After a rollercoaster few days – it’s coming home. The chicken, that is. To roost.
It was announced at the weekend that twelve of Europe’s leading football clubs had agreed to establish a new midweek competition, the European Super League, governed by its “Founding Clubs”. The goal was to rival the UEFA Champions League. In the end, it rivals Colgate’s frozen food or Bic’s hosiery in the award for worst business ideas.
The concept was this: top clubs would minimise risk and get a cash boost by forming a hermetically sealed league (bar a few teams that they would magnanimously permit to join each year). The 15 founding members would be immune from relegation; the position of the five lesser clubs was more precarious.
Within 48 hours of the “dirty dozen” confirming their intention to redefine the structure of European football, all six English clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham) had been forced into an embarrassing climbdown. At the time of writing just two had yet to announce their departure.
The storm of protest didn’t take long to brew. First were the squeals and threats of sanctions from the game’s European and world governing bodies. Then came Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer, and many other opportunistic politicians who started tweeting absurdities about “no action” being off the table and government doing “whatever it takes” to bring the gravy train to a juddering halt.
Later, former England defender and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville claimed it was “pure greed”. Well sure, Gary, but for clubs to satisfy their avarice they need to provide supporters with a product they’re willing to buy. Giving the fans what they want and “greed” aren’t mutually exclusive.
We should remember that there are two audiences here, however, with different ideas of what the consumer good is. One group likes the idea of seeing Liverpool play Real Madrid but couldn’t care less about the Merseyside reds taking on a lesser-known team. These supporters are drawn in by individual players and on skill; they follow a team in the same way that they have a favourite brand of beer or type of food.
But the other group value the raw openness, the uncertainty and the competition. It brings tension, and failure makes the success all the sweeter. They’ll traipse to the stands come rain or shine and weep when their underdog beats the odds, because they value traditional identity and rivalry. It’s why, at the start of the week, a product bifurcation looked possible. The Premier League and national associations could have expelled the Super League (and should have been free to do so).
To understand why the project imploded, just look at the response after the six English clubs withdrew. Players, pundits, fans all cheered a “beautiful day for football”. It was the sheer volume of complaints, the weight of the backlash, that triggered the collapse. I belong in neither of the above groups – as a football sceptic I’ve never really grasped its appeal – but even I could see that a competition in which Arsenal would lose endlessly to AC Milan with no fear of relegation would get boring, fast.
Importantly, the ESL was not brought to its knees by government regulation – regardless of how much our “libertarian” Prime Minister might have yearned to claim that scalp. In case there was ever any doubt that this “free market” administration that advocates for government “getting out of the way” is actually more committed to finding innovative ways of encroaching into our everyday lives, the rapid-fire threat of “legislative bombs” has put it to rest. This is a government that will impose bans on countless forms of entertainment it doesn’t like regardless of whether it is causing harm to others. What we eat, drink, smoke, inject – and that’s not to mention the misery we’ve all been under this past year.
Was there really any justification for intervention? The breakaway would’ve established a regulated oligopolistic competition. But the Premier League has long been an oligarchy of a handful of top clubs with the funds to outbid others for the best players. With the exception of the Leicester City shock, the PL has been dominated by five clubs for over two decades. If we clamp down on this, then do we also deconstruct the Boat Race or the Ashes? How do we reconcile claims of a “cartel” with the fact that the Europa League and Champions League would have continued operating? And if a closed shop did restrict competition (let’s not forget that many top clubs are listed public companies and therefore bound by competition policy), would this anti-competitive move not have been a question for the courts?
It doesn’t take a season ticket holder to realise that the Super League was destined to outrage and doomed to fail. We didn’t learn much from this episode, though apparently the Prime Minister isn’t “into football much himself”. I guess that means we have one thing in common, given we may no longer share a love of individual liberty.