Update – 21/04/21
Since this article was published , we have seen an astonishing U-turn from almost all the clubs who, less than 48-hours previously, had announced that they would be breaking away to set up the controversial ‘European Super League’ (ESL).
This development has undoubtedly caused great embarrassment to the clubs’ rich owners. Now we must look to what we can do to keep up the pressure to win back OUR beautiful game.
What was behind the U-turn?
The owners and people involved with organisation of the ESL always knew that the proposals would be extremely controversial. This is at least part of the reason that they decided make these announcements while most of us are still under some kind of lockdown restrictions; including fans not being allowed into stadiums and, importantly, attacks on the right to protest. The owners undoubtedly anticipated kick-back. But what a lot of them wouldn’t have wagered on, is the red-hot level of anger and determination to fight that this stoked up among working-class people. After all, these owners are businessmen with very little understanding of what football actually means to genuine fans! They knew that continuing with their plans risked sparking a tremendous mass movement – with protests by fans already taking place.
Another thing that we saw yesterday was football fans doing the unthinkable, renouncing their support for their clubs; a move which the owners understand could come to hurt them financially. Indeed, the owners wanted to have their cake and eat-it, by becoming even richer off the ESL, whilst still squeezing the ordinary fan for every penny they could!
Because of the speed of the U-turn, we have so far only seen a glimmer of what’s possible. Football fans should look at this victory and take confidence in their own potential power. The last 48-hours have brought to the surface anger towards a lot of the evils of modern football and the model of football clubs as cash-cows for the super-rich. Even clubs which weren’t involved in the ESL announcement were called-out for the way they had been run and how badly they had treated supporters.
As with a great many things in society at the moment, we cannot simply now allow a return to ‘normal’. We know that this so-called normal was never good enough! Football fans, communities and workers must not allow the momentum that has exploded behind this issue over the last couple of days to dissipate. We must harness this pressure now to completely kick these leeches out of football at all levels. As the article below states, we must continue to organise and fight to bring all football clubs under the ownership and democratic management of their fans, workers and local communities.
The recent announcement of the European Super League – a breakaway, cross-continent, football league initiated by the so-called ‘elites’ of European football – has rightly been met with absolute disgust and outrage by almost all genuine football fans, regardless of club allegiances. It has sent shockwaves through all levels of the game. We have seen early protests from supporters’ clubs; current and former players speaking out against the plans; managers and chairmen showing their anger; and even politicians and trade union leaders talking of organising to block these plans from going ahead.
The European Super League (ESL) is a plan for the most wealthy clubs in Europe to form a league – one from which they can never be relegated. It is fair to say that the clubs include some of the biggest names in world football – Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid from the Spanish league; Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan from Italy; and from the English Premier League: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Some of the clubs on the list have raised eyebrows to say the least, with their limited amount of success on the pitch proving that being considered ‘elite’ in football is primarily down to a club’s finances, business-plan and marketability.
It is reported that US bank JP Morgan will pump in $6 billion. Indeed, each of the clubs have been promised a revenue of between £200-300 million per season from the venture. These are the kinds of figures that will have the owners of these teams – from chinese consortiums to Emerati royals; Russian oligarchs to US tycoons – salivating. Of course the money does not stop there. There are still the global advertising deals and television rights. Talk has been made of international ‘Show Matches’, where clubs could be paid extra to play anywhere in the world, most likely 1,000s of miles away from their home grounds – a move which would symbolically highlight just how far from the working-class communities these clubs have been ripped. On top of this, there was the news that yesterday Manchester United’s shares made £250million on the New York stock exchange in the wake of the announcement, while Juventus’s shares rose by 10% on the Milan stock market.
