News of a proposed European Super League, including the so-called ‘big six’ English Premier League teams, broke on Sunday to much shock and dismay within the football and sporting world. But, almost as quickly and suddenly as this news broke, all six English teams involved confirmed that they were pulling out of the Super League after sustained fan pressure and a grassroots campaign against the proposals.
The European Super League would have involved a selection of 20 elite men’s football teams (12 of which were publicly confirmed) competing in a season long European league competition, as opposed to the existing knock-out UEFA Champions League. Crucially, the founding 15 clubs would not have had to qualify for the Super League through domestic footballing leagues, as they do with the Champions League. Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool and more were among the teams who had put their names to the Super League proposal, launching a wave of criticism and claims that the spirit of the game has been lost. Though many of the teams implicated have listened to these claims, the reality is that the spirit of football was lost long ago. The elitist and greed-driven plans for the European Super League shouldn’t surprise us.
Speaking a few hours after the news broke on Sunday 18th April, former Manchester United defender and Sky Sports pundit, Gary Neville, claimed he was “absolutely disgusted”, particularly with Manchester United and Liverpool for betraying their working class roots. In making these comments, Neville drew on the long tradition of football as ‘the people’s game’ – a game created by and for the working classes. A number of northern industrial towns were the sites of the first football teams that would later grow into Premier League giants and billion-pound conglomerates. Sheffield FC, recognised as the world’s oldest football club, was founded in 1857 by a group of men who sought to formalise the “kickabouts” that had been enjoyed by a number of locals. As Neville discussed, his own team, Manchester United, was “born out of workers”. Originally founded as Newton Heath, the club was established by railway workers in Lancashire in 1878, acting as a sort of workers club that used football to create a community. Most Premier League teams have a similar heritage centred on working class solidarity and community. And yet, in today’s game, these working class legacies have been lost.
Neville went on to criticise the teams who had joined the Super League as motivated by “pure greed”. However, it seems fair to say that greed is now embedded within every area of the modern game, from transfer fees and sponsorship deals to ticket pricing and broadcast rights. Greed has driven the profit and money involved in football to quite unbelievable heights and has corrupted what was once – but is no longer – the people’s game.
The inflation of transfer fees is just one example of such greed, which can clearly be observed through glancing back over the past few decades. Back in 1979, Trevor Francis became the first million pound transfer in English footballing history when he joined Birmingham City from Nottingham Forrest. Just weeks before, the record transfer fee had already been broken, when David Mills signed for West Bromwich Albion from Middlesbrough for £500,000. Francis’ signing smashed that record only a short while later, marking a turning point in football history. The current record signing now dramatically overshadows the £1 million paid for Francis. The most expensive player bought by a Premier League team, Paul Pogba, came to Manchester United for 89 times what Birmingham City paid for Francis, and across European football, the record for the most expensive signing is held by Neymar Jr., who joined Paris Saint Germain for €222 million.
Competition to sign players for record fees and world-firsts overshadows the fact that the game is becoming increasingly inaccessible to a number of fans. With clubs raking in ever more money through transfer fees, shirt sales and sponsorship deals, ticket prices do not seem to be decreasing. Rather, the opposite is happening. To take just one example of ticket prices, The Football Supporters Association, FSA, highlights “the acceleration in the rise in ticket prices well beyond the rate of inflation” which has meant that game has become “unaffordable to large swathes of its traditional fan base”. One Liverpool fan group estimated in 2013 that ticket prices had increased by an astonishing 716% since 1989. Similar patterns can be observed across the ticket prices of other clubs, and there is evidence that younger fans, especially, are being priced out of watching the game. So, even as clubs are splurging plainly ridiculous fees to sign and pay their players, fans have been forgotten and left behind, expected to meet ever more costly demands.
Serious and distressing concerns have also been raised around the source of money being mined into Premier League and European football clubs. Manchester City is, for example, currently owned by Sheikh Mansour, the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, UAE, a state which Human Rights organisation Amnesty International describes as continuing to “restrict freedom of expression”, conducting “unfair trials” and failing to change laws which made “women…unequal with men”. More recently, during the latest international break, the German, Norwegian and Netherlands national men’s teams took a stand against the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The upcoming contest has been shrouded in distressing reports of human rights violations, exploitation and maltreatment of workers involved in constructing stadiums. Concerns over forced labour, appalling living, working conditions and exploitation have been voiced for several years and yet, as it stands the World Cup in 2022 is going ahead. Games will be played in the same stadiums where migrant workers died and footballing authorities will enrich themselves off of the suffering and abuse of others. What is more, last year’s UEFA Champion’s League finalists Paris Saint Germain are owned by Qatar Sports Investments, a state-owned shareholding organisation dominated by the rulers of Qatar. This makes PSG, along with Manchester City, the only two state-owned clubs in the world, both of whom are funded and owned by states with poor records on Human Rights. Such concerns (which go well-beyond just Manchester City and PSG), coupled with the mostly tacit acceptance of the Qatar World Cup, paint a fairly terrifying picture of the state of modern football. Human Rights should not be a price we have to pay for football: they are non-negotiable. Football has become complicit in Human Rights abuse. That horrifying truth shows how far the game and its original values have been distorted.
