We are getting the football we voted for

You can hardly have missed talk about the new European Super League that has been proposed by 12 of the supposedly great clubs in Europe. The German clubs, with their 51% fan holding, and the French clubs are notable by their absence. It is hard to reckon it to be a super league when the holders of Europe’s top competition won’t be involved and clubs who won the English Premier League more recently, and are currently positioned higher in the league table too, have not been invited over others.

Like most people, you’ll also be wondering why Tottenham, Atletico Madrid, AC Milan and Arsenal were invited as ‘giants’ of Europe. Spurs, for example, have not won an English First Division/Premier League title nor any European trophy in my lifetime. They haven’t won a domestic league title in my mum’s lifetime! They currently sit at 7th in the English Premier league and sacked their manager for their poor form. Arsenal fare little better and are 18 years without a Premier League win and have never won the Champions League, now 9th in the Premier League. AC Milan do a bit better and last won Serie A 10 years ago and have won Serie A multiple times beforehand. Unlike the two English clubs, they are 2nd in Serie A and might be considered title contenders. Nevertheless, they haven’t won anything in Europe for nearing 15 years despite their European pedigree. Of the four, Atletico Madrid have won a domestic league title most recently, within the last 7 years, but they – like Spurs and Arsenal – have never won a Champions League title managing to be runners up twice in the last 20 years. They are, at least, actually top of La Liga at the moment. The latter two clubs might have a claim, but the two English clubs really cannot be classed among Europe’s elite.

Of course, being an “elite club” really has nothing to do with it. What is being sold is not the best teams in Europe, but those with a strong history and global fanbase (though, again, what Spurs are doing in that list even on those terms is anybody’s guess!) What we are seeing here is not Europe’s best going into an elite competition – indeed, there is limited competition because you can finish dead last and play on next season – but Europe’s biggest brands selling TV rights to their global fanbase.

There seems to be three things exercising most fans. First, there is a principle of merit. A competition in which there is no promotion/relegation and no opportunity to play well enough to get in makes, in the minds of many football fans, the game a bit pointless. Second, there is the breaking of the link between the local community and the club. These clubs are now seeking to reach their global, rather than their local, fanbase. Third, as has been said ad nauseam, this is being driven principally by greed. Comment has been made, over and again, that the clubs are being driven by money not for any benefit to their fans.

Of course, there are counters to all these points. The NBA, NFL and IPL (among others) have no relegation/promotion in them and are watched all round the globe. There is plenty of competition within those leagues even if they are a closed shop. The same team doesn’t win every year.

The link between the clubs and the local community has been broken long ago. Stadium deals taking the Emirates and the Etihad out of their locality along with Anfield’s expansion of the stadium in the face of local opposition from residents around the ground speak to the fact that the local community has long been ignored by the clubs. Likewise, the prohibitively expensive cost of tickets and the impossibility of getting season tickets hardly speaks to the needs of working class supporters locally. The expansion of executive boxes further underlines the point. Similarly, the TV schedule that dominated the Premier League over recent years paid little heed to the needs of travelling fans. It was the audience at home that was prioritised over Newcastle fans commuting home after an evening game at Bournemouth, for example.

The argument to greed – whilst undeniably true – doesn’t account for the fact that it has also been the main driver behind the Premier League, UEFA and FIFA over the last 30 years. The fixture list built around the TV schedule and the ever increasing ticket prices all speak to the same problem. The argument against televising the Premier League that TV rights would kill off live spectator football was fought and lost. The TV rights were sold and, though plenty still turned up to support their clubs, the money and the desire to serve the much larger audience sat at home prevailed. All we are seeing now is that same argument being applied not to an English audience who would rather watch at home, but a global one. Those of us who prefer to watch from home have already given permission through our subscriptions for someone else to carry the TV rights to a bigger, apparently better competition. Just as before, money talks and the much larger global audience will inevitably swing it in the end. Nostalgia and community are, and remain, nothing but tools that clubs use when it suits them to ease the friction between fans and their wallets.

