A Fight for the Soul of Football

Imagine this: you have a football competition that is beloved by millions, it brings in lots of fans and the competition provides moments that live long in the memory. Everything seems to be going well. But then a small group of teams see that they could make more money by breaking away and forming an independent organisation. This organisation would consolidate all the money that would usually be shared between all the teams. This breakaway competition is being driven by wealthy owners and corporate interests.

I’m guessing you know what I’m talking about by now. That’s right: the formation of the Premier League in 1992.

The furore surrounding the European Super League seems to suggest that people think this new breakaway attempt is an aberration. But in fact it is just the continuation of a trend. Ever since the Premier League and Champions League was instituted money and power have concentrated in fewer and fewer clubs. Football has become more and more commercialised and private wealth has seeped into its very foundations like Japanese Knotweed (to use a Nevilleism). The ESL is dead in the water (for now) but its spirit of greed is very much alive.

Let’s make this clear: football is not the people’s game and it hasn’t been that way for a long time now. Like most other areas of life in the past 30 years, football has been taken over by corporations, oligarchs and hedge funds. The tendrils of finance have extended into every possible corner of humanity turning everything that was pure into dirt and football is no different. Decisions are made in small gold-plated rooms by a wealthy few with absolutely no input from the fans. Which fans agreed to the recent proposals to change the Champions League format? Keir Starmer was right (for once), football fans have become ‘mere spectators and consumers’ powerless to influence the game they love.

Micah Richards said on Sky (irony alert) that the ESL proposals were akin to ‘ripping the soul out of the game’. Surely the ship with the soul of football on it has long sailed (I think it has probably reached Qatar by now)? Especially at the top level, football clubs exist for the sole purpose of making very wealthy people even more wealthy. Whilst everyone was condemning the ESL, Juventus’ share price jumped 10% after the announcement. Increasing the share price is the point of Juventus these days and the ESL will do that job nicely thank you very much.

Despite making the money men happy, the ESL infuriated fans and ex-players, especially in England, and this has caused its demise. One of the main complaints was that it would destroy competition. But how is competition looking now? Since the Premier League was created, almost 30 years ago, there has been seven different winners, all bar three (Leicester, Liverpool and Blackburn) have come from the elite group of Man U, Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City. The latter two teams have literally bought their way to the top via cash injections from dubious sources, to say the least (hence why they pulled out first, they don’t need the extra money). And by European Standards the English league is relatively competitive compared to the dominance of one team in France, Germany and Italy (not to mention the competitiveness of the Scottish league…) Where is this competition that we are trying to save?

It’s a similar story in the Champions League. The knockout stages feature the same old teams, with maybe a wildcard (Porto or Atalanta) thrown in. Ever since the Champions League was created, almost 30 years ago, there has been 13 different winners. The more unusual ones (Marseille, Ajax, Dortmund and Porto) occurred a long time ago now. In the 20 years previous to 1992 there were also 13 different winners. The rate of consolidation of titles seems to be getting smaller and smaller over time. The European Super League was merely the next step in this consolidation.

There is also a fear about the lack of relegation spoiling competitiveness. But look at the top of the Championship table; it is more than likely that the teams that were relegated last season will go straight back up. This is due to the vast inequality of money between the two leagues, parachute payments and the like giving the relegated teams a significant advantage in the next season. If you are relegated but practically guaranteed promotion next season, is it really relegation?

The worries about the lack of competition ruining football are well-founded. It might be worth getting back to basics – why is competition important? It’s important because at its heart competition means that anyone can beat anyone else. True competition is born out of equality of opportunity. If the dice is loaded, there is no equality and therefore no competition. As Marcelo Bielsa pointed out, football is special because the poor can beat the rich – in fact, sport may be one of the few spaces left in society where this is possible. The accumulation of wealth and resources amongst a handful of clubs is what destroys competition. Redistribution of those wealth and resources will save competition.

So how do we take back control (to coin a phrase?) Maybe we need to look at ourselves as fans? How are we contributing to this culture of greed? Isn’t it fans who constantly moan about the lack of big money signings? Isn’t it fans who pine for a rich oligarch to take over their club so that they can join the elite? Aren’t we all going to settle down to watch a World Cup in 2022 that was organised by corrupt and murderous means?

