22 April 2021
The football world is in uproar. It turns out that when you embrace free market capitalism and turn the game into a product, then those who are really good at free market capitalism will try and take control. It’s 12 years since Simon Kuper wrote Soccernomics with Stefan Szymanski; in which they explained to football fans how football clubs were really badly run businesses, financially unsustainable, with no one really making much of a financial profit. Around this time though things were beginning to change; three American businessmen (and in one case a family) had already cottoned onto the fact that there was a lot of a profit to be made in the football business, all it would take was for them to be run like any other business.
The Glazier Family became the major shareholder of Manchester United in 2005 and now own 98% of the organisation, John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group purchased Liverpool F.C in 2010 and in 2011 Stan Kronke became the major shareholder of Arsenal F.C. All three are now heavily involved in the European Super League, which has shocked and disgusted much of the footballing world. Announced on Sunday afternoon, it only took three days before the ESL was in the bin. Pressure from fans, players and team managers alike generating a populist shitstorm that politicians lept on in a cynical attempt to cover their own fuckery.
Without going too much into the ins and outs of what the ESL proposed to be; on Sunday 12 clubs, 6 from England, 3 from Italy and 3 from Spain announced that starting next season they and another 8 yet-to-benamed teams would be taking part in the ESL. This would run alongside the Champions League. Unlike the Champions League for the 12 founding-member plus 3 of the others, there would be no risk of relegation and no need to qualify for the competition. Arsenal, for example, could lose every match they play for the next 20 years (not impossible) and they would still be a member of what could have ended up being regarded as the World’s premier football competition (something that the World Cup used to be, but is now generally viewed as being the Champions league); the competition where the world’s best players (and Arsenal players) go head to head, week after week. That this competition is being bankrolled by the investment firm J.P Morgan – one of the most dominant faces in the world of financial capitalism (a taster of their litany of shitty behaviour can be found in the controversies section of their wikipedia page) is probably enough of a signifier of the motivations for this project.
And so what? Football is a form of mainstream entertainment, which has long had a murky relationship with greed and avarice. In 1992 when the Premier League (the top football league in England) was founded, it was itself an attempt to maximise profits for those clubs at the top of the English professional game. Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool were all at the forefront of that, and very different people and organisations owned those clubs at the time. The primary difference was that at that point English Football was reeling from the tragedy of Hillsbrough and the nightmare of Heysel. The crowds were low, the grounds were unsafe, it was predominantly white men who felt safe going to matches and crowd violence was a regular occurrence. Change was going to come, and change was needed but whilst the change in 1992 wasn’t even close to being all good, it undoubtedly led to a more inclusive, safer game, and in the end led to the English football league being one of the most international and financially ‘fair’ (it’s not equal or equitable, and fair is a dubious moniker for it, but the gulf in financial resources between the top teams in England’s premier competition is smaller in comparison to the other major European nations with the exception arguably of Germany). The Premier League remained rooted to, and at present has some (nowhere near enough) responsibility for Football around the country. If the proposed European Super League had gone ahead this would have ceased to be the case.
The six richest teams in the country, the 3 mentioned above plus Manchester City (owned by Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family), Chelsea (owned by Roman Abramovich, a Russian Oligarch) and Tottenham Hotspur (owned by ENIC a British investment group) along with their Spanish and Italian counterparts are after a bigger piece of the financial pie that surrounds the Football Industry. They want more power to make decisions that shape the games future, and they want access to what they see as untapped markets, primarily in the U.S and Asia. The owners of these clubs want to divorce themselves from the roots of the game, they want the spoils of consumerism generated by it’s global popularity and capitalism, but they want nothing to do with supporting and sustaining the football community which is fundamentally working class.
