Will big money change the score in soccer?

Global businessmen raise questions as they fund teams in Brazil, Scotland, and former Soviet countries.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When little-known British-based Media Sports Investment (MSI) took over Corinthians, the Brazilian soccer giant, last year, the move prompted a host of questions. Who was behind the deal, and why did they want to invest in Brazil's corrupt national game? Most important, could they turn Corinthians into a title-winning side?

When Corinthians wrapped up their first Brazilian championship of the millennium in December, at least one question was answered. But the others - along with the broader issue of whether outside investment is good for the game - are still under debate.

And not just in Brazil. Across the world, money from millionaire businessmen, many of them from Eastern Europe, is changing soccer. In Brazil, England, Scotland, and former Soviet Union countries, outside investors are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the world's favorite sport.

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"It's a slow trend that is gathering pace," said Wyn Grant, a professor of politics at the University of Warwick and editor of the website www.footballeconomy.com. "There are worrying aspects to it. Here in Britain, Chelsea has such resources that it can buy all the best players and beat everyone on the domestic front. It has undermined the competitiveness of the game and therefore the interest of fans."

Chelsea was bought in 2003 by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who has spent close to half a billion dollars to form one of the most powerful teams in Europe. The story of Corinthians is similar.

Last year, MSI leased control of Corinthians' soccer operation for 10 years. Under the deal, they get 51 percent of any profits during that period, and in return, agree to pay off the club's $20 million debt and spend at least $15 million on new players.

MSI immediately surpassed that by splashing out an unprecedented $40 million on new faces, including a record fee in South America - $22 million - to sign Argentine star Carlos Teves.

The moves were surprising not just because of the money involved, but because they reversed a decades-long trend. South American clubs have typically sold their top players to European clubs with higher salaries, better living conditions, and more personal security.

The funds were well spent, MSI president Kia Joorabchian says, and not just because the players helped Corinthians to win the league for the first time since 1999.

"Our financial results are far better than what most people anticipated we would achieve," he says. "We got $6.5 million [from shirtsponsor] Samsung, which is the biggest in Brazilian history; a big contract with Nike; a full stadium almost every game; and our sales are 250 percent up on last year. All these things add up to show that there is a big potential financially in the country."

Better business practices needed

Experts agree there is room for Brazilian soccer to become as respected off the field as on. Brazil's players dominate the game - winning more World Cups than any other nation - but the country's administrators are considered strictly second division.

The legislation governing how clubs are run was written almost a century ago, and club managers and the state soccer associations are routinely accused of corruption. Although Brazilian soccer generates hundreds of millions of dollars each year, only six of the country's 24 senior clubs make a profit, estimates Jose Roberto Arruda, a lecturer in sports marketing at Rio de Janiero's Getulio Vargas Foundation.

"Brazil's football clubs are a hotbed of enthusiastic and corrupt amateurs who profess to do it for the love of the team but who are out to make money," said Alex Bellos, author of "Futebol," about Brazil's soccer culture. "It will be interesting to see whether MSI can professionalize Corinthians and, by extension, Brazilian football."

Worries that clubs' names will suffer

Joorabchian said he hopes to do just that. But fans are squeamish about handing control of their clubs to outsiders, especially if they feel that doing so could stain the club's name or lead to financial disaster or closure.

That is what concerns Corinthians fans who question the murky provenance of MSI's millions. Joorabchian has steadfastly refused to say who is funding MSI. He let it slip that Eastern European millionaires were involved and that one of them, Boris Berezovsky, a Russian businessman who was granted asylum in Britain after Russian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest on fraud and money-laundering charges, told a Brazilian newspaper he would invest $50 million to help Corinthians build a new stadium.

That sort of windfall would not be unique. In addition to Chelsea's takeover by Mr. Abramovich, a Lithuanian businessman has bought a majority stake in the Scottish club Heart of Midlothian. Across Eastern Europe, new millionaires have put cash into local teams. In the US, Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer last summer paid $1.47 billion to take control of England's best-known club, Manchester United.

On the field at least, most of those clubs have seen their fortunes improve. Off the field, things are less clear.

"FIFA [soccer's international federation] has set up a commission to investigate this because they are worried about these former Soviets investing," said Roque Citadini, a former Corinthians director who is now MSI's most outspoken critic. "There are now more questions than ever. Football is worried about this."

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