A Coup Against Football

Photo courtesy of James Offer

Seeing last week’s defiant response to the now abandoned proposals for a European Super League in football left me feeling a curious mixture of encouragement and sadness. Make no mistake, the massive mobilisations were a win for football fans everywhere. Rivals usually at each other’s throats came together in solidarity, vowing to fight tooth and nail against forces seeking to divorce football from its historical roots. Fans protested against their own clubs with once unthinkable threats of dis-ownership, all in the effort of keeping the game in the interests of the people who make it special – themselves. And yet, something about the protests seemed impotent, a little too late to ever feel wholly genuine or authentic.

The distinction between the conniving club owners and everyday fanbases is one marked by a divergence in views towards the purposes of football. On the one hand, the ESL’s American franchise model seeks to place sport on the same rung as entertainment. It regards sporting institutions first and foremost as businesses whose primary interests lie in the unsatiable generation of profits, even if this requires complete deracination and the abandonment of historical traditions. On the other hand, the European model sees teams as being wholly embedded within particular geographical, social and historical contexts. From this standpoint, football clubs are inviolably linked to the communities they emerge from. More than local loyalties, they represent an admixture of social, political and sometimes even ethnic complexities.

In a manner potentially baffling to American sports fans, social class has always played an enormous role in the game. Historically dubbed the sport of the ‘working man’, many of the now globally recognized ‘brands’ have their roots in industrial communities, originally built for and by industrial workers – Manchester United by railwaymen, Arsenal by munitions manufacturers, West Ham by shipbuilders. Relationships with class naturally gesture towards the political; contrast Hamburg’s St Pauli, whose badge is a unifying symbol for anti-fascists everywhere, with the recently-defunct fascist Irriducibili fanbase of Lazio or the ultra-Zionist, anti-Arab supporters of Beitar Jerusalem. As the latter demonstrates, politics and class can easily boil into ethnic or religious tensions; take the Catholic-Protestant rivalry in Glasgow or Catalan nationalism at Barcelona. In each of these examples, what occurs on the pitch is only one factor in what makes a given club unique and separate from another. The world of football is a cocktail of significations that the average international businessman, without thorough research, can only fail to grasp. While they see only the global brand and the glamour of the modern game, those who live and breathe these clubs, whose families have always lived and breathed these clubs, see in them nothing other than their own personal and social identities.

To call the Super League a coup against football is no overstatement. The establishment of a competition divorced from the inconveniences of non-box office games would have resulted in an indestructible monopoly of giant clubs that would have utterly decimated everything below. While the ‘pyramid model’ does strike of ineffective Reaganite trickle-down economics, it ensures that through promotion or the FA cup every small club in England has equal opportunity to face up against the very best as a direct result of their own hard-won efforts. In 2015-16, Leicester City won the Premier League having risen from the third-tier just seven years before, earning themselves a spot in the Champions League where they played amongst the very best and richest in the world. Theirs was a rare story, but it proved that even in the wildly unequal landscape of modern football, financial budgets still could not predict what would actually take place on the pitch. At the end of the day, no matter how much money is involved, the game can only ever be played by twenty-two players at a time, and football, repeatedly, reminds us that shocks can and always will happen.

This is what stuck in the teeth of so many football fans when the ESL was announced late on Sunday night. With no relegations and no promotions, it was a vision of football not as sport but as entertainment, where the biggest brands could fight against each other week-in, week-out without having to bother with the minnows in their own leagues. The ESL tried to globalize the game completely, and in doing so suggested that Liverpool supporters in Beijing or Los Angeles were as if not more important than those living and working in the shadow of Anfield itself. It was a business decision made by capitalists, an effort to stifle competition by those claiming to love it most; it was not, by any means, a product anyone remotely in touch with the sport could believe in. By removing the risky financial consequences that come with potential upsets, club owners were looking to secure their assets and line their own pockets without thought for the damage their monopolisation would cause to football as a whole.

