Football sold its soul to the devil long ago

The legend of Faust and Mephistopheles is one of the most enduring. Faust makes a pact with the Devil (through his agent Mephistopheles) to secure earthly pleasures. But in the end the Devil returns to secure Faust’s soul – a short interval of pleasure at the cost of eternal damnation. I feel something of this in the spectacular row over the attempt by twelve rich European football clubs to form a European Super League (ESL).

There is little doubt that the ESL is the work of the devil. JP Morgan Chase are behind it for God’s sake. It has no grounding in the web of passion and community that is club football, and is designed to maximise the sport’s financial return for a number of wealthy investors first and foremost. There has been an explosion of anger from right across society. I am not football fan, and I support no club. That gives me a bit of an outsider’s perspective.

The first thing that strikes me about the flood of arguments made against the ESL is that they are pretty weak, in the cold light of day. The ESL is based on an American model, where leagues operate as closed clubs, with no relegation and hence greater financial security. Sport in the US has its problems, but American football, basketball and baseball all have big followings delivering lots of thrills to fans. Does our system really work better? Do those desperate and depressing relegation struggles really form an integral part of the enjoyment of the game? The main complaint about European football from those outside Europe (actually a big and important market) is the number of “low quality” games. I suspect what people mean by this is games with clubs that many people haven’t heard of or which don’t have star quality. I’m not sure if the quality of the games is any more dire than that between well-branded clubs, but I’m open to correction on that.

But if I find the argument a bit muddled, the shock and emotion is easy to understand. People tend to be iconoclasts or conservatives. Mostly I’m an iconoclast; I like it when long-established things change; I tend to think that there is always a better way. But I have long learnt that I’m in a minority. Most people love the familiar patterns of life, and get upset and disorientated when they change. And football is a big part of many people’s lives. The ESL would upend it to be replaced by something very unfamiliar. Most people cannot see how it can possibly work.

But somehow the whole plan holds up a mirror to sport-watching public. What seems to upset people most about the ESL is an abandonment of the community game – the lives of the middle-ranking clubs and smaller. But that leads to the question of how people let these six English clubs develop into the massive global brands that they have become. A long time ago, when satellite TV was taking off, one satellite provider thought it had delivered a coup by securing the television rights to second division games (known as The Championship). It was a complete flop. Few wanted to watch lower league games, preferring to affix themselves to the heavily-marketed big brands. This mirrors British attitudes to local communities more generally. They think that local communities are a good idea, but not many people put themselves out; it’s somebody else’s problem. The idea that money trickles down from the big games to the lesser folk is a sort of salve to the conscience to make up for the lack genuine community support.

But life in the big clubs isn’t so easy. They are locked in an arms race for more expensive players, facilities and marketing, and the insecurity of European level competition is placing them under a major strain. They used to rely on people with more money than sense to fund this but this was a pact with the devil. Now the finances are moving out of range of such people. Private equity is moving in, and most billionaires have a strong instinct for financial sense anyway. The owners of the big clubs are in strong bargaining position and it may take more than bluster to stop them. The hostages are trying to negotiate their release by threatening to kill themselves. The clubs’ supporters are angry because they have no say in their clubs’ future – but most of them were drawn to those clubs in the first place by the lavish spending of the club owners. What do you expect?

Of course the ESL still raises many profound questions about the sustainability of the sport, and the scheme is more likely to collapse than not. But something else has to give if that happens.

One of the more interesting aspects of the whole episode is that the ESL only covers three countries: England (Scotland is out in the cold), Italy and Spain. Football in France looks too weak at major club level for that country to take part. But Germany is a football powerhouse, and its top clubs don’t seem to be tempted. But these clubs are much more genuinely grounded in their communities. There is a lesson there surely. Alas strapping German-style rules on local ownership onto the British system is unlikely to go well unless public attitudes change, and more people start supporting less fashionable teams.

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