Breakaway: The rise and fall of the European Super League
Scottish Review, April 21st 2021
What has been the big media story so far this week? Not COVID, not Boris Johnson’s many scandals, or even the George Floyd trial in the US. Rather, by far the biggest story media-wise has been the announcement of the European Super League – with some of the continent’s biggest football names announcing their intention to join together in a league which would make them an even more out of touch elite, before the fans rebelled and the powers to be had to withdraw.
This was a reactionary, regressive and self-interested step. But this has been the way of football in recent decades – with the establishment of the English Premier League in 1992 driven by the backing of Sky and Murdoch, and the European Champions League the same year, the vast injection of TV and commercial monies, and the desire of those at the top to get their hands on even more money. For now all the English clubs which were involved have withdrawn – showing little contrition – which means it will not happen for now but the ideas and forces behind this project will not go away and will return.
A European Super League would be a closed league. Fifteen clubs would be permanent members with 12 already named – six from England, and three each from Italy and Spain. They would play in mid-week, leaving the existing Champions League and other European tournaments, while remaining in their domestic leagues. Five clubs each year would somehow compete for places with no details given on how that would work.
The criteria for permanent membership would mix past success and branding. Of the nominated English six, their current league placings when this proposal became public apart from 1st and 2nd were 5th, 6th, 7th and 9th – those last places being held in a league of twenty by Spurs and Arsenal, neither of whom have been very successful at winning trophies in recent years.
The proposal violates everything about what makes football special and captivating. But it makes complete sense if we see the bigger picture. This embodies the age of hyper-capitalism that we live in, driven by a brutal neo-feudalism whereby the ultra-rich and powerful feel they have the right to protect their status, position and wealth and to deny the right of others to be successful.
The Super League is about a different idea of the football club from what has gone before: one historically rooted in a community with traditions, memories and generational connection through families of supporters. This has in recent decades become weaker with clubs such as Manchester United increasingly in the eyes of their US Glazer brother owners viewing these older roots as irrelevant to their global appeal.
While fans across the game railed against the Super League its backers saw a much wider pool of support; with Old Trafford filling pre-COVID with 74,000 fans, they had their eyes on the 1.1 billion audience who they see as the ultimate constituency to monetise. And all over the world – from China and the Far East to Africa – millions follow the English Premier and its clubs with global football historian David Goldblatt describing it as offering ‘a slice of the Global North’ to football fans in nations such as Nigeria.
The English Premier and casino capitalism
English football at the level of the Premier League is awash with ridiculous amounts of monies in player wages, agent fees, remuneration for top managers, and overall club turnover. The ever-diminishing Jose Mourinho, just sacked by Spurs, after less than 18 months at the head of the club, was reportedly on a contract of £15 million a year, when Spurs are the most indebted club in Europe (with debts of over £1 billion) and have not won a major trophy in three decades.
At least as unedifying as this, is the ownership of England’s top clubs – an example of all that is wrong in the British economy. This is a culture of twenty clubs, the majority of which are foreign-owned – by a host of individuals and groups with little connection to football and the game here including American businessmen, Gulf states and Russian and other oligarchs. Last season thirteen of the twenty were foreign owned (65%), six UK owned (30%), and one had a complex hybrid (Crystal Palace).
The ownership and finance of the top clubs are thus based on unethical, secretive arrangements – with offshore financial arrangements and ultimate ownership often held in shell companies. This disease is not just affecting the top league, but England’s other senior leagues, with all sort of dodgy deals defining football such as clubs selling their grounds and then having them leased back to them. Elsewhere in the world different capitalisms and models of ownership are available, with Germany having a tradition of co-determination between workers and management in firms and fan ownership in football clubs which is enshrined in law.
All of this is not just linked to the inexorable rise of finance capitalism, the role of the City and increasingly monopoly capitalism, it is a direct expression of it as oligarchs and dynastic regimes now own part of the English game. Not just that, but there are no restrictions and barriers and no real ethical test on owning a football club in England (or indeed in Scotland).
The football authorities have in their rule books ‘a fit and proper persons test’ about buying a club, but the last time anyone was prevented from buying a club in England or Scotland would be difficult to find. In this the game is sadly not the exception, but just the expression, of the grotesque capitalism encouraged by government in recent decades. According to UK authorities, unlike other countries, there are no national strategic interests deemed out of bounds to foreign investment and ownership, including nuclear power and telecommunication systems. No other developed country, and certainly not the US, takes such a laissez-faire, open door policy.
