How Europe’s football ‘elite’ scored an own goal
If one regards sport, especially football, as no more than money-generating entertainment, the dismal attempt to form the European Super League (ESL) almost makes sense. But football is much more than a show! This is where the owners of the 12 clubs who dreamed up this botched enterprise of creating what would have amounted to mere exhibition football got it so badly wrong.
Football at its best is entertaining, but means far more than sheer entertainment. It is about identity; it is about a sense of belonging; it is about dreams and aspirations of social mobility, and it is about learning to deal with both failure and success and come out stronger as a result.
The writing has been on the wall ever since TV rights for screening live football were sold to satellite and cable networks, and away from free to watch on terrestrial channels. This injected huge sums of money into the game, but in return subjected it to the whims of these broadcasters, pricing out much of the traditional support for football, and also altering the cultural and sociological landscape of the game from a working-class sport to a middle-class one. Financially, many clubs became more reliant on revenues from broadcasters and less from their faithful supporters who attend home and away games, come rain or shine, while ticket prices have become unaffordable for many traditional fans.
When the rights to broadcast the Premier League were last auctioned, Sky, BT and Amazon agreed to pay a staggering £4.5 billion for a period of four years. Much of the tradition, magic and romance of the game has disappeared as the big European leagues have turned into money-making machines. Scheduling of games, and the importance and priorities of different competitions, are by now entirely dictated by the broadcasters’ commercial considerations, consequently attracting wealthy, mainly international investors who have seen the financial potential, but are utterly devoid of any understanding or care for the social, cultural, and even psychological and political aspects of the game.
Forming an exclusive “competition” in which most teams are permanent members of the league regardless of their performance, with no promotion or relegation and a few lesser sides to make up the numbers, makes a mockery of the idea of a competitive team sport.
To be sure, like any other feature of our social life, football cannot be expected to remain unchanged merely to satisfy our nostalgic or romantic cravings, and changes are inevitable. However, updates and even reforms are a different matter when in the process this social phenomenon is forced to lose its soul and betray its roots in favor of greed, stealing it from those who are the most important part of the game — the fans.
What happened to football, and the ESL fiasco was the culmination of it, was the transformation of football from a game — at least in England, born in the manufacturing heartlands of the northwest, that was once described as “very much a cloth cap man’s game. Almost everyone worked in the mills” — to another property on wealthy owners’ Monopoly gameboards.
For the international owners, football clubs are part of their investment portfolio, and by turning them into global brands they further line their pockets, which in some cases provides them with prestige and social status in Europe. However, for the ordinary fans this undermines the role of football in the social fabric of their locality, and with that part of their identity and sense of belonging is taken away from them.
Furthermore, the star players who were once part of the landscape of their towns and neighborhoods have turned into worldwide celebrities who no longer mix with their supporters, though in most cases these celebrity footballers come from a similar socio-economic background.
There were many crocodile tears shed during the ESL fiasco, which ended as it should, lying in tatters and rejected by pundits, the football authorities, politicians and even the major broadcasters.
However, it was mainly the fans who re-asserted themselves after years of being the forgotten partners in making football the most popular sport on the planet. The others were either trying to protect their own vested interests or were scared by popular reaction. Forming an exclusive “competition” in which most teams are permanent members of the league regardless of their performance, with no promotion or relegation and a few lesser sides to make up the numbers, makes a mockery of the idea of a competitive team sport.
This approach to sport has an American flavor; in a country that hosts some of the best athletes in the world, owners can move their teams in the blink of an eye to another city, or even state, purely to match their commercial interests, ignoring the fans who are left feeling empty and heartbroken. This is not the European way. In Germany, where private investors can hold no more than a 49 percent stake in a club with the rest in the hands of the club and therefore by extension the fans, it is the interests of the supporters that are prioritized, and not profits. Monday games, for instance, were unpopular with fans and were discontinued following a “we hate Mondays” campaign; and ticket prices remain considerably lower than in other major leagues.
In England, where the power of the supporters has been considerably diminished, the traditional start times of games have been scrapped, and the excitement of following a host of matches at the same time now belongs to the lower divisions, where there is still the sense of a more genuine atmosphere and connection between fans, clubs and players, unlike the mood in the more sterile Premier League stadia that are increasingly geared to corporate entertainment.
But there is also a wider lesson to be learned from the ill-fated ESL, and this is about people’s power in face of adversity, in this case big business. Few will take seriously the apologies issued by the clubs to their fans. They should have known better to begin with, but it was a lesson in humility for them, and one for the fans in collective bargaining, which can apply to other walks of life, and other issues of great importance for the rights and welfare of people. The resistance that has forced a climbdown by a group of elite football clubs can be translated into activity in other walks of life, and should the trend continue it may make not only football more fan-friendly, but also countries more citizen-responsive.
(In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a Queens Park Rangers supporter, and my comments are not sour grapes, but come from a lifetime of deep love and affection for this beautiful game!)
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg