That was the league that wasn’t
Defeat of the European Super League project is welcome, but redeeming football will take imagination, suggests Paul Demarty
On the face of it, the recent tumult in European football is seasonally appropriate. The sport was murdered, then, three days later, rose again from the dead.
How long the deed had been planned we do not yet know, but we can guess. The idea of a breakaway league of the premier European clubs has been discreetly floated for years - normally when Uefa (the Union of European Football Associations) is considering the structure of the Champions League and associated financial rewards. More concrete ideas started to leak out a year ago, including one detail - the involvement of the JPMorgan Chase company on the finance side - which certainly came true two weeks ago.
The rapidity and vigour of the fan backlash testifies perhaps to the fact that this is not very much of a surprise. Football’s was a death foretold. We knew that the ultimate cash-grab was inevitable, but hoped that circumstances would somehow conspire to delay indefinitely the crime. The billionaire boys had cried wolf so many times, so perhaps they could not be herded together after all.
But this time something pushed the clubs over the top. With Uefa deciding to further expand the Champions League, the European Super League (ESL) hastened its coup. There was to be a league of 20 teams, in two divisions. Fifteen clubs would be permanent members, in effect: no matter how poorly they performed, they would retain their spots. The other 5 would rotate, in some unspecified fashion. Twelve of the anointed 15 had signed up: the conventionally-understood top six in England (Manchester United and Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur) - though exactly how ‘top’ these six are is a matter of debate, especially given that three of them look certain to miss out on the Champions League next year; joining them would be Juventus, Internazionale and AC Milan from Italy, and Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid from Spain. The three remaining spaces were presumably intended for Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and the top two German sides, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund; with a strong enough launch, these teams would warm up to the idea. JPMorgan would be the teams’ banker, providing a several-billion-euro line of credit.
So far, nothing very much surprising had happened. There would always be a moment when the deed was done; there would inevitably be a visceral reaction. There cannot have been anyone involved foolish enough to expect an easy ride.
What followed, from April 18 onwards, however, was far worse than a rough ride: it was a complete fiasco. The ‘dirty dozen’ were on the back foot from the get-go. The news was broken ahead of official announcements by The Sunday Times, leaving the managers and players of the teams - who, if they were even aware of the plans, had no responsibility for them - in the full glare of the media to give an accounting for a decision that, it quickly became clear, they hated. Instead of getting ahead of the story, the clubs’ spokesmen and flacks were chasing it from the start, and chasing it into a hurricane storm-wall.
By the end of the following day, those opposed to the ESL included every football club not in it, the fans of those clubs, the fans of the ESL clubs, Uefa, Fifa (the sport’s international governing body), her majesty’s government, her majesty’s opposition, her majesty’s grandson William, Socialist Worker, and a very angry Gary Neville. Never before has so heterogeneous a popular front been assembled; we do not expect to see it topped in our lifetime.
The breadth of opposition turned things towards crisis. Uefa threatened to ban players from international competitions; Gianni Infantino, top dog at Fifa, criticised the scheme; Boris Johnson threatened a “legislative bombshell”. None of these things, on their own, were fatally threatening. The ban on international appearances was almost certainly legally indefensible. Government opposition was wholly opportunistic (it soon emerged that Johnson had met Ed Woodward, a Man Utd powerbroker neck-deep in the idea, a few days earlier, though we may never find out for sure what was discussed) and could have been dealt with if it could have been made to appear unpopular.
The crucial element, with all apologies to the princes, prime ministers and Fifa/Uefa apparatchiks, was the strength of fan opposition. The visible signs mounted. On April 20, Chelsea fans marched through west London, demanding the club withdraw from the scheme, sack chief executive Bruce Buck and more. The iconic placard decreed: “We want our cold nights in Stoke” - the fate that the ESL was supposed to spare these fans. Chelsea pulled out; Man City, who appear to have been very unenthusiastic participants, followed suit; and by the following morning, the ESL had lost its Premier League contingent entirely. The wretched thing was clearly dead - for now. But Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid president and chairman of the ESL, refused to say die. His media appearances were bizarre, but declared above all that the league was alive, since the English clubs had, after all, signed binding contracts. But we do not rate the chances of a reboot of the ESL, in the short term at least.