Sport is not just about winning. It is also about drama, unpredictability, upsets and new talents and forces rising to challenge the existing order. At a European level, Jose Mourinho earned his reputation as a brilliant young manager taking Portuguese Porto FC to the top winning the UEFA Cup in 2003 (beating Celtic in the final) and then the Champions League in 2004. This was a major upset to the conventional order. Similarly when Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest won the English league in 1978 followed by the European Cup in 1979 and 1980, it was a stellar achievement for a team of moderate means.
In Scotland, Aberdeen and Dundee United both won the league in the 1980s and became major powerhouses in European football: Aberdeen winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1983 and United reaching the UEFA Cup final in 1987. All of these achievements are now less possible, at a Scottish level being next to impossible. Football is not just about the successful year-in year-out, but about the potential of new challengers rising to the top such as Leicester City’s surprise Premier League triumph in 2016: a victory which annoyed the so-called English ‘big six’.
Scotland on the outside looking in
Where does this leave Scottish football? On the outside looking in – with Celtic and Rangers yearning to be included in someone’s plans. In this they are not alone and nor is our domestic fate, with the Dutch, Belgians and Portuguese for company; with the Germans and French not included in the proposed Super League.
This latest instalment in the soap opera that is football witnessed yet again the complete lack of confidence which runs through the Scottish game, from the football authorities to mainstream media. BBC Scotland’s Tom English talking about the Super League and the future of Celtic and Rangers said that the domestic game without the ‘Old Firm’ playing in our leagues and cups would be ‘catastrophic’ and completely diminished.
This is a defence of an unsustainable status quo: the Scottish game and one of the worst kinds of monopoly capitalism. The game without the ‘Old Firm’ is unimaginable to the forces running and promoting it – as their actions showed when Rangers were liquidated in 2012 and had to make their way back to the top league through the lower divisions.
Scottish football currently is in the worst of all worlds. Celtic and Rangers utterly dominate the domestic game with the exception of the occasional cup (St Johnstone winning the League Cup this season). This year Celtic had striven for the elusive ten in a row in league titles, only to be thwarted by Steven Gerrard’s Rangers; but the longer story is that the pair of them have won thirty-six titles in a row. At the same time the small world, and available finances, of Scottish football every year finds it more and more difficult competing in a world defined by Champions League economics and the world which produced the Super League. Something here has to eventually give.
A Scottish game where the ‘Old Firm’ went elsewhere would not only find its feet, it would find an attractive, marketable quality – hyper-competition – with an array of clubs vying for success and even the league: Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen, Dundee United, Kilmarnock, Ross County and others. The chance of real success is not surprisingly addictive to fans, creates a buzz and would generate excitement and sponsors. But that is not how the authorities view the game, obsessed with their Old Firm dependency and keeping that going at all costs.
The events of this week led some to wonder if the Super League is a twin-track or double bluff by the big clubs: an attempt at escape, or a threat to the football authorities to allow them to keep even more monies under existing structures. The sheer ineptitude of the proposals came to the fore from the moment they became public, with Real Madrid’s President Florentino Perez saying the Super League was the way ‘to save football’ and that clubs such as Real were on ‘the edge of ruin’. The enterprise collapsed when the English ‘big six’ pulled their support: ‘breaking away from the breakaway’ as The Times Henry Winter put. Job done; scare over; for once the good guys won and we can go back to normal. If only the world were that straightforward.
The forces that gave us the brief Super League are not going away. The direction of the game has been increasingly shaped by unethical, extractive, exploitative capitalism: a world epitomised by the disgrace of the Qatar World Cup successful bid for 2022, and numerous scandals in FIFA and UEFA, with the former’s head Sepp Blatter forced to resign amidst institutional and personal corruption.
All of this throws up big questions about the remorseless logic of capitalism which defines the modern world – which for all the talk of resetting and ‘building back better’ post-COVID, knows one mentality – endless growth, leverage and inequality. The Super League proposal shows what the capitalist class think the ‘new normal’ should be and what will drive it, focusing on greater monetising and commercialisation, to make up for the lost time of the year of a deadly pandemic and what Deloitte estimate is a €2 billion collapse in revenues.
Football does need reform and change. But the bigger question is the grotesque reality of the economy and society and ultimately of unsustainable, turbo charged capitalism which dominates and distorts too much of our lives. From this a second point emerges: why have so many of us given so much time, investment and importance to the game of football, almost making it into a way of life and quasi-religion?
What does it say about us, our moral values and what we care about, that we have let what is ultimately a sport become this kind of calling, filled with fake demigods and altars to worship at? After COVID, 150,000 dead in the UK, over three million around the world, and public services and public health at near breaking point, shouldn’t we pause and reflect on what should really matter to us and our societies.