I don’t write about sport, because I don’t engage in it much. So why am I to writing two posts in a row about football? Well I think the rise and fall of the European Super League (ESL) is very revealing. And I don’t think I can leave things with my last post. Since then the whole thing has collapsed amid unanimous disapproval amongst football fans, institutions and politicians. Only overseas fans could be found to like the idea.
First I need to shine the spotlight on myself. I descried myself as being in a minority because I have a taste for iconoclasm. My attitudes turn out to be much closer to those reviled foreign football bosses than the general public. I couldn’t see that the US way of running sport was fundamentally any worse than the European one. And isn’t the “greed” that these owners are accused of just another way of saying “a desire for success”. They wanted their clubs to bring in more money by persuading the public to part with more of their cash, which they can only do by producing more of what the public wants. And that, of course, is why the whole thing collapsed so quickly. If the ESL wasn’t gaining traction in its core market, it was pointless.
And ranged against the greedy bosses were the lumbering and complacent football hierarchy, who seem incapable of showing real leadership. Racism remains rife in the sport in Europe (which includes Britain in football terms); the authorities couldn’t even protect vulnerable young people from abuse.
The point I was trying to make in my last post was than football fans themselves had contributed to the problem. They flocked to the wealthy clubs by and large after they were taken over by the wealthy owners happy to splash the cash, after the more traditional sort of owner had run the cubs into the ground. How else can you explain the rise of Manchester City, for example? The fans weren’t actually supporting their local clubs through thick and thin, but they were flocking to big international brands.
But I clearly hadn’t got that quite right. If most fans were in fact just after the glitz and branding, their attitudes would have been much more similar to those the BBC interviewed in Kenya and Thailand, who like the idea of more “better quality” games that the ESL would bring. In fact they were horrified. There is actually something rather heart-warming about this. The first point is that the football clubs provide a sense of belonging to people in a way the their US equivalents do not. When you buy into a club you buy into its history and traditions; the ESL looked as if it would be pulling up some of those roots. It was an idea that came from outside, from owners who had not themselves bought in to that rootedness.
But there is something deeper. It is a recognition that you can’t buy into all that belonging without paying a price. That means giving unfashionable clubs a chance. It means putting up with insecurity – about promotion, relegation and qualifying for Europe-wide tournaments. And in Europe it means giving teams from smaller countries, like Slovakia or Scotland, a chance. You can’t enjoy the prestige of being in a popular, successful club without recognising that all the others have the same rights and chances, in theory, that yours does. “We want our cold nights in Stoke,” read one banner carried by a Chelsea supporter. In an age of atomisation, winner-takes-all and hedonism, that is a hopeful sign of human maturity.
But, of course, that still leaves the game with its huge money headache. The fashionable sides grab all the TV audiences and are the only ones able to pack stadiums. But their income is still subject to cliff-edges. While the big teams are mainly secure in their country’s top domestic leagues, that is not the case with participation in the European Champions League, which is a huge draw. The fans may not mind the uncertainty, but it comes with a price.
Something has to give. Replacing the wealthy owners with something broader-based and more democratic is likely to drive away the deep capital that big businesses need in such a risky arena. And it still leaves clubs vulnerable to populism and mismanagement, as elected leaders make unrealistic promises of success (I heard one person suggesting that has been a problem in one or more Spanish clubs that signed up to the ESL).
And that is enough from me on the subject of football for a long time to come.