Florentino Perez defended the idea of the ESL by saying that the big clubs were just responding to the desires of fans. Obviously, there is an element of Perez pretending that fatcat owners are only interested in us fans. But is there an element of truth in what he is saying? Our viewing habits and social media data must show that the ESL is what we really want. We give loads of money to big broadcasters to watch the world’s elite. We buy shirts emblazoned with corporate logos. Aren’t we part of the problem? Haven’t we accepted our role as mere consumers too easily?

The ESL should serve as a wake-up call. Football fans have been asleep on the job for the past 30 years. Gary Neville admitted that he had kept quiet on the corrupt owners of Man United because he didn’t want to rock the boat. Good on him for being brave and saying it, I suspect a lot of fans are in that same boat. The uprising against the ESL can serve as a starting point in a campaign to win back the soul of football. So what can be done?

There are policies that can be pursued. Many have argued for fan or member ownership with Germany’s ‘50+1’ rule mentioned frequently. This would certainly be a step in the right direction but these rules can be corrupted. RB Leipzig officially adhere to the rule but they have 17 members, most of whom are Red Bull employees, and in order to become a member you need to pay a $100 joining fee and $800 annually thereafter (compare this to Bayern’s annual fee of $30-60). A rule that was supposed to fight corporate ownership has managed to let it in through the back door.

You can see this dynamic at clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona. Both are fan-owned but the fans have very little power beyond picking a president every few years. At Real, in order to be on the board, and have any power over what happens at the club, you need 15% of the club’s turnover in your back pocket as a sort of insurance policy. Translation: You need to be stinking rich to have any influence over what happens at the club. So even so-called fan-owned clubs end up being controlled by the rich elite.

Ownership is important but it is not everything. The corrosive influence of finance needs to be fought against if we are to return football to the fans. In America they have a campaign against corruption that aims to ‘get money out of politics’. We should start a campaign to ‘get money out of football’. We should get rid of private equity firms, commercial sponsors and corrupt oligarchs. Before 1998, Germany’s football clubs were all run not for profit. It sounds completely mad today, but this is not ancient history. If it happened then, why can’t it happen in the future?

This will mean that players will have to get used to not being paid ridiculous wages. But they should want this too! Scientific research has shown that every penny earned over £50,000 has no effect on your wellbeing. People who earn millions are no more happy than those who earn a comfortable living. And we all know this don’t we? We’ve seen the films about the lonely billionaire sitting in their mansion looking like a misery guts. Most of us can only dream of £50,000 a year. And yet the average Premier League footballer will earn that amount in under two weeks.

If we flush all this wealth out of our game then ticket prices will plummet. It is not cheap being a football fan these days. All these PL clubs that were not involved in the ESL were singing from the rooftops about how they really care about the fans. Let’s see if that’s actually true. Let’s see if they lower ticket prices and let fans in on the decision-making processes. If they are full of it, football fans should migrate to smaller local teams. Pure Fitbaw leads the way in giving extensive coverage to the relatively unfinanced lower leagues in Scotland, maybe we could follow their lead.

From my own personal viewpoint, as a Hibs fan (I know, I know), I think we need to put club loyalties aside and think what would be best for our leagues. Scottish Football is highly competitive outside the Old Firm but the extent to which the Glasgow teams have dominated is frankly embarrassing to the idea of sporting competition. We need to find ways of redistributing wealth so that we can narrow the gap between the Old Firm and the rest. This will mean putting aside petty tribal associations and doing what’s best for Scottish football as a whole (we could insist that a portion of CL and Europa League money goes to solidarity funds in lower leagues, for example). I personally would be happy to see Premiership money filter down for a more equal football pyramid. If it weakens my team in the short run, so be it. It will benefit everyone in the long term.

We need to change our own attitudes and perceptions. We need to think twice before we demand that our club spends millions and millions on new players. We need to get rid of the attitude that football is about winning at all costs. We need to stop being blinded by the glitz and glamour. We need to stop paying loads of money to TV stations that don’t care about fans any more than the owners do. We need to stop being consumers and become active particpants. We need to return to the roots of football. It is the people’s game. A game born out of the community and solidarity of the working-class. A game driven by fairness and equality of opportunity.

That is the soul of football, and it’s worth fighting for.

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