I was born in spitting distance of my local football team, from our high rise flat I could see onto the ground, and as a kid when I couldn’t scrounge the money together or my dad wasn’t up for taking me with him, I would try to watch the games from our kitchen window. My team was in the bottom division (then called the 4th division) and one year was almost relegated out of the professional football league. We were, by any measurements, very bad at playing football, but I was obsessed with watching 22 men run about kicking a bit of leather about. I spent the vast majority of my free time kicking bits of leather, rubber or plastic about with my own friends or just on my own. Later as I hit my teens, football was the only way I could navigate and cope with the various traumas that I experienced. As I slid into drug addiction and adulthood playing football was abandoned, and the intensity of my obsession abated, over the last decade however it has come alive again. I don’t play anymore, health and the ageing process have made that less feasible, but I watch it a lot. men’s and women’s matches, from all across Europe and South America. Some of my favourite experiences of the last decade have been watching the kids from my old neighbourhood play for the local teams on the park. I’ve read pretty extensively about it, and many of my favourite books are indeed ones that at least circle the world of football. It is my primary source of relaxation. I agree entirely with the sentiment ‘It’s the most important of the unimportant things’. David Goldblatt’s “The Ball is Round” is the primary text on football history, in it he draws out the idea that in its global popularity, in the different ways in which the game is interpreted and given meaning we can see parts of ourselves as cultures and societies. It is a game that has always been classed. The establishment of the English Football League was the result of Northern working-class clubs struggling to get control of the game from the wealthy southern elite who had written the rules and demanded total control over its direction. Although, when I say that, I should point out that calling them Northern working-class clubs, is a simplification of the situation, but the fact is working-class men needed to be paid to play in order to support their families, and the upper class felt this was uncouth and wanted it to be amateur game for gentlemen. Class is still a fundamental part of the game, the players are generally from the global working class, and they become astonishingly rich, being paid by clubs owned by the wealthy elite including those already name checked in this essay. It’s not only class though, Race and Imperialism are always present, the latter being a primary factor in the creation of its global popularity. The global working class is racialized as are the majority of the best football players, yet the dominant football leagues are based in nations which centre whiteness as their national identity and all the violence that entails. Anti-Racist struggles and White Supremacy are both constantly present at every level of the game. The England national team is now predominantly drawn from the black working class and before each game stand to attention to the national anthem, a love song to the British Empire and its genocidal history.
Listening to Musa Okwonga, on the always excellent Stadio podcast, describe what has happened to football over the past decade as aslow gentrification, and the final land-grab of the 12-clubs this weekend; we are reminded that many of those who are decrying the European Super League plans, are culpable for the situation. The history of toplevel football in Europe is the history of top-level capitalism in Europe. At the start of the 20th century local wealthy families owned the clubs and ran the league, and did their best to pay the working class players as little as possible. When the maximum wage was removed in 1961, the owners focused their sites on the working-class men and women who supported the clubs. Ticket sales went up and merchandise proliferated (gradually at first, but by the start of the 21st century there was not a lot you couldn’t get with your favourite player or teams name attached to it). With the growth of financialisation in the 1980’s more and more clubs became public companies on the stock exchange. The birth of the Premier League in 1992 was when things went into turbo drive, hyper capitalism (although as I mentioned at the top there were very few who were able to make a profit from owning a club). Money swirled around and the gap between the richest clubs and the poorest grew. Those clubs, first Manchester United and then others, saw the possibilities in the international audience. The U.S, China and Japan were primarily targeted; ‘international partnerships’ with airlines and insurance companies ensued, branded condoms and noodles. The aim was to squeeze every last penny out of football fans. Because they knew that for many fans the bond with their club was made early in life and would carry onto their deathbed. This was the same whether the fan lived in Beijing, Miami, Lagos or Luton. They were essentially captive consumers, and if the club couldn’t rinse their players, they would certainly rinse the fans. According to Kuper and Szymanski in Soccernomics however, most of that money would reach the pockets of the players, usually working-class lads who had become millionaires. When the first uber wealthy owners started purchasing clubs, they didn’t see it as a money-making venture, but a fancy toy to show off to your mates and in some cases, a new form of soft power. When Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea F.C in the summer of 2003, he didn’t do so with the intention of turning a profit. In a way not seen in English footfall before; he poured hundreds of millions each year into turning a middle of the road London club, who historically had achieved limited success, into one of the top teams in Europe. Despite Chelsea’s limited success in the past, it has been the club of a certain political set in London (Tories and Financiers), and whilst it cost Abramovich a significant chunk of change, it can be viewed as economic capital purchasing a very real form of social capital in a very public way.
