Sunday’s announcement of a European Super League prompted groans across Britain. The clubs say they are repurposing to keep Europe’s top clubs competing on a regular basis. But the vagueness of these assertions are exposed when finances are taken into account: the competition has been bankrolled by JPMorgan to the tune of billions of dollars, with initial projections showing that Manchester United are likely to generate three times as much revenue through this format as from a usual Champions League season.
The proposal’s almost exceptional display of derision confirms something visible on the horizon for quite some time. But it also clarifies a new level of detachment of football clubs from the communities they once represented, and begs the question – what is football actually for anymore?
The ESL format seems ideal for producing a game based around a demographic of people less viscerally connected to a place or a community. Reliable, meaningless content will be produced by the continent’s most depressingly consummate clubs, playing matches devoid of romance and sentimentality.
So far, German and French clubs been commended for making no commitment to the ESL. German football club ownership is often the model romanticised by browbeaten English fans, where clubs operate on the 50+1 rule, a clause stating that a club must hold the majority of its own voting rights to ensure a license to compete in the league.
Though this model has been called into question by the recent emergence of RB Leipzig, effectively owned by a sports drink company, it has generally been successful in protecting clubs from third party investors. And though the Bundesliga bears considerable similarity with the Premier League – the same spectrum of wages, transfer fees and culture of dominating teams – there is much more of an acknowledgement that meaningful participation is what means the most to fans.
My own team, Newcastle United, present a grotesque vision of where capitalist football currently stands. Our owner, Mike Ashley, billionaire owner of SportsDirect, is a man responsible for creating modern workhouses in post-industrial English towns with few other job prospects. He has been the target of consistent fan protests since the beginning of his rein, but has seen fit to ignore them. These same fans live in a part of the world bludgeoned by austerity – and now have to deal with the one institution that means most to them becoming increasingly alien.
But not all have been prepared to accept that fate. Nor have they been willing to countenance a takeover by the Saudi regime, appallingly presented as our only alternative to Mike Ashley. Newcastle fans have been diligently doing what they can to stop the rot taking over completely, and this hard work has culminated in the Newcastle United Supporters Trust – a legally constituted, democratic, not-for-profit fan organisation.
Earlier this month, the Trust announced the 1892 Scheme, which encourages fans to pool money together in the hopes of one day buying a part of the club. Relying on small, monthly donations from fans, the Trust hopes that if Newcastle get relegated again under Ashley, the fans themselves could become part-owners of the club and have some say in its future. If they were sold while they were still in the Premier League, they would aim to work with new owners and exercise greater influence in the club’s operations.
The results are already solid. Despite launching the 1892 Scheme just days ago, they have already taken in £57,000. As Alex Hurst from the Trust tells Tribune, ‘if we continue like this, then who’s to say that in five- or ten-years’ time, we won’t have the capital to have some real standing and influence in the club?’
It’s a fair point. As Hurst argues, supporters groups such as the one he belongs to have felt ‘vindicated’ by their efforts in the last few days, as well as by the easily avoidable declines of so many football clubs across Europe in the past few years. ‘If you look at all the fuck-ups that have been made,’ Hurst continues, ‘fans wouldn’t make those decisions. So many fans are really hurting at present, and that’s down to the fact fans of these clubs weren’t just not consulted on the decisions that were made – they were actively ignored.’
Fan activists like Hurst are also sceptical of the government’s willingness to step in and deliver real change. Many feel that Boris Johnson’s announcement of a fan-led review, coupled with a bill to potentially create independent regulators to ensure fans will oversee key decisions in football, may be little more than rhetoric. ‘At present,’ Hurst tells Tribune, the government are ‘the only thing that can get in between clubs and unregulated capitalism’, and they should consider it ‘absolutely their responsibility’ to protect cultural assets like football clubs from corporate rapacity.
Though they are ambitious, Hurst and his fellow Trust members have also made preparations for more pessimistic outcomes. In the interests of transparency, the Trust’s website outlines what would happen if the 1892 Scheme fails: the money raised will be given to registered charities in the North East. To ensure this, the Trust has four guardians, including the socialist Labour MP Ian Mearns and former Newcastle player Warren Barton.
Hurst is admirably pragmatic in his perspective on the project. While he admits that the idea of generalised fan-owned football up and down Britain is currently a faraway dream, the fans can only make progress against the elite ruining the game by organising and fighting back. ‘It’s so bizarre to think that football as an industry is completely unregulated,’ he says, ‘and this makes everything so vulnerable to capitalists.’
He believes supporters’ trusts must be incorporated into the new order of clubs, but acknowledges that full ownership is some way off at the highest level. ‘Involvement is all we’re asking for,’ he says, ‘you must remember that football clubs are community assets, they need to be returned to the purpose they were created. No real football club in Britain was ever founded to make someone a profit.’
At this juncture, Europe’s two competing visions of football have never seemed more incompatible with each other. For a discerning football fan, the preferable situation is a no-brainer – and the impetus to improve the game’s infrastructure has never been stronger.
Many club owners have demonstrated an increasing disdain for standing by the communities whose institutions they’ve profited from. Under their regimes, any remaining connection is tokenistic at best, little more than another tool to sell merchandise. But there is a real chance that with the European Super League, they may have gone too far – at Newcastle United, they hope it is a catalyst for fans to take back control of their game.