Following the outrage over the proposed European Super League, Mark Brown argues for a radical shake-up in the organisation of the beautiful game and the ownership of clubs
The recent debacle over the proposed European Super League (ESL) has raised more questions than it has answered about the future of the world’s most popular sport. For sure, the “greedy 12”, the dirty dozen of Europe’s richest football clubs, seem to have been foiled in their bid to create a multi-billion pound breakaway competition.
However, the dominant media narrative, that football, the sport of the working class, has been “saved” from the Bond villain-style machinations of the owners of the ESL clubs, is a patronising nonsense. It is like a reassuring fairytale told to calm an anxious child whose fears are, in fact, perfectly valid.
The protests by fans of the English clubs involved in the ESL cartel were superb. I particularly enjoyed the placard held up by a Chelsea fan which preferred the unglamorous side of football tradition to the self-selecting money-making of the ESL. It read simply, “We want our cold nights in Stoke.”
The supporters’ outrage against the cartel was laudable and important. However, we should be wary of the party line punditry, from Sky Sports to the BBC’s Match of the Day, that “fan power” has pulled football back from the brink of disaster and returned the game to “normality”.
The “normal” that the very nicely renumerated pundits, from Gary Lineker, to Graeme Souness and Roy Keane, are so keen to celebrate is, in fact, precisely the same slippery slope that led to the idea of a breakaway ESL in the first place. When their beloved English Premier League kicked off its first season in 1992, it did so as a “breakaway” from more than a century of English football tradition.
With the rise of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television, its competitor BSB and, then, their merger to become BSkyB, the 22 clubs of the old English First Division took the TV money and ran. That is how the EPL became the most lucrative league in world football, with clubs owned by billionaire, absentee businessmen from the likes of the United States and the United Arab Emirates, or, in the case of Chelsea, an ever-present, and highly dubious, Russian oligarch.
It’s also the reason why Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola commands an annual salary of £20 million, Liverpool striker Mohammad Salah earns more than £10 million a year and former footballer, turned BBC and BT football presenter Gary Lineker is estimated to have a personal wealth of £30 million. Try telling the millions of English football fans who would love to go to watch one of the EPL’s top teams, but can’t afford the exorbitant ticket prices, that “football has been saved for working class supporters.”
It was back in 2013 that match official John Brooks was caught on a broadcaster’s microphone advising Manchester City players, who were celebrating their victory over Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in north London, to walk over to their fans. “They’ve paid 62 quid over there”, Brooks commented, “go and see them”. Eight years later, £62 seems like a bargain compared with some EPL ticket prices.
The briefest consideration of the history of the EPL makes it clear that the argument between English football officialdom (backed by that paragon of fairness, equality and moral propriety Boris Johnson) and the Super League “rebels” is, as Jeremy Corbyn succinctly put it, a row between “the rich and the super rich.” The Super League plan would have allowed Arsenal (who are, at the time of writing, 10th in the English Premiership) to become one of the top 12 teams in Europe due, not to success on the field, but to the wealth of the club’s owners.
The far from impoverished owners of clubs like Leicester City and West Ham (both of whom are chasing European Champions League places this season) were outraged at this threat, not only to their sporting success, but also to the riches that the Champions League brings.
In the wider, European and global contexts, too, the outrage of the football authorities against the ESL has much more to do with self-interest than a love of the sport. As a besotted nine-year-old, I met the great player Michel Platini, who was injured, and, therefore, sitting in the stand at Love Street Stadium for the UEFA Cup match between his French club St Étienne and my beloved St Mirren.
My inner child still screams to see Platini mired in accusations of malfeasance during his time as president of European football’s governing body UEFA. The fact that the £1.6 million payment to Platini, which is at the centre of the investigations, should have come from world football’s governing body FIFA should come as no surprise.
From the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the choice of Qatar (where more than 6,500 migrant workers have died building the stadia) to host the 2022 competition, FIFA would lose a moral rectitude competition with Dr Faustus.
Just like the English Premiership, the creation of the European Champions League by UEFA in 1992 was driven by a desire to maximise revenues from the burgeoning satellite TV market. The old European Cup put the league champions from each of Europe’s countries up against each other.
In those days, before the massive manager and player wage inflation of the last 30 years, teams in smaller countries like The Netherlands, Portugal and, yes, Scotland could hold onto many of their best players. Consequently, the likes of Dutch clubs Ajax and Feyenoord, Portuguese side Benfica and our own Celtic could triumph in Europe’s greatest club competition.
The European Cup had finalists from 13 countries, including Romania, Yugoslavia, Greece and Sweden. By contrast the Champions League has had finalists from only seven countries, all of them from western Europe.
The Champions League is rigged in favour of the major powers in European football. England, Spain, Italy and Germany are guaranteed at least four places each. Meanwhile the league champions in smaller nations, including Scotland, have to try to battle their way into the competition through qualifying rounds.
UEFA argues, of course, that this guarantees “better quality” matches in the Champions League. What it guarantees, in fact, is bigger names, bigger global TV audiences, and bigger revenues from the TV companies and commercial sponsors (including, needless to say, the massive and growing industry in online betting).
The European Super League project (to which Real Madrid and Barcelona remain defiantly committed) presented a threat to the golden goose that had been so carefully reared by UEFA. The dirty dozen did what capitalists always do when they see an opportunity to make even greater profits at the expense of their competitors.
The failure of the ESL project is to be welcomed. However, it should be clear to every football lover that the working class ethos of the game, the values of fairness and community, were under attack by those running the sport long before the Super League idea was thrown so recklessly onto the table.
Which doesn’t mean that all is lost. There are examples within the beautiful game that another football is possible.
Many people have noted that the breakaway ESL clubs did not include any teams from Germany. Whilst clubs such as Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and RB Liepzig are, unquestionably, members of European football’s aristocracy, they were unable to sign up to the ESL, even if they wanted to, due to Germany’s rules on ownership of clubs.
In Germany’s professional leagues, clubs must be more than 50% owned by their supporters. This gives fans a certain degree of influence in their clubs, and makes tickets for top flight matches far more affordable than in countries such as England and Spain.
We shouldn’t idealise the German model, however. The game in Germany is hardly free from either big commercial interests or domination by big clubs.
The country’s biggest club, Bayern Munich, has won the top flight Bundesliga every year since 2013. Clubs from the richer west have dominated teams from the east since German reunification in 1990.
The sole exception to this is RB Liepzig, a successful club created in the east by the Red Bull corporation. A club with no tradition, which is the child of a huge, multinational company, RB is hated by football fans throughout Germany and beyond.
A more interesting German success story is to be found in the case of Hamburg club FC St Pauli. The club is better known globally for its anti-fascist, anti-racist and broadly progressive political principles than for its footballing success (at the time of writing, St Pauli sits seventh in the second tier of German football, Bundesliga 2).
St Pauli fans enjoy good relations with fans’ groups in many countries, not least in their twinning with Celtic supporters here in Scotland. In the 1980s, politicised, mainly young people from the neglected, working-class district of St Pauli started supporting their local team, which was the more unfashionable of the city’s two main clubs.
Some of them came to FC St Pauli out of disgust at the neo-Nazi chants and symbols that were common among a section of the support of the city’s biggest club Hamburger SV. Within a matter of years the club was committed to the progressive outlook of its new, growing fan base.
The club adopted the fans’ anti-establishment, skull and crossbones pirate flag. In 1998, it changed the name of its stadium from Wilhelm Koch to Millerntor, following the exposé of the Nazi associations of former club president Koch.
In 2016, on Holocaust Memorial Day, the St Pauli players took to the field with the logo of their shirt sponsor replaced with the slogan, “No football for Fascists.” The club is also well known for its work in the community, including giving match day tickets to people who have fled war or conflict and creating a local football team made up of refugees.
FC St Pauli also takes a stand against sexism and homophobia, and has, at 30%, the biggest female support of any club in the country. It’s little wonder, therefore, that St Pauli is the favourite team among fans of other football clubs in Germany.
The extraordinary history of FC St Pauli has at least as much to do with the concerted efforts at community organisation among supporters as with the German model of fan ownership. The entire story of this exceptional club is told in the excellent book St Pauli: Another Football is Possible, by Carles Viñas and Natxo Parra.
The twin ideas of fan ownership and community involvement resonate in Scotland, too. In Scotland’s Premiership, but a million miles away from the often resurrected idea of Rangers and Celtic “breaking away” to join the big money clubs of the English Premiership, there is the example of St Mirren, the club I have supported since I was a very young boy.
For reasons that are more prosaic than the dynamic politics at St Pauli, the Paisley club’s supporters will become majority shareholders of St Mirren this coming summer. Following years of careful consolidation of the club’s finances since it moved into its new stadium in 2009, the St Mirren Independent Supporters Association will take control of operations alongside its partner, the Kibble children’s charity and social enterprise.
The ESL debacle, in which 12 mega-clubs with a global reach attempted to break away, contrasts starkly with the return of real fan power at clubs like St Pauli and St Mirren. We are a long way away from truly saving football from big capitalist interests; that would require international governance that introduced reasonable caps on ticket prices, managers’ pay, players’ salaries, transfer fees and every aspect of the commercial dealings of professional football clubs.
For that to happen, fans really would have to exert their power at the local and national levels, as they are currently doing in Denmark, where the football authorities are under growing pressure to withdraw the national team from the blood-stained Qatar World Cup. For now, however, fan power in places like Hamburg and Paisley shows that, at a local level at least, another football truly is possible.
This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on May 2, 2021
© Mark Brown