This process was ramped up to 10 when in 2008 Sheikh Monsour purchased Manchester City. Monsour is the deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, a nation whose human rights record, whilst not as bad on a historical level as the UK’s, had been criticised by various international human rights organisations. This was state-backed ownership of a football club, and not in the possibly nice socialist way, this was a state that was being criticised for its treatment of women, the LGBTQI community, migrant workers, and it decided to start buying some good will by pouring money into the downtrodden neighbours of the hyper capitalist Manchester United. In the 13-years since they purchased the club they have poured money into west Manchester communities, purchasing several clubs around the world. This is soft power in its clearest form. They have aimed to act with care and compassion via their football clubs, whilst denying their own citizens basic human rights, the aim is distraction, and it has worked.
At the same time as this the organisations that run football, Fifa (the international body), UEFA (the European body) and the FA (the national body in England) have been riddled with corruption, incompetence and greed. This week, these organisations are trying to present themselves as, at best, the good guys fighting for the good of the game, or at worst, the victims of the proposed European Super League. They are to be clear, also the bad guys. They haven’t fallen asleep at the wheel; they’ve been drinking constantly whilst driving around trying to grab as many bags of money as possible. What’s happened to them is that people who are better at grabbing money have tried to get ahead of them.
Football fans aren’t entirely innocent, this super league has been roundly condemned by the vast majority of football fans, in ways that racism isn’t, in ways that the deaths of workers in Qatar during the construction of stadiums for the 2022 World Club isn’t. When our teams are brought by the uber wealthy we don’t all respond with condemnation (although many supporters groups do) we wonder which players our team will purchase and dream of greater success on the field. But we are the people from whom the game that has been stolen. Gradually over the decades, the multi-faceted faces of capitalism have robbed us whilst distracting us with fancy trinkets.
The crem de la crème of those fancy trinkets is the game itself as a product. Right now the quality of the game we love is being played at the highest level it’s ever been played; technique, strategy, speed and power all wrapped up into 90 minutes of narrative. For sure there’s some right old dross, but fucking hell has some of it been glorious. My team, the one I watched nearly plummet out of the football league three decades ago has now made it to the Premier League, a remarkable achievement for such a small-town club, and I’ve loved every minute of it. Watching them battle hard against some of the best players and managers in the world has been some of the most fun I’ve had during the pandemic, a welcome distraction from the grim everyday reality of Covid and the political shit show we’re in. When my team were sold earlier in the year by our long term rich local owner to an American financial investment group, I grimaced a little, but also thought about which players we could now purchase. I forgot an important lesson from James Montague’s brilliant book “The Billionaires Club” about the wealthy men and their organisations who have been buying up English football clubs over the last 2 decades, that once you invite them in you can’t control them, they control you.
And I believe this matters; not who wins each game and who doesn’t, but how we play it, how we organise it, who is excluded, where the money goes. It’s a working-class child’s game that has been corrupted by capitalists for over a century, and those of us who fell in love with it as children will continue to do so as adults. The sound of a ball smashing against a crossbar sounds like the friends we had when we thirteen and watching a tiny fella dribble round a big fella reminds us of playing with our fathers on park fields. We’ve watched the game silently as it has become more and more another and continue to negotiate its ugly sides as adults. This week there was an attempt to finally wrestle the game away from the working class, and the working class responded with fury. That fury won a temporary victory but make no mistake this will not be the end of it. The motherfuckers will strike again. No doubt there are plans being mad to pull the game deeper into the pockets of financial capitalism, and further from working class communities throughout the world. But what these few days are a sign of is that working class protest works, we can stop things dead in their tracks when we are collectively organized. The question is what else do we want for our game, what direction do we want it to go and how can we make it happen. And more importantly what other areas of our lives can this spread to?