While universal condemnations from fans did resemble an inspirational victory, it is hard to tell if any significant structural changes to the sport will result. For thirty years now, ever since the establishment of the Premier League with its major Sky Sports television deal, the amount of money being pumped through football has become obscener by the season. An attempt to create a monopoly of the sport’s biggest teams is just the latest (and in hindsight inevitable) stage in the slow business takeover of a sport that once prided itself on its working-class heritage. Even as players’ wages rose to absurd levels, even as ticket prices became more and more unreasonable, and even as corporate boxes sprung up around stadiums to segregate the rich from the poor, no mobilized complaint arose because, frankly, the final ‘product’ suited everyone just fine. Who couldn’t be captivated by the glamour of the modern game with its millionaire superstars and colossal stadiums? Who didn’t want to see the very best football, even if that meant stifling the values clubs once lived by? Isolated protests aside, the slow corporatization of football was grudgingly accepted because teams were making money and winning games; and that, at the end of the day, was all most fans could ask for.

And yet, as the game has improved in quality, so the atmosphere around it has grown in toxicity. While certain players should be applauded for dissenting against their employers and speaking out against the ESL, they should by no means be heroized. Let us not forget that in the midst of a global pandemic, with backroom staff being furloughed and lower-league clubs struggling just to survive, many Premier League players refused to take pay-cuts despite their yearly earnings averaging out at 3.5m at year (the top-rated earn 5-6x this amount). Whatever the arguments for or against, such a decision is evidence enough that the men we see on the pitch are psychologically divorced from the everyday lives of the supporters who lionize them. The garish figures these players continue to earn is a spit in the face of those hit worst by this pandemic, and highlights the fact that even before the ESL fiasco, football clubs and players were already far, far removed from their supporters’ interests and experiences on just about every conceivable level.

The hope would be that this scenario brings about a complete restructuring of how football is managed – but my breath is not being held. Much has been said in the past week about the German model of ownership where legislation ensures all clubs are ‘50% + 1 share’ owned by their members’ base, thereby ruling out the possibility of business interests forcing a complete takeover as has happened with the English ‘Big 6’. That Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the only two German clubs invited to the ESL, both turned down their invitations suggests the value that fan ownership could bring. It would ensure that football remains for the people who love it and have always loved it, and is not wholly controlled by financiers like JP Morgan or the Glazers.

In addition to fan control, universal caps on player wages must be put into place, if not also on transfer fees, to ensure a) that clubs are not going into the red trying to pay absurd figures to prima donnas ready to leave at the first sniff of a better offer, and b) that leagues are not monopolized by a few teams simply because they bring in more cash than anyone else, thereby stifling competition and making football dull and uninteresting for both winners and losers alike. (A glance at the relative market value of the two Old Firm clubs demonstrates why Scottish football has been utterly stagnant and held back for years). Only when football remembers where it comes from, and when rich stars are reminded that the game is bigger than they are, can fans begin to take back what has been quietly stolen from them over the past thirty-odd years.

Scottish Premiership Club Market Values. Courtesy of Transfermarkt.co.uk
The Old Firm duopoly in Scottish football illustrates the relationship between financial and sporting success.

Ultimately, while the downfall of the ESL proposals is welcome, the entire affair cannot but leave a bitter aftertaste. Last week’s scenes of riled, protesting fans pointed to a sad but not unprecedented truth – that people will usually only take direct action when their own interests are being directly assaulted, and not when unequal and unfair deals are being conducted stealthily in the shadows. The problems of football are problems at the heart of the entire system we inhabit. A ‘free’, deregulated market caters only to the interests of the few while sacrificing the values of the many. The wages these players are on, while key workers guiding us through this pandemic remain underfunded and struggling, is a straightforward moral corruption. To begin protests now, when inequalities surrounding football have been around for so long, feels sadly a little too late. The ESL battle was a win for everyday fans, sure. But in the long war, business interests are utterly running us into the ground.

Football has always been a fantasy, a 90-minute window where real-life can be left on pause and tribal identities allowed to emerge. That sense of belonging, of investing yourself in a game that offers no return except the unleashing of unfettered emotions, is what makes football (and every other sport) such a beautiful and absurdly human endeavour. But the ESL proves that football’s dreamlike nature can also go too far. Now the fantasy must be curtailed, the game brought back to its roots. Fan ownership, independent regulation, and a culture that celebrates sporting competition on the field rather than capitalistic competition off the field must become the norm. The ESL saga attests to the hypocrisies of an entire system that continues to define the daily struggles of the many. For all the glories of competition espoused, those at the top refuse to acknowledge that the playing field is not level – because they just don’t want it to be.

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