Football is at a breaking point. What was once European football’s perennial bogeyman, a distant threat rich clubs used to derive concessions from UEFA, is now a concrete reality.
On Sunday, twelve founding clubs publicly announced proposals for a European Super League. It’s set off a slew of public criticism as well as igniting a war amongst football’s governing bodies that will likely change the game forever.
At the heart of the ESL is the erosion of competition. A closed league of super clubs who can further enrich themselves while leaving the rest of the pack in the dust runs anathema to the inherent unpredictability that makes sport a spectacle. No more Leicesters. No more Atalantas. No more Portos. Just a revolving carousel of an entrenched elite.
Certainly, football has been far from a meritocracy in recent years. Talent concentration and resource imbalances have made it nigh on impossible to usurp the elite clubs. But what the ESL does is formally eliminate the possibility of that ever occurring.
That, of course, is the objective of its proponents. The investment firms and oil-rich emirates who own football clubs view football as just another investment, a glorified advertising product where jovial jingles are replaced with football matches.
The volatility brought by results like Atalanta’s win against Juventus over the weekend disrupts the profitability of that product. The Super League is a perverse antidote to that. It represents a rapid acceleration towards making football a lifeless conduit through which the purveyors of global capitalism can develop their assets and extend their soft power.
Another aspect of the ESL is the knock-on effect it will have on other leagues and divisions. Take English football. As pointed out by the FSA, the Premier League’s solidarity payments to lower league clubs are contingent on broadcast income. Income that will be slashed by the ESL.
In a sense, the solidarity payments were never something to laud. After all, the Premier League was founded by detaching itself from England’s famed football pyramid in the pursuit of commercialization and profiteering.
The sums also comprise a mere fraction of what PL clubs could spend on supporting their nation’s football clubs. Sadly, though, for many Championship, League One, and League Two clubs, those solidarity payments are what keeps them from falling into administration.
That is, on the one hand, a damning indictment of how football clubs are run. The model of a club financing its operation through leveraging debt against their own assets, popularized by the Glazers at Manchester United, creates a constant state of instability within clubs.
Fanatical owners, driven by an insatiable desire for their clubs to achieve more and thus earn more, bring their clubs to the edge of collapse. It’s how in the Championship in 2019, clubs’ overall spending on wages exceeded their revenue by 11%. From top to bottom, there are undoubtedly systemic issues in the running of football clubs.
Still, the fact remains that clubs who suffer such financial woes, like Wigan and Bolton Wanderers, are deeply linked to their own supporters. Football clubs are fundamentally social institutions that enjoy a symbiotic reliance on their communities.
That is the greatest issue with the ESL. It propels football on a path that further detaches clubs from their communities, hollowing them out until they are nothing but instruments of capital. While the founding clubs will prosper in their newly created riches, the vacuum they leave behind will cause countless teams, and the communities that rely upon them, to crumble. Its presence will siphon the prestige and talent from the rest of European football and render it a husk of what it once was.
The ESL has to become a turning point from which we radically reconsider how football is operated. And alternatives are out there. In a prescient Common Wealth report entitled “Democratising Football” by Joe Bilsborough, Jonty Leibowitz, and Joshua Gabert-Doyon, the German 50+1 model is used as a base template from which clubs can be run. With it would come greater transparency about financial accounts and strict regulations to keep debt at a manageable amount.
More pertinently, though, implementing 50+1 in England and other European leagues would give 50% of voting rights in a club to fan associations. It would give fans the power to govern the direction of their football teams and ensure a constant link between clubs and their communities. Nihilism is no solution to football’s current predicament. Changes can be made, and they ought to be fought for.
Football has become the playground of oligarchs and sovereign rulers, and at the behest of their greedy whims, it is spiralling out of control. The ESL’s impact on football is yet to become clear. What’s undeniable is that it has changed football forever.