Perhaps what astounds me most is the strong sentiment against all of this. Of course, I am against it. But then that fits with my ardent and longstanding socialist tendencies, doesn’t it. I am, at heart, a communitarian who believes in community links. I object to globalisation in principle because it is typically a means of driving down the cost of goods, or importing cheap labour, to the detriment of workers for the benefit of those heavily invested in the transfer of global capital. It was, at least in part, why I was keen to vote to leave the European Union and remain pleased that we have done so. So, for me to dislike the European Super League on the grounds that greedy club owners are pursuing a global audience because it serves their financial interests, and they wish to remove barriers to that happening which, in this case, happen to be their community links with local fans is entirely inline with my worldview; both my Christian and political ones. But the rest of youse, I have no idea what is driving it other than a bit of nostalgia.

This is the epitome of the neoliberal system, isn’t it? This is entirely in line with the European Union project many supported? This is minimally entirely to be expected when we cheer on the massive corporations and billionaire owners buying up English clubs which is clearly not done out of the goodness of their own hearts of any community link to the team. But who cares as long as they give the manager a decent transfer budget and make a few marquee signings, right? It is the inverse, but ultimately same, mindset that doesn’t give two hoots about global exploitation of workers, or the driving down of wages in the UK, on the grounds that goods and services can be produced much cheaper elsewhere. Who cares as long as my jeans stay cheap, right?

There is a reason why all American sport has adopted this exact model. The land of the free (market) puts a closed shop on its leagues. When I was growing up and followed the NBA avidly, I supported the Seattle Sonics. That team no longer exist. Why? Not because they went bankrupt or became so poor they were relegated. They simply upped and moved to Oklahoma and became the Oklahoma City Thunder because they were offered financial incentives to do so. That team’s history – albeit relatively short compared to most English football teams – was wiped out in 2008. We have essentially bought into this same model of ownership in UK sport and can hardly be surprised that of all the breakaway clubs involved in the European Super League only one is not majority foreign owned. We cannot be surprised that foreign owners of English football clubs – business investors in reality – do not recognise or care for the community links and history. These are, as the Americans like to call them, franchises. The sport, really, is secondary.

The German model of football ownership is now being mooted from various quarters. The reason they haven’t signed up to the super league is because the 50 + 1 model gives the fans the largest stake in their club. It is a form of collective ownership. Again, as a model, it is one I like. But I would, wouldn’t I. I’m all for co-operatives. Again, that fits both my worldview and my politics. The quarters from which many of the calls are emanating make this a somewhat jarring model. George Eaton wrote this article that I think touches well on the issue:

On a similar note, it is interesting to listen to Bob Crow speak about those who support a ‘European Super State’ here. We could change one word of that, ‘state’ to ‘league’ and the entire argument stands and speaks to exactly what we are seeing now. As he rightly argues in the video below, global capital moved manufacturing abroad but, realising that certain industries cannot be moved abroad, determined to bring cheap labour to staff it instead because of the ‘bowl of rice’ scenario:

By exactly the same mode of logic, this is what we are seeing in our football clubs. Wealthy foreign investors have seen an opportunity to make massive profits and have pursued them. They first did it at the expense of the fans locally and they are now doing it using the very global mechanisms they set in place to aid their profit-making. The European Super League is, to some degree, the triumph of that model coming home to roost.

If we are happy to sell off our assets to foreign investors, we cannot be surprised when those same owners then do what is in their own interest and have no concern for the community their asset is supposed to serve, be it a train operator, steel manufacturers, power stations or, yes, a football club. This is the neoliberal globalised world and for all our hooting and hollering, in the end, we are getting the football that we voted for.

*I wrote this yesterday before the whole thing collapsed. It is good to see that the collective action of the fans worked. We are now getting the football collective action won.