ESL plotters overlooked paradox that ‘global fans’ like football as it is | Jonathan Wilson
T he storm has receded, but after a week that threatened the greatest rupture in European football since the legalisation of professionalism in 1885 and has apparently ended with a sullen acceptance of the status quo, nobody should think everything remains the same or that the crisis is somehow over.
What will history remember of the past few days? The images of Chelsea fans celebrating on Fulham Road as word spread the club had withdrawn from the European Super League? The exposed emperor Florentino Pérez desperately insisting he was wearing fine new clothes, whatever the nasty English might be insisting? More tangibly, perhaps, the beginning of a new age of militancy among fans, pundits and players, perhaps even politicians, a kickback against the idea that football is just a business to be run on purely commercial lines.
Having come so close, it feels remarkable it has taken so long for a model that is accepted elsewhere – cricket’s IPL, rugby union’s Super Rugby, all major US sports – to become a serious possibility in English football. While the threat of a breakaway by the elite has clearly lost a lot of its power, it has not gone away. The conditions that provoked the attempted coup have not gone away.
There remains a self-perpetuating group of super-clubs divided into two factions: those whose wealth is derived predominantly from football and those who might be termed the petroclubs, whose external resources mean they can easily ride out a couple of disappointing years on the pitch.
“The logic in the world at the moment, and football is not outside of this, is that the rich get rich at the expense of the poor,” said Marcelo Bielsa, the Leeds manager, on Monday night. “And then they demand more privileges.”
A super league feels the natural consequence of neoliberal economics that looks at football purely as a generator of revenue and ignores its social function.
In 1981, the FA lifted a ban on director remuneration. Two years later, the stipulation that a percentage of league gate receipts be shared with the away club was removed. The conditions were created for the bigger clubs to dominate and for their directors to profit as they did so.
Along with the advent of satellite television, the conditions were created for the establishment of the Premier League in 1992, which helped consolidate the dominance of the elite. There was opposition, but it might have been greater had it not been for the sense that English football was in need of a radical cure.
Similar forces had led to the establishment of the Champions League, largely to ensure there would never be a repeat of the European Cup in 1987-88 when Napoli and Real Madrid, the champions of Italy and Spain, were drawn against each other in the first round. As various club executives saw it, that meant an unconscionable reduction in the number of marketable games.
Perhaps they were right: football may not be just a business, but neither is it not a business. There is a need to balance sporting, cultural and commercial concerns.
As it is, football’s surrender to capitalism means there is a perceived need for constant expansion. There always has to be more: more money and more games, even as managers and players beg for respite.
There are slightly different motives behind the expansion of the World Cup and other international tournaments, the Club World Cup and Uefa’s adoption of the Swiss system for the Champions League group stage from 2024, but they all come down to more games, more content.
To hear Pérez talk of a crisis, you would think that before Covid games were played before empty stands. Yet the truth is that through the English leagues, attendances are higher than they have been for 60 years. If you include non-league football, more people were probably watching the game in England when the pandemic struck than ever before. If clubs are struggling, it’s not because of a lack of interest.
But the expansionist urge means forever searching for new customers, which in football has come to mean the “global fan”, a concept that is highly problematic. The Premier League is a global league. There’s no point pretending Liverpool, say, belong only to those who can trace their roots to the immediate Merseyside area.
Match-going fans – who even 30 years ago were so important to a club’s finances there was a terror of televising too many games for fear of reducing attendances – are no longer the primary source of revenue. That requires an adjustment and represents one of the key tensions of globalisation: what was once intensely local has been opened to a far wider audience.
But this is the paradox. Six years ago, I spent some time in Lalibela, Ethiopia and realised that on any given Saturday around 20% of the adult male population of the village was watching the Premier League. The interest is real. How clubs monetise that is another issue, but those global fans exist and they have been drawn by football as it is now.
The budgeting of the Super League (in so much as there was any; detail and evidence were notably lacking) presupposes an army of new fans to join the “legacy fans”. But these new fans, apparently, will demand the biggest names playing each other every week.
Football is already hugely popular – David Goldblatt argues in The Age of Football that the modern game is the most pervasive and universal cultural mode that has ever existed – yet the plan is to risk alienating large sections of the enormous audience that already exists to chase imagined new consumers?
At some point, any product runs out of new worlds to conquer. If you’re outraging existing customers to chase imagined new ones, you’ve probably reached that point. And if you’re declaring an economic crisis at a time when football is watched by more people than ever before, maybe the issue is less the football than the business.
How that dynamic plays out will determine how football looks in a decade. This is the other paradox: by the logic of the market, shouldn’t the clubs who cannot thrive in such circumstances be allowed to fail? Has Pérez ever considered just not spending so much?