By Tom Davies
In the past three decades, football has often served as a symbol of contemporary capitalism. Its commercialised growth, increased inequality, periodic financial crises, the perpetually unsated desire of its richest elements to keep on grabbing – while sealing themselves off from the rest – have reflected trends in the wider world. This includes capitalism’s tendency towards cartels, monopolies and the destruction of the competition it purports to foster. People on the left have not been slow to point this out this week amid the tumult caused by the announcement – then collapse – of plans by a self-selecting group of rich clubs to form a European breakaway league.
Similarly, the explosion of popular revulsion that prompted the plans’ collapse has been celebrated as an example of what people power can achieve, pushing ideas of democracy and regulation of the corporate world into the centre of public debate. If we can do this in football, why not elsewhere? has been a commonly posed question on the left.
Nor will it have escaped Labour activists’ notice, of course, that many of the proposed remedies to the latest display of elite greed in football featured in the Party’s 2019 General Election manifesto. That document promised legislation to allow “football supporters’ trusts to be able to appoint and remove at least two club directors and purchase shares when clubs change hands.” This would ringfence a proportion of Premier League income to redistribute to the grassroots and a reinforced ‘fit and proper person’ test for prospective club owners. This thinking has been reflected in the past week’s clamour for measures such as a “50% + 1 rule”, as exists in Germany, that ensures a majority of a club’s shareholding is in supporters’ hands.
As with any manifesto proposals, those policies needed fleshing out, but it’s clear that they chime with a basic public mood, among football fans and beyond. They match a basic feeling of angry powerlessness towards the unaccountable oligarchs, oil-state despots and vulture capitalists that control these corporations. There is a basic sense that these things are community assets, not corporate playthings, and should be treated as such.
So this week’s anger and unravelling offer causes for genuine optimism – as well as for caution. There is optimism that, in a sport often disfigured by tribalism, prejudice and pettiness, a real and overwhelming sense of unity was achieved. This must be consolidated. It would be tempting for those of us who railed against the formation of the breakaway Premier League in England almost three decades ago to ask more recent dissenters where they’d been when the seeds of this week’s skulduggery were being planted – but this is not a time for sanctimony or one-upmanship.
Gary Neville may have been silent when the predatory Glazer family took over his beloved Manchester United and loaded them with debt, but the broadcaster and former United defender’s outbursts on Sky Sports – itself a massive beneficiary of football’s post-1992 world – were nonetheless articulate and heartfelt, and helped spread the rage. That supporters of the clubs that supposedly stood to benefit from the latest breakaway – Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham – poured onto the streets in protest, recognising the threat to basic sporting integrity in the plans, should also be celebrated.
So too should the way the outcry swept up with it a whole range of related grievances, to do with regulation of the game’s excesses and distressed finances, supporter democracy and scrutiny of owners. The Tory government has agreed to a review of the game’s governance, promising to finally act on its 2019 manifesto promise for a “fan-led review” of the game, a paler, more vague imitation of Labour’s own proposals.
And as with all political struggles, we can be heartened by the weaknesses it exposed in our enemies. Used to getting their own way repeatedly in football and elsewhere, and perhaps minded to see themselves as the smartest guys in the room, the amateurish and underhand way the super leaguers both announced their proposals and then swiftly backtracked from them revealed a self-serving, dishonest disunity and desperation, thieves falling out among themselves. These are not competent men.
Real Madrid and Barcelona in particular, for all the political and financial clout they’ve been able to exploit, are drowning in debts. Manchester United’s too are eye-watering. This provided much of their self-pitying motivation. The rich, citing problems they themselves caused, asked the rest of the game to sacrifice the basic integrity of the sport to clear up their mess.
The breakaway league too would have been debt-financed, by JP Morgan, hedged against future TV revenues, itself a risk in a turbulent broadcasting market. These clubs’ instincts and avarice are matched by the oligarchs and despotic sovereign states that run Chelsea and Manchester City, though they do not share the same debts nor motivations – for them it’s reputation-laundering and sports-washing.
So now that the plotters have played their hand and lost this particular battle, they must be pushed back further. A feature of the past 25 years has been Europe’s biggest clubs invoking the threat of a breakaway to wring frequent reforms to its leagues and competitions that increase their share of revenue and power. Every time Uefa, the European governing body, has basically capitulated in fear.
Even this week amid all the chaos, Uefa agreed changes to the Champions League that involved an enlarged group stage (more games between the same teams equals more guaranteed income) and two places reserved for clubs who had failed to qualify but had the best overall European records over the previous five years, a way of rewarding historically big clubs even when they fail in a particular season. In the light of the breakaway plot, however, there is now talk of Uefa rowing back on these regressive reforms. This is a pressure point for campaigners.
For the first time there is widespread talk of punishing rather than appeasing the owners of the game’s richest clubs. And these people cannot be appeased. They will come again, which is why radical ownership reform is necessary. They have brought the game into disrepute and need to be removed, and changes made to prevent their like being allowed to own clubs again.
The obstacles to progressive reform are considerable, requiring some form of statutory regulation, probable changes to company and competition law as well as a level of administrative restructuring that would take a very long time to effect. We can expect a Tory government to balk at many of them.
There are no panaceas or shortcuts and no model is perfect. The rightly-praised German system is rooted in very different legal structures and has in any case failed to prevent its richest club, Bayern Munich, dominating domestically, while Germany’s current second-best team, Red Bull Leipzig are essentially a corporate plaything for the energy drink manufacturer. Yet no German club joined the super league plot and there is a strong fan culture opposed to the turbo-capitalism revealed this week. There is also a limit to what national regulation can do with a pan-national problem.
So where does this leave the left and football? It would be tempting to optimistically project this week’s mass expression of basically anti-capitalist instincts as part of a more general popular uprising against a grotesquely unjust system. But we must concede that there are many people who are appalled by what capitalism does to football but intensely relaxed about what it does in other walks of life. We back the campaign for more democracy in football because it’s the right thing for football rather than a shortcut to popular socialism, then take it from there.
Equally unhelpful is the rather more dismissive attitude that sneers at the fuss and coverage afforded to the European Super League story and wonders why more anger isn’t directed at the more serious inequalities and injustices that disfigure the country. Understandable though this is – football really doesn’t matter in the scheme of things – it’s also a mistake. Football isn’t a distraction from the struggle, it’s part of it, as other areas of popular culture are: roses to go with our bread.
Football has never really had a golden age, never not had its dark sides – from racism and violence to sexual abuse and unsafe facilities – but the virtues that have sustained it throughout – community, loyalty, identity and basic sporting fairness – remain virtues worth fighting for. They all won a rare, if at this stage only partial, victory this week. That alone can be celebrated and built on.
Tom Davies is a sports journalist and vice-chair of the Leyton Orient Fans Trust, and writes here in a personal capacity.
Image: http://roarnews.co.uk/2021/the-european-super-league-an-unprecedented-act-of-vulgarity/, licensed for reuse.
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