a government in which he has “no trust whatsoever” to the shadow cast over the intervening 19 years and frustration at English football missing a chance to reset the way its governance works.

“There has been a lot of noise around the sale. People who have put in a bid have had a lot of publicity that I assume is coming from them,” he says. “But do any of us really know what the process is? Is this going to be based on the highest bidder or on the right bidder? Are any of these decisions being based on a set of principles or values?

“Football has a choice on the direction of travel. There is an opportunity to change the model now, where people value the sustainability of a football club over whoever bankrolls it. But we’re going to come out in the same place with the same uncertainties. It’s a massive wasted opportunity.”

For Le Saux, part of the frustration is seeing football being asked to solve problems that are equally present in the power structures around it. “Just look at the relationship between Russian money and politics, if that’s the focus of our attention at the moment. If we go back six weeks, Roman Abramovich owning Chelsea was not a problem for the British government, despite what they already knew. There is clearly an inconsistency around what value and standards we place around certain industries. And it seems football always has to carry the burden.

Graeme Le Saux in action for Chelsea in 1999
Graeme Le Saux in action for Chelsea in 1999. Photograph: Graham Whitby-Boot/ Sportsphoto/Sportsphoto Ltd.

“There is a huge lack of trust at the moment. There are real concerns around institutions that are meant to be there to support us. Look at the problems in politics and in things like policing. If there was trust in how our country is run you might not ask these questions. Whereas now we’re all asking whose self-interest is going to be served in this deal?”

With that in mind, does he really think people in football can be expected to take the lead on these moral issues? “Ultimately, it comes down to what sacrifices you’re prepared to make,” Le Saux says. “Will anyone say, ‘I’m not going to play for this club for this reason, it goes against my core principles’? I think some players would. I’m sure the players do care.

“If I was in the Chelsea dressing room the day of the Newcastle game I would have worn a Stop The War T-shirt in support of Ukraine. Everybody had the opportunity and still does to say this is the new era for Chelsea.

“But that is where leadership is important. The bigger question is should football, should the Premier League, should the Football Association put players in the position where they have to make those moral decisions? Should fans have to? We’re all being asked to enforce our own morality.

“That’s why we need leadership and governance to plot a course through those very difficult questions. These principles should be under lock and key in one of those buildings, not at the feet of a football player.”

There is sympathy also for those whose jobs are under threat. “The government felt the need to sanction oligarchs but I don’t think they have the first clue about the impact on fans and on everyone that works at the club, from players to the coaching staff to the backroom employees,” says Le Saux.

“People are very quick to stick the boot in when something goes wrong – that’s part of the ‘banter’ of football. So I’m not surprised some Chelsea fans feel confused by this. It’s not about them being the victim; there are people being shelled, this is not about football fans. But they have woken up from one day to the next with the club they have supported for however many years in complete turmoil.

Graeme Le Saux after a Real Mallorca victory in 2019.
Graeme Le Saux after a Real Mallorca victory in 2019. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

“How do they get back that pride, that connection with the club? It’s a massive part of this takeover. We can’t let the situation drag on in this weird limbo. At the same time it would be a disaster if we rushed through a bid without considering the opportunities and the longer-term plan.”

The longer-term plan: this is always the tough bit. Le Saux is pretty radical on the idea of structural, even philosophical change. “The big change for me is trying to address the pure dominance of money. That creates so many other problems. It creates inflation. It creates the imbalance that has been clear for some time.

“Look at Chelsea. Roman invested £1.5bn of his own money for the club to be so dominant. You think, if that’s what is required then is that how we really want the game to exist? The amounts are just jaw-dropping.

“We have allowed every decision to be based on money. No one should be surprised at the talk of a super league because the big clubs always need more fuel in the top of the tank. Can we reset that? Rather than Chelsea going to the highest bidder do we try to add an idea of integrity into the mix? Once the valuation on the club is met can the government or the regulator say it’s time to look at sustainability and fan engagement and building on a different model?

“There has to be a willingness in football to see change, to show some restraint. Salary caps are difficult because then you say, well, money goes underground. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying to regulate and find a balance.

“I work with Mallorca and financial fair play has stopped us from investing, because even if the owners wanted to invest in reasonable things the salary cap is so small that we have to ensure that money goes on getting the first team to a competitive level. FFP punishes the smaller clubs and benefits the bigger clubs.”

For now, Le Saux will be glued to the denouement to the season, albeit with some reservations over what the next few months may bring for his former club. Thomas Tuchel has been the peg holding the playing side together. How long can he be expected to hang in there?

“Tuchel has been great for the Premier League, he’s fascinating when he talks about tactics, he has that high emotional intelligence,” says Le Saux. “But he will be as shocked and unsettled as everyone else. And people aren’t going to say: ‘Let’s give Chelsea some time and let them sort themselves out.’ They’re going to say: ‘Who can we get now because they’re all going to be at a discount?’

“One of the biggest issues facing Chelsea is cash flow. Can they get enough in to keep paying everyone? It just feels like an absolute mess.”

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