Joel Glazer – co-owner of Manchester United with his brother Avram – released a statement. This was the first statement made to the fans since he took charge of Manchester United in 2005, stating that ‘…by bringing together the world’s greatest clubs and players to play each other throughout the season, the Super League will open a new chapter for European football, ensuring world-class competition’. However, the creation of this league goes completely against the old trope that ‘capitalism breeds competition and success’. The ESL, which will be almost impenetrable to the clubs outside of it, will absolutely kill off the competitive aspect of the sport. The teams who are signed up cannot be relegated from the league, no matter how poorly they may play. Clubs will only ever be able to access the league by providing a business plan that shows they could be profitable enough. It will have nothing to do with the team’s prowess on the pitch! The absolute unfairness unpinning this completely infuriates average football fans.
The move is designed to further centralise the power and wealth in football to those at the top. Over the last couple of decades there have been intermittent rumours of a European Super League style competition being created. But it always felt like the pipe-dream of rich owners, rather than a footballing reality. However, the current crisis in capitalism, together with the Covid-19 pandemic, may have accelerated the situation. With the deficits around football now so huge, perhaps the big clubs realised that the only way to further grow their dividends was to pursue a ‘nuclear option’. This is an approach which we may see played out in the wider economy and struggling industries more generally as the looming economic crisis begins to bite. In terms of the centralisation of power amongst the top clubs, one thing that is qualitatively different in this situation is that the owners of all of the clubs will also share the direct running of the league itself. Real Madrid’s much maligned President, Florentino Perez, who is said to have designed the competition in conjunction with the investors, will sit as chairman of the ESL, whilst each of the other owners will hold a position of vice-chairman. A round-table of utter corruption and greed.
Although many were shocked by the sudden announcement of these plans, we understand that decisions like this do not simply fall from the clouds. Indeed, this latest move is the logical conclusion to greed and unrelenting drive for profits which has blighted football for the last few decades. Many in this country will look to the creation of the Premier League in 1992, and it’s incestuous relationship with Sky Sports, as the starting point for this never-ending pursuit of profits, above all else. As football clubs at the top of the league system began to make more money from television rights than ticket sales, the focus of their owners shifted. With the televised games came more lucrative advertising opportunities. Where in the past advertising billboards around the side of the pitch would have been adorned with the names of small local businesses, now multinational companies realise the potential of getting their name in front of global audiences. The clubs themselves pursued international markets, even at times buying players not based on how well they could perform for the team, but rather how many shirts the club could sell in the player’s native country.
As these multiple extra revenue streams opened up to football clubs, the importance of the fans was pushed further down the list of priorities of most clubs. Decisions were made purely on what would be best for the shareholders, rather than the club or its supporters. In 2000, Manchester United forfeited entry to the much-loved FA Cup, in order to promote its brand at an international club cup competition. In 2008 Bolton Wanderers effectively threw the opportunity to reach the final stages of the UEFA Cup, by fielding a weakened team in a match against Sporting Lisbon, all so they could field a stronger team in the Premier League a week later. To the club’s owners the idea of just scraping safety in the league was more profitable than providing the fans with an unforgettable European journey. There are many more examples of clubs’ ownerships taking the route that will best secure their profits, as opposed to providing their fans with the memories that only sport can provide.
The introduction of the much-hated VAR system (a system whereby flashpoints in a match can be reviewed by replay and referees’ decisions can be overturned), is also an example of how the people investing so much money into football want to try as best as they can to protect their interests. Fans have long understood the at-times infuriating nature of bad decisions and just plain bad luck during a match. Every fan will be able to recount many occasions when they have walked away from a ground bemoaning a refereeing decision, but they also understand that it is things like that which bring excitement to the sport – which give it life! This excitement is now all too often dashed by the need for refereeing decisions to be absolute, with many millions of pounds relying on them.
The above examples focus on issues at the top of the football league pyramid. But thought must be given to the alarming news from May 2020 that, even before football seasons were interrupted by lockdown, almost all clubs in the English football system were ‘in the red’ financially and around 70-80% of English football clubs faced the threat of bankruptcy because of the pandemic. The majority of these clubs remain at the heart of their communities, clubs who you would likely never see on Sky television, for whom getting supporters through the turnstiles remains the primary source of revenue. Contrast this to the Premier League, which seems to have hardly noticed that its stadiums are still empty.