Football clubs are no longer what they were established for. They are businesses and are not governed in the interests of the fans and of the game. Some of these businesses are complicit in awful crimes and violations across the world. Guided by profit, gain and greed, clubs act as capitalist corporations; football itself has become a secondary concern. Banners reading: ‘Created by the poor, Stolen by the rich’ were unveiled at EPL stadiums across England in protest of the plans for the Super League. This aptly captures what has happened to the game since its inception: football has been gentrified. It has been appropriated by the elite and commercialised to the point that fans, who football teams were originally set up by and for, have been left behind.
Bright green and gold scarves became the emblem of angered Manchester United fans who sought to reject the takeover of the club by the Glazer family. In purchasing the club, Malcolm Glazer unloaded £525 million of debt on the club (and the club has remained in debt since the takeover, accumulating an extra £140 million of debt in the single financial year between 2018-19). This garnered criticism for the manner in which the club has been run for personal profit and with little regard for the game. Green and gold, as the colours worn by Manchester United’s ancestor club, Newton Heath, represented the opposition of the fan base to the take over and a desire to return the club to the fans, as Newton Heath had been. The breakaway club FC United of Manchester was established to do just that, spawned in the aftermath of the Glazer takeover for Manchester United fans disillusioned by the commercialisation of football. It claims to provide “authentic, supporter-owned, community-focused football for supporters who are tired of modern football’s constant pursuit of further riches at the expense of…the fans”. Such statements clearly carry the spirit of the founding football teams and the workers who came together to carry Newton Heath, centering on community and the fans having a stake in the game.
German clubs also provide an admirable model of how the game can stay within the grasp and control of the fans. The so-called 50+1 model dictates that fans must have a 51% stake in football clubs and thus majority of voting rights and decision-making powers. The Bundesliga website explains that “this means that private investors cannot take over clubs and…prioritise profit over the wishes of supporters”. German teams were historically “not-for-profit organisations run by members associations”, given that German law forbade ownership by private organisations up until 1998. The rule has been credited with the stable and relatively affordable price of most Bundesliga tickets and keeping German clubs out of the high levels of debt that have smothered other European teams. In keeping clubs firmly in the control of fans, German teams have managed to resist the profit-driven capitalist takeovers to which English clubs have fallen prey.
The 50+1 model has been praised around the world for ensuring the sustainability and democratic ownership of football clubs and touted as a system that offers fans far more control over the game than any other place in the world. A future in which this model was adopted in England seems more remote than ever, but it is equally clear that football clubs cannot be left in the hands of greedy and unrestrained capitalists. Listening to fans involves bringing them directly into decision-making and the governance of the club, ensuring that football stays relevant and true to its roots. The German 50+1 model could be a way of effectively protecting it from the spiralling corruption increasingly engulfing the game.
Effective controls on the increasingly ridiculous levels of spending that have come to characterise the modern game are also severely lacking. UEFA Financial Fair Play rules have shown themselves to be flimsy and ineffective – indeed, one may validly question the extent to which this really promotes ‘fair play’ and a ‘fair’ level of spending given that clubs are still permitted to spend hundreds of millions, up to €5 million over their earnings. Football exists in a very unusual and yet unique echo chamber, whereby money and monetary values seem to bounce around until they increase to ludicrous levels. Against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and downturn, money in football seems unaffected and continues to reach ridiculous heights, underpinned – always – by greed.
If human rights and human lives can be sacrificed supposedly in the name of football, something has gone seriously wrong and the game has been warped. If the supporters who built the clubs and continue to provide their life source count for nothing, a serious reconsideration of the way football is run is desperately needed.
Greed has sadly become an integral part of the modern game, woven into its very fabric. The European Super League is an attack on football. But the groundwork for it was laid a long time ago. Football needs to heal; dismantling the Super League will not be enough to undo the corruption that has become embedded in the game. It will take more than just defeating these proposals for the game to truly heal. Decision-making needs to be more transparent, the football echo chamber needs to be smashed and the game must be returned to the fans.
Fighting the Super League was just the tip of the iceberg. The reality is, that with spiralling ticket prices, rocketing transfer fees and profit-oriented governance, the game has not belonged to the fans for some time. The Super League was merely the latest iteration of greed-driven corporate capitalist interests attempting to corrupt the game. But the principles behind the campaign against it still apply and should live on. Football fans should not wait for the next European Super League-style proposal; they should demand action and ownership of their clubs now.