How football fans fought greed in their sport — and won

May 11, 2021
Football clubs have increasingly been treated as businesses — with fans, the real soul behind the team — left behind.

The announcement of the creation of the European Super League (ESL) on April 18 shocked fans across the world.

Twelve clubs — Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur (England); Milan, Internazionale, Juventus (Italy); Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid (Spain) — agreed to break away from the existing UEFA Champions League structure, with the ESL to serve as the new top-tier continental competition in Europe.

What followed, however, was resistance from football fans — not only to the proposals themselves, but the broader capitalist culture that had ingrained itself within the beautiful game.

The proposed ESL would have created an essentially closed league at the pinnacle of European football. The founding clubs would have been guaranteed qualification to the ESL every year, regardless of their yearly performance in domestic leagues. Such a model is an anathema to European football, and sport, more generally, which is organised on a principle of promotion-and-relegation: the worst-performing teams each year drop down to a lower league, while the best-performing ones are rewarded with ascendency.

While grossly oversimplified — and increasingly limited by extreme inequalities between clubs — there is the theoretical possibility of a local village team climbing up the league ladder, and eventually playing against Europe’s best in the Champions League. This is in contrast to the United States franchise system, where clubs are granted exclusive geographic coverage under license. With no promotion or relegation, clubs (and by extension, their owners) have access to guaranteed profits year-on-year.

This is where the strong association between greed and the ESL emerges. The ESL did not seek to grow the game, but rather promised a heavily marketised and Americanised product saturated with cash at the expense of traditions. It would have created a permanent upper class of clubs, whose placement would not have been based on sporting merits.

A geographic lens must also be applied. For all of the English teams’ (correct and necessary) actions against racism in the sport over the past year, the ESL threatened to limit top-level football participation to a small clique of Western European clubs, thereby hypocritically excluding half the continent.

Eastern European clubs with a proud history, like Red Star Belgrade of Serbia or Steaua București of Romania — holding more European Cup titles between them than Arsenal, Tottenham, Man City and Atlético combined — would not have even had a chance to compete.

The ESL exposed the myth of meritocracy under capitalism — ostensibly existing, yet only available to a select few. On a sporting level, the ESL would not have been much better either. The best clubs playing each other every week would have devalued the magic and importance of these fixtures.

The move drew universal ire from supporters of both proposed ESL and non-ESL clubs. Pundits Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, formerly of the rivals Manchester United and Liverpool, respectively, united to describe the move as an “act of pure greed”. Former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger called it a “bad idea”, and current Manchester City and Liverpool managers, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, publicly disagreed with their clubs’ decisions.

With some 79% English fans surveyed by YouGov being opposed to the ESL, the English clubs fell through first. Chelsea was the first to drop out, following protests by thousands of fans outside its home ground Stanford Bridge, delaying their match with Brighton and Hove Albion.

Within two days, more clubs withdrew, and just like that, the ESL was dead. For their part, English fans have been the most ardent in their opposition to the proposal. Despite inequality being arguably the most entrenched in the country where big-money television deals first emerged, the strong culture surrounding traditional lower-league football proved decisive.

While the response from FIFA and UEFA was relatively strong — the former threatening to ban ESL club players from competing in national team competitions like the World Cup, and the latter’s President, Aleksander Čeferin, describing the ESL club owners as “snakes” and emphasising the need for “solidarity” — it highlighted a curious paradox.

For decades, both governing bodies have been involved in murky dealings, from corruption scandals to lax enforcement of financial fair play regulations, thus casting doubt over how committed they actually are to an equitable football scene.

In the week of the ESL announcement, UEFA quietly announced changes to the Champions League format, introducing a Swiss system for the 2024–25 season, further benefiting the wealthier and more established clubs. As protests against the ESL intensified, more blame fell on the governing bodies for catalysing the break-away — prioritising revenues over supporters to the point where the ESL became inevitable.

In many ways, the owners of the ESL 12 badly misread the room. While a number of factors can be attributed to the ESL’s rapid demise — a largely foreign ownership understanding of the nuances of football culture, mobilisation by fans, poor marketing/engagement, and overestimating foreign fans’ appetite for change — their proposals were nevertheless in line with the general trajectory of corporatisation of football.

For decades, the divide between richer and poorer clubs has grown, fuelled by factors such as takeovers by wealthy businesspeople, astronomical TV revenue deals, and sponsorship agreements. Clubs have increasingly been treated as businesses — with fans, the real soul behind the team — left behind, and increasingly priced out of a pastime.

The strong pushback against the ESL offers the opportunity for football governance to be revolutionised. Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 Labour Party manifesto included an entire section on democratising the sport, including expanding fan ownership and increasing funding at the grassroots level. Meanwhile, Germany’s largely successful “50+1 ownership system”, requiring fans to own the majority stake in clubs, has gained traction as a model for change.

While the ESL is defeated for the moment, the overall trend in football has been towards corporatisation. The ongoing movement by supporter groups, including the recent protests by Manchester United fans leading to the postponement of the Liverpool match, offers not only the possibility for meaningful reforms within the football sphere, but also political radicalisation within a substantial section of society.

[Leo Crnogorcevic is a Socialist Alliance member and football referee.]

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