English football's wholesale embrace of foreign ownership is about to suffer its first serious test. West Ham United, who in 2006 were bought by Icelandic duo Björgólfur Guðmundsson and Eggert Magnússon, have been caught up in the financial crisis that has engulfed the tiny country. The collapse and possible insolvency of Iceland's second largest bank Landsbanki, in which current Hammers chairman Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson was a major shareholder, means that the club have nothing in the coffers for new players.
It's not what new boss Gianfranco Zola was expecting. Appointed last month, he was promised money to spend in the transfer market in January. Now his only hope will be to trim some of the costly, ineffective signings - shout-outs to Messrs Ljungberg, Dyer and Bellamy - bought by predecessor Alan Curbishley. Rumours mount that the club is up for sale - one weekend report quoted an Indian billionaire who'd been offered the club for £150m - but Gudmundsson is adamant this is not the case.
The Irons fiscal woes don't end there. Back in August their shirt sponsor, XL, went bust, necessitating some hasty wardrobe modifications and scuppering a £7.5 million, three-year deal. Then in September an independent tribunal upheld the claim by Sheffield United that, in escaping a points deduction when they breached the rules in signing Carlos Tevez during the 06/07 season, West Ham had unfairly maintained their Premier League status at the expense of the Yorkshire club. The Londoners could be forced to pay damages of up to £50 million as a result. While the penalty may not be that onerous, the club's finances are precariously balanced, leaving little room to maneuver should the side slip down the table.
Such wild times at the Boleyn are particularly acute as West Ham are a club of tradition and stability. They've had 12 managers in their history, three of those coming and going in the last three years alone. For all the millions pumped in by the Icelanders, little has been achieved. The Hammers regularly achieved top 10 finishes in the late Nineties and, despite relegation in 02/03, claimed a 9th place finish in their first season back. Since ownership changed hands, they've done no better, finishing 17th and 10th in the last two years.
Testing times, then, for a club styled the "Academy of Football", and one fondly acknowledged by football fans as the crucible of England heroes from 1966 till the present day. Perhaps having such a quintessentially English club in the hands of foreign ownership will be seen in retrospect as symptom of the malady that has infected the modern game.