Some time ago, Pérez’s predecessor at Madrid, Ramón Calderón, got involved in a long spat with Manchester United, as he attempted to prise leading goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo away from them; he sarcastically informed United that slavery had been abolished long ago. (“Is that what they told Franco?” retorted Alex Ferguson, a ‘socialist’ of sorts, in reference to the generalissimo’s footballing allegiances.) Pérez was now attempting to pull the opposite trick. But Ronaldo went to Real in the end.
Pérez’s insistence that the show still is on the road is one of many things that demands explanation. The strength of fan opposition is another, as is the pattern of support among club owners, and the intervention - threatened or real - of the state. There is, lastly, the question of ‘what is to be done’.
Story so far
Accounting for Pérez’s stubborn insistence that the show must go on (even as the theatre burns down around him) requires attention to how we got here.
As noted, such a breakaway has been threatened many times before. There is, let us say, a ‘positive’ basis for it, in that the major clubs of Europe (nowadays especially England) have a global following. The emergence of pay-TV sports coverage in Europe massively increased the amount of money available to clubs - and particularly to the top clubs, where canny marketers have created ‘global brands’; doing so has increased the amount of money at the top teams’ disposal over and above the benefit of TV money to the rest of the given league.
This is oddly more obvious outside of England, where PSG have unassailable supremacy in France, Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain (albeit less so), and so on. (Five different teams have won the Premier League in the last 10 years, compared to three in La Liga and two for the Bundesliga.) The overall stratification is clear, however. It seems bizarre that PSG should field a team of superstars to crush relative minnows week after week, year after year, when they could be playing Man City and Bayern Munich.
There is also the ‘negative’ impulse - the oddly precarious state of the elite - which has to do with the infernal logic of the game’s financialisation. The increasing money available to top teams has the effect of inflating player wages across the board. Football clubs have absurd ratios of wage-bill to overall revenue, and it is only getting ‘worse’ (unless you are a player … ). The sheer size of the sums involved have made the transfer market very lucrative for middlemen, and some players’ agents have achieved great notoriety for their habit of screwing money out of star-struck clubs in foolish deals. (United’s Ed Woodward is well known as a sucker for this sort of scam - the ESL is only the latest of his many errors of judgement.) That, of course, further inflates the wages.
Assuming that the TV money keeps increasing, and the lucrative sponsorships and partnerships continue to multiply, everything will be hunky-dory. Yet the rot has long set in. The fundamental problem here is that it is frankly not clear that there is much more money to be screwed out of Sky Sports customers, so the endless TV rights inflation has a shaky foundation. The only ‘solution’ anyone ever seems to come up with is more games, and therefore more rights to sell - hence the massively enlarged Champions League format that we now seem to be stuck with. But the top clubs routinely complain that the schedule is getting completely unworkable even in its present form. (In December 2019, Liverpool were required to play two matches within 22 hours of each other - one in England and the other in Qatar!)
Then, of course, there is the risk not of slow rot, but of sudden disaster. The Covid-19 pandemic cut off one source of revenue for clubs (gate receipts) entirely for long periods of time. It also immediately inaugurated a messy legal battle between the clubs and leagues, on the one hand, and the broadcasters, on the other, who wanted their money back; but, of course, the money was already spent on new glittering contracts. The financial situation of the richest clubs is, in many cases, especially poor - Pérez’s Madrid is €900 million in debt.
The breakaway would essentially allow the clubs to write their own rules. They could negotiate their own rights deals; meanwhile the opportunity exists to get the players’ salaries under control with some kind of cap. The result would presumably be a more sustainably profitable business model for elite clubs, comparable to the franchises of American sports or similar arrangements, like cricket’s Indian Premier League.
