On April 18, 12 of the most powerful football clubs from the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy announced that they were launching a European Super League (ESL), a new closed-shop competition. The founding members were all to be guaranteed a permanent spot in the league, regardless of performance.
The announcement caused an uproar among football fans, who largely saw it as a betrayal by the 12 clubs, who in the pursuit of more revenue seemed to be abandoning sporting values. Government officials and football authorities vowed to do what they could to stop the new league.
Two days later, the ESL unravelled. Two of the 12 clubs, Chelsea and Manchester City, announced they were pulling out of the competition, and were quickly followed by the other four clubs from the English Premier League. Atletico Madrid and Inter Milan then also quit.
Although the project was short-lived, it constituted a brazen attempt at a coup d’etat at the top of the sport. For decades, lone voices battling against the tide have warned about the dangers of the growing dominance of capital to the sporting values of “the beautiful game”. The ESL debacle should be a wake-up call to the fact that football is in urgent need of reform.
Football authorities reap what they sow
UEFA, FIFA, and the domestic leagues also reacted with fury to the announcement, but it is these self-same institutions which have brought the game to this present crisis. They have overseen an astonishing rise in player salaries over the past 30 years, with the rewards of bloating ticket prices and TV subscriptions increasingly concentrated in a top 0.001 percent of footballers, their agents and club owners.
The football authorities have happily watched some of Europe’s most historic clubs taken over by ruthless multinational investment groups and even Gulf states. Eight out of the 12 Super League clubs were bought in the past 20 years.
With little in the way of regulatory controls over what this new breed of billionaire owners can do, and no serious role given to fans in the governance of clubs, except in Germany, it was inevitable that they would seek ways to maximise the potential value of their “assets”.
The pandemic has exposed how this system pushes clubs to rack up enormous debts chasing instant success. Of the 12 founding clubs of the new Super League, at least half have amassed massive debt burdens that now appear unserviceable, after match-day revenues from fan attendance disappeared in Europe’s COVID-19 lockdowns.
In Italy, Inter Milan has sought $200m in emergency cash in February, while Juventus needs to raise $120m by the end of June. In Spain, both Barcelona and Real Madrid are in the red to the tune of more than $1bn. In England, the Glazer family has turned Manchester United from a debt-free club to one that has paid out more than $1.3bn in interest payment and fees since their leveraged takeover in 2005. Tottenham are carrying an $840m debt and took out a special low-cost loan with the Bank of England at the peak of the coronavirus crisis. For these clubs, the Super League power-grab is an alternative to downsizing and living within their means.
UEFA had already conceded the principle of sporting merit to the big clubs in their own proposals to reform the Champions League, announced on April 19. One of the proposed changes is the introduction of a “coefficient” points system which would see two clubs retain their spot in the Champions League even if they have a bad season in their domestic league. The truth is that UEFA and FIFA have walked hand-in-hand with European football’s emerging oligarchy for decades. Now, that oligarchy has bitten the hand that feeds it
A fan-led transformation?
The backlash against the Super League has revealed the power the grassroots of the sport holds when it unites against the game’s elite, but it is as yet unclear whether momentum will now build to use that power for more profound change.
The idea of fan ownership of clubs has rapidly gained popularity, with the example of Germany – where clubs are majority fan-owned and none was tempted to join the ESL venture – seen as one to follow. The UK Government has announced a “fan-led review” into the sport and said the German model will be considered.
Fan ownership could be part of the solution to football’s structural inequalities, but unless there is a fundamental rebalancing in how the sport’s revenues are distributed – away from a tiny group of elite players, agents and clubs – the huge divide in wealth and power between the top and bottom of football will continue to grow. After all, Barcelona and Real Madrid are fan-owned but that did not stop their presidents from embracing the Super League fiasco.
Player salary caps, a guaranteed cut of the revenues going towards grassroots facilities, and a fairer distribution of broadcasting money throughout the leagues (and into the women’s game) would go a long way to creating a more balanced sport with fairer, more unpredictable, sporting competition. Ticket prices and TV subscription rates should all have democratic input from fans, who are the ones who have to pay out of their own pocket for these revenue streams. Sponsorship money should be rejected when it comes from gambling firms and other predatory capitalist interests.
It should not be surprising that these changes closely correlate with the sort of redistribution of wealth and power that is required in Europe’s economy and society in general. Football, after all, is no more nor less than a mirror of the European socioeconomic reality: those at the top increasingly resemble an oligarchy, while those at the bottom struggle to keep their heads above water.
Stopping the Super League should be just the start. The current football authorities have been part of the problem, and are only now posing as the solution to block the big 12’s attempt to seize their crown. A fan-led revolution of the sport would require toppling football’s established order in its entirety.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.