It is ironic that some of those speaking out against the plans for the ESL include the likes of the Premier League, FIFA and UEFA (the sport’s international governing bodies) have themselves long presided over the continued commercialisation of football. FIFA in particular has proven itself time and again to be one of the most corrupt, gangster-capitalist organisations on the planet. The cynical words of these organisations about ‘doing what is right for the supporters’ ring hollow. The only reason that these organisations are so exercised by this development is that it provides a direct challenge to their vice-like grip on football, a challenge to their power and, above all, will affect their own profits. It is exactly these leading organisations that have brought us to where we are today.
So, what can be done?
It’s no coincidence that the owners decided to announce this now, with fans absent from stadiums, rather than at a later stage. This points towards the potential for mass protests by fans – something the owners clearly fear. It’s urgent now that fans and those who work in football – particularly backroom staff – start organising now. Mass outdoor protests, with masks and social distancing in place, should be possible in communities now. When fans begin to return to games, stadium protests, boycotts, and walk-outs will all be possible. Alongside this, coordinated trade union action by those who work in football could help stop ESL and even block matches from going ahead. Such a mass movement to reclaim football would need to be led by fans and football workers – not those who have supported the commercialisation of the game up until this point.
Two teams who have been invited into the league but who, to this point, have come out against the idea are German giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. In Germany there is the 50+1 rule, which very basically means that at least 51% of club ownership must be owned by the fans, effectively giving the fans’ voice a majority in decision making. While this system is not perfect, it has stemmed the corporate trajectory of football in the country. Fans have managed to build support against changes to the league system, against changing fixture lists to suit television broadcasting and, in relation to other leagues, German ticket prices start from a relatively affordable level.
Lower down the footballing league, there are more radical examples of fan ownership. The lower divisions in many leagues across Europe are scattered with teams whose fan bases have had to intervene to save their clubs from going bankrupt, after mismanagement by greedy owners. Sadly, a lot of these teams have found their way back into the hands of business owners. There are examples where fans have not only saved their clubs, but have continued in the ownership and running of them, and are now seeing this pay dividends on the pitch, such as Exeter City.
FC United of Manchester are a club which was formed in 2005, in protest to the Glazer family’s initial takeover over Manchester United. Since that day the club has always been entirely owned by its supporters.The club celebrated four promotions through the lower leagues in its first decade, and in 2015 played its first game at its very own stadium, which was paid for and is owned by the fans. Anyone who becomes a member of the club for £15 has a say in every decision at the club, on a one member one vote basis. This democratic method of running a football club has seen the only introduction of ‘pay what you can afford’ season tickets; rejecting shirt sponsorship money from business; becoming the first football club in Britain to pay the Living Wage. Crucially it has kept the club at the centre of its community, with the stadium becoming a hub for North Manchester’s Covid response during the first lockdown.
FC United are not unique in being fan-owned, and even clubs who are not owned by their fans have Fans’ Trusts, to apply pressure onto those in power. Socialists fight to take football clubs out of the hands of super rich owners and into those of fans and the community – to own and democratically run their own clubs. In the wake of the ESL announcement many fans will be passionate about the idea of having further control over their teams, it will be easily understood to fans how them playing a role the ownership and management of the club cannot just stave off some of the evils of modern football, but could actually see the team flourish.
Indeed many fans may begin to draw broader conclusions about the capitalist system which has poisoned the beautiful game. If working-class people can more effectively run football clubs, why not society more generally? Why should people be made to suffer from decisions that they have had no hand in making? Why should a mega-rich clique hold all of the power, in football and in society?
What is happening in football, from its recent history, to these latest developments, is a microcosm of what is happening under capitalism in general. The 1% of so-called ‘elites’ are constantly looking to centralise the wealth and power in their own hands, as the rest of us suffer the consequences. The significant size of the backlash against the plans in football will also need to be mirrored by a gargantuan fightback against capitalism. The antidote to the ills of football and society are similar: public ownership and democratc workers’ control and management – with the participation of workers and the community.