Gravy train: Fifa president Sepp Blatter on the pitch with a Saudi official in Riyadh. Photo: Getty
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It is time to clean up the beautiful game

In recent days, Fifa seems to have plumbed new depths of almost comic-book villainy.

At the turn of the century, I attended the first Fifa conference on the subject of players’ agents. It was held at the Italian FA’s technical and training centre in Coverciano, outside Florence, and the initial speech came from a man introduced as a leading sports lawyer from Germany. He informed delegates that Fifa’s rules held no jurisdiction in either international law or, indeed, in the Swiss canton where it was based. The Fifa officials present greeted this with indifference: not a comment was passed nor a question asked.

After two days, I returned to England and wrote a brief report for Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League. I heard nothing more from Fifa, the FA (which had sent two officials) or Scudamore.

In recent days, Fifa seems to have plumbed new depths of almost comic-book villainy in its alleged attempts to misrepresent Michael Garcia’s report into the World Cup bidding process. Garcia, an American lawyer hired by Fifa, has learned what many of us have learned in football: corruption in the game is so widespread and the beneficiaries of the gravy train are so many that reform is impossible while the central structure remains in place.

The FA has discovered to its cost that its hugely expensive and naive attempts to canvass support as an aspirant host of the World Cup have merely enabled Fifa to point the finger of suspicion at it. David Bernstein, a former FA chairman, has now called for England to lobby for Uefa – or at least some European football nations – to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Most would be reluctant to do so but in Germany, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, a former star player and chairman of the European Club Association, is an outspoken critic of Fifa. Perhaps by enlisting him, my client Gary Lineker and others to lobby within Europe, those of us who despair of Fifa might be able to exert pressure on associations and governments to take up the cause.

I wrote in these pages in June that the FA also needs to sort out its own issues. Why, for instance, does the Professional Footballers’ Association gain most of its income from the employers? And why have there never been adequate investigations into the many illegal payments allegedly made to managers and officials in transfer dealings?

But what if a reformed and cleaned-up FA withdrew from Fifa, supported by Germany and the US? Together, the three nations control much of the TV revenue and thus the sponsorship dependent on TV exposure, which is so vital to the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, and his ilk pursuing their interests in a game so internationally powerful that it seems above the rule of law.

As one listens to the mealy-mouthed Richard Scudamore speak of how he hopes that things will get better, one realises that those employed by the various official organisations are in too deep
to call time on the system, as flawed as it is.

It reminds me of the silence of those in the banking industry who knew what was going wrong in their trade yet stood idly by. Yet those who care for football, the players and supporters, without whom the professional game would not exist, must act. 

Jon Holmes is a former football agent

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.