It has to be stressed that much outraged coverage has concurred, including Gary Neville’s televised rant on the subject, that the project was about “greed, pure and simple”. But that is not exactly true. The deep background to all this is, of course, the wish of a number of private companies and individual bourgeois men to keep their account balances in good order, and as far as that goes, ‘greed’ is as good a word as any other. That is what got us to the precipice of the ESL. But the immediate impulse is more a matter of desperation - hence Pérez’s antics, and his warnings of imminent catastrophe.
From this point of view, it is not surprising that the oligarch- and Gulf-owned clubs, Man City, Chelsea and PSG, were the least enthusiastic. In their case profit is not really the point; they are instead involved in reputation-laundering and peacock-displaying at very great expense. PSG will not go bankrupt, and nor will Man City. (The bungled 2019-20 attempt to enforce financial fair play rules against Man City will have reassured the petro-squillionaires that the bottomless-pockets club financing model has a bright future in the existing institutional set-up). It should also be clear that, beyond any sentimental reasons players might have had for opposing the ESL, it might well have resulted in lower wages for them, or at least the possibility of lower wages outside of it.
The fans’ response, meanwhile, was remarkable above all in its unanimity. The only actual football match to involve one of the English ESL clubs between the new league’s announcement and its collapse was between Liverpool and Leeds United. Liverpool’s players and staff arrived in Leeds to find a local population incandescent with rage. They were heckled in the streets. In their dressing room, they found shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘Earn it’, in reference to the permanent status they were to enjoy in the super league.
Back on Merseyside people were no happier. Supporters’ groups announced the removal of banners from the Spion Kop stand, which serves as a synecdoche for the club’s legendarily boisterous supporter culture. Protests took place outside Anfield. There can be few in the red half of Liverpool who did not cheer manager Jurgen Klopp for reiterating his opposition to any such scheme, despite the awkward position it put him in with his bosses. So it was with the fans of all the ESL clubs, who abandoned their habits of whataboutery and specious defensiveness, and joined with the whole divided church of football fandom to object.
For all the promises of ‘better’ football, which might have been fulfilled merely in terms of style and quality, these fans had been furthest from the minds of the ESL’s architects. The idea was that, given the ‘global brand’ status of these clubs, it would be possible to ‘dissolve the supporters and elect others’: a new generation of people who, apparently, follow players more than clubs, and can be milked for money (somehow - this part was a little more vague) without the troublesome attitude of ‘legacy fans’ to worry about. Coming at the end of a 12-month period in which football had largely been played in empty stadiums, the ESL seemed to come as proof that the clubs really had decided that the fans were superfluous.
This seems to have been a catastrophic misjudgement. It is a difficult thing to judge, of course, since hypothetical silent majorities of TikTok-obsessed teenagers in emerging markets cannot express their common interests as such coherently - unlike ‘legacy fans’, who have complex webs of supporters organisations, fanzines, podcasts, and, of course, the solidarity of the mainstream sports press, which is largely of the same sociology and outlook. Their views must instead be represented by the likes of Ed Woodward, whose greatest joy in running Man Utd meant finding it an official men’s grooming partner in Singapore and so on. Yet we are fairly confident that much of the appeal of football is that it is incompletely bourgeoisified. Most emerging markets have their own football clubs too; and, if people more commonly support Premier League teams than those in their own locality (or country), then the psychological role of that is important. Both the local team in some Cairo suburb and Liverpool FC belong to national associations and, via a few layers, to Fifa - to world football.
Nothing like the same thing exists for the fully rentier-capitalist American sports system. Nor, really, does it exist in rugby or cricket to anything like the same global extent. The unique selling point of association football turns out to be that it is a global mass phenomenon not yet reduced to merely a product sold by capitalist firms to a docile consumer base. That, in the end, is a matter of the deep history of the sport: an invention of peasants and rural workers in the late middle ages, expropriated by the early public schools, regularised and exported to several Anglophile elites around the world in the 19th century, before being revolutionised by the influx of talent and support from the popular classes: Scots dockers, Brazilian slum-kids and who knows who else.
