Gary Neville has admitted he has been “wrong” on the issue of international money in Premier League football as the government cracks down on wealthy Russians with assets in the country.
Speaking on Sky News’ Beth Rigby Interviews … program, the Manchester United footballer-turned-pundit said he now feels “a lot weaker” about his previously expressed opinion that foreign investment should be welcomed into the UK game.
His rethink comes after the sanctioning of outgoing Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich by the government earlier this month due to his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
All of the Russian businessman’s assets were frozen and he was banned from traveling to the UK.
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‘Moment of reckoning’ for the Premier League
Neville said he believes the last few weeks have been “absolutely a moment of reckoning”, adding: “I don’t think the Premier League can continue to bury their heads in the sand.”
“I think I’ve always felt the sport should rise above politics and even international crisis. However, I think I’m wrong,” the former England defender, 47, said.
“I’ve always welcomed international money into Premier League football.
“I’ve always felt that we should welcome Saudi Arabia money, the UAE money, the Russian money, and that we should try – through football, through sport – [to] create what would be a better collaborative working relationship, improve conditions for the populations of these countries, which, in large part they do suffer and they don’t always have the freedom and the democracies and choices that we have.
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“However, I have to say that’s been tested enormously in this last few weeks in what has happened with Chelseawith Abramovichwith the Ukraine war, the connections between Abramovich and Putin.
“The government have obviously closed Chelsea down effectively at this moment in time other than the fact they can play football matches.
“My long held view that football and sport should try and welcome this international money in – I feel a lot weaker on that opinion today.”
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‘Line has been crossed’
The Sky Sports pundit said that foreign investment has “added to the Premier League’s global appeal”, but asked: “At what cost?”
He continued: “The Premier League: it is chasing them down the street.
“The issues around independence, transparency, fitting proper owners’ tests, redistribution of funds, looking after grassroots football.
“They can continue to ignore it, but it is coming for them – and I think this crisis in the last few weeks has made it incredibly difficult for them to ignore that there has got to be a better way forward.”
Neville added: “I have to say I’ve always welcomed it. I welcomed international investments into cities, but then I think the line has been crossed and it’s obviously been crossed in the last few weeks.”
Neville calls for independent regulator to check club bidders
The former Manchester United defender also questioned Newcastle United’s new Saudi Arabian ownership over the country’s questionable human rights record and called for an independent regulator to vet prospective buyers.
Earlier this week, Foreign Office minister Amanda Milling defended the Saudi investment in the Premier League side.
“The Saudi Arabian public investment fund is a significant investor, having invested billions in the UK and other Western markets,” she said.
“It operates across a range of sectors. We welcome the purchase of Newcastle United, a sign that the UK remains a great place to invest.”
But Mr Neville told Sky News’ political editor Beth Rigby that the public has “no idea” how the Saudi owners “were accepted into this country as a football owner”.
“I’ve been calling for an independent regulator for the last two or three years, and that has to come in and has to be a priority because there is a crisis in English football every 10 minutes – whether it be Derby County [going into administration]whether it be the Super League project, whether it be Abramovich in the last few weeks. “
Premier League ‘not fit and proper’
Neville added that “the Premier League have proven they’re not fit and proper and they’re not capable of demonstrating the leadership that is needed in English football” and that the last few weeks must be seen as “a wake up call” for clubs, associations and organizations related to the game.
The pundit also told Sky News that while he felt “compelled” to join the Labor Party this year due to his “real disappointment with the existing government” – but said he is “not going to be the Manchester mayor” in future.
“I’m not going to be the Manchester mayor. You’re wasting your time there,” he said.
Pushed on whether it was more likely that he would become an MP, Neville said: “I’m not ruling it out. But I’m also definitely not ruling it in.”