From a very early date, in England at least, football clubs had capitalist private owners. The sport itself remained very down at heel, however. The English retained a strict salary cap; gate receipts were shared. Since no way could be found to make vast amounts of money from it, the game was left to rot. As the working class communities in which it thrived began themselves to suffer defeat and decomposition, football culture became more desperate. By the 1980s, football’s image problem was severe, and based in a sordid reality of collapsing stadia in declining industrial towns. The TV money era changed all that, but needed the enthusiasm of fans to succeed.
It is for this reason - the contradictory, contested nature of power in football - that one-sided leftwing accounts of the sport are so misguided. Socialist Worker was rather gazumped by the timing of the ESL’s collapse; the paper’s initial reaction came out on April 20, hours before the league’s de facto demise. Sam Ord’s take, however, was predictable:
The move is motivated by profit following a year of lockdown restrictions that have strangled some of the club’s income … The announcement was greeted with fury by many fans raging at the corporate interests and super-rich club owners. But football was handed to big-business interests at the expense of fans a long time ago. That sell-out makes the ESL league shift possible.1
This is far too reductive. Some clubs have been taken over by corporations, such as Liverpool and Man Utd. Others, as we have noted, are in the hands of oligarchs, who only run the clubs at a profit because they are forced to by Uefa’s rules (fiddling that system was what got Man City into trouble, remember).
In some respects, the Abramoviches and Sheikh Mansoors of football more resemble the prominent local businessmen that used to own English clubs before the Premier League ‘big bang’, and still do in much of the pyramid’s lower levels. Both are interested more in status than money. There are far better investments than football. It is a bit like elite high culture, ironically: Terry Pratchett’s novel, Maskerade - a parody of Phantom of the opera - contains a delightful exchange between Mr Salzella, the impresario, and Mr Bucket, the philistine bourgeois cheesemonger, who has just bought the Ankh-Morpork opera house. Bucket tries to make sense of the accounts and finds himself exasperated by the red ink, so Salzella must explain:
“You see,” he said, “cheese does make money. And opera doesn’t. Opera’s what you spend money on.”
“But … what do you get out of it?”
“You get opera. You put money in, you see, and opera comes out,” said Salzella wearily.
The economics of football are rather more like those of opera than of dairy products. Thus comrade Ord’s account is weirdly self defeating. “The move is motivated by profit following a year of lockdown restrictions that have strangled some of the club’s income” - that is, not motivated by profit at all, but by loss, which is more easily swallowed by some parts of big-money football than others. The result is that there is a limited objective basis for fans of a particular club to back their owners, and indeed to prefer kleptocrats and Gulf princelings to private-equity types, since the oligarchs do their rent-seeking elsewhere than their sporting endeavours, and understand the ‘money in, football out’ equation.
This was dramatised last year by the attempt of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund to buy out Newcastle United, long languishing under the reign of retail magnate Mike Ashley. (The bid collapsed because Saudi state-sponsored piracy of television coverage - one of the more petulant parts of Mohammed bin-Salman’s spat with Qatar - upset the real moneymen.) The truth is that Newcastle fans largely supported the bid. It is not hard to see why they welcomed this ‘prince from across the sea’; after all, they had no real choice in the matter, and could hardly end the war in the Yemen by embarrassing the Saudis’ Tyneside ambitions, but might dare to hope for an on-field transformation, like Man City’s under the Emiratis. Football fans are enserfed by the economic structure of the game - or else they are cleared out of the way.
All of which rather complicates the question of what to do about it. The fan rebellion against the ESL is heartening, but mainly because - whatever the solution - it is going to be big, and no less the end of football as we know it than the ESL would have been. The solutions floating around the bourgeoisie are all deficient to one degree or another. Gary Neville demanded an “independent regulator”, but communists have no illusions in such ‘independence’. Regulators are captured sooner or later.
More promising, perhaps, are the various gestures in the direction of the German regime, where supporters’ trusts are - in theory - guaranteed a bare majority of voting shares at clubs. That certainly did the job of keeping the German teams out of the ESL, but the Bundesliga is hardly a socialist paradise, and it seems perhaps that the energy-drink company, Red Bull, has found a way to bend the rules with its takeover of Leipzig.
A longer follow-up article by comrade Ord in Socialist Worker confronts these questions by producing a historical-theoretical narrative. His fundamental thesis, which is Socialist Workers Party orthodoxy, is that sport produces an alternative collective identity to class solidarity. The rules of modern sports are generally the product of the English public schools and contribute to the pack mentality which made the empire - the battles won on the playing fields of Eton. Those rules are foisted on those below; the working class thereby imbibes the values of competition, of “war without weapons” (Orwell). ‘Competitiveness’ also fits the ideology of the market, and therefore sport is commodified. Ord concludes:
The bigger and more popular the sport, the more profit capitalists can squeeze out from fans and participants. For sport to have real value, capitalism has to be defeated.2
It should be said that Ord’s account is in some ways perceptive - he understands well the dubious inheritance of the public schools and empire, at least. On the whole, however, it is extremely one-sided. On the basis of his account, it would be hard to tell why anyone would actually want to watch a game of football. He talks about it as a source of shallow fellow-feeling, a welcome distraction from the daily grind: the opium of the people, the obscene terrace chant of the oppressed creature, but not something of nobility or beauty.
The whole thing is summed up by his closing statement. What does he mean by “real value”? The Marxist critique of capitalism knows of exchange value and use value, both of which are plainly involved in football and other sports. If by “real” value he means ‘somehow edifying to human culture’ - it is not clear how else one is to take it - it is coherent, at least, but unpleasantly moralistic.
Walter Benjamin wrote in similar vein of “cultural treasures”, the “spoils” of victory and oppression: “there is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism”. Benjamin, however, was no finger-wagging Puritan, and commended an attitude of “cautious detachment” in face of the unreflective worship of such treasures.3 So for us: our knowledge of the brutality of Gulf regimes does not obliterate the beauty of Kevin de Bruyne’s through-balls, any more than the antics of the Borgia popes prevent us from admiring the great art works of the Renaissance.
But, as soon as we concede this, we know that football has ‘value’, both in the Marxist double sense and in the ‘naive’ sense of moral or aesthetic value. This value is inherently linked to its competitive nature - which frightens Ord, as it has frightened many a Socialist Worker writer down the years. If sport is war, then it is war without weapons - why should that be so terrible? Peaceful competition is a form of improvisation. We get those de Bruyne passes because defenders play with skill and organisation, which therefore demands creativity and élan from attackers. We know, therefore, that the solidarity of football fans has its utopian dimension as well as its warlike one - as spectacularly demonstrated by our collective contempt for the ESL.
Our policy, then, has to focus on redeeming sport - a word which originally meant to buy out of slavery - which is only possible because it already has ‘value’, just as the slave was objectively no less human before freedom. That means progressively breaking the grip of money on the game, and therefore of both the greedy and the profligate owners. Short-term measures may include some of the reforms touted - the automatic majority shareholding for fans, for example, or bans on mortgaging club assets, and other sorts of shady business that put several clubs on the brink of liquidation in recent years. The ultimate model must be for sport to be governed by fans and athletes altogether.
Sport expresses, in miniature, the contradictions of society at large, and thus our strategy for it may be patterned after our approach to other problems. Just as we must not wait for capitalism to be abolished to fight for better working conditions or environmental protections, a more human framework for competitive sport must not wait for the revolution. A mass communist movement could start immediately, simply by organising its own athletic clubs and other societies, as was common in the mass parties of the early 20th century. The communist movement organised rival workers’ Olympiads to expose the ultra-reactionary politics behind the modern Olympic Games. Women’s football was banned from playing at English men’s club grounds in part due to the close links between the women’s game and the radical part of the labour movement.
A better future for sport is nearer at hand than we think and the key obstacles are the same as ever - not least the disorganised and politically rudderless state of the workers’ movement. Until we fix that, football will be left for private equity ghouls, oligarchs and corrupt officials to squabble over.
Illuminations London 1999, p248.↩︎