Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Gentrification of Football – And Everything Else

The European Super League is football's equivalent of a luxury skyscraper – which is fitting, because the game's super-wealthy owners are complicit in gentrifying the very communities which helped to build it.

I was in a rush – kick off was only a few minutes away and I had no idea where I was going. But even in that mild panic, I remember thinking that the marble floors, black granite surfaces, and hotel lobby-chic aesthetics of the interior of Tottenham’s brand new stadium was in stark contrast to the urban landscape of Seven Sisters I had just walked through. The stadium itself, a sleek, expensive, but generic-looking UFO squatting in the relative deprivation of the Tottenham High Road, stuck out like Kate Winslet on the lower decks of the Titanic.

That was back in June 2019, and since then, the stadium has been controversially central to the Northumberland Development Project, which has seen a number of council homes demolished and residents displaced, and imprinted yet another gentrifying force in the global city that is London. Fast forward a couple of years (through a pandemic where that stadium has been largely empty), and Tottenham sit at the centre of another gentrification story – but this one involves the gentrification of football itself.

Last night, Tottenham were announced as one of the six English clubs that are looking to break away from the Premier League to form a ‘European Super League’ (despite being currently outside the Champions League places). The creation of a Super League of this ilk has been touted before, but like now, back then, they drew the ire of European football’s governing aristocratic mafia.

There was always sense of inevitability about its revival, though, because it is the ‘natural’ next step of the gentrification of our national game that has become the global game. Starting in 1992, with the infusion of massive corporate funds into the game from Rupert Murdoch, the ‘development’ of football has mirrored, and in many ways, been involved in, the same structural shifts of how capital swirls around in the urban realm.

It was also in the mid-1990s (spurred by the neoliberal urban economics of Blair’s New Labour) that the ‘back to the city’ movement really took hold, with inner-city areas that were once enclaves of immigrant and working class communities becoming fashionable again. Shoreditch and Berlin are often presented as poster children, but across many parts of cities across Europe a ‘race to the top’ of the urban premier league began. Trying to climb the quality of life ranking tables forced cities to pay ever increasingly eye-watering fees for ‘starchitects’ to build the next striking addition to the city skyline-up.

As the turn of the century came and went, cities all over the world rode the wave of the financial crash by taking on debt, centralising wealth, and letting all but those outside of the top pyramid of elite cities take the hit. And as foreign oligarchs started buying up massive tracts of real estate across London, Barcelona, Manchester, Madrid, Liverpool, and whichever top city brand they could get their hands on, the price of entry for the ordinary punters rose and rose.

Now, as the cities we once called home lay adorned with luxury idols of financialised (often foreign, but always elite) capital, they remain empty of the very people that make cities the beautiful spaces they are. There is a striking parallel between the processes. Clubs built by working-class communities torn from their roots, plotting the path into franchise status as their opulent stadiums lie empty awaiting adverts from their European Super League corporate sponsors, and glass skyscrapers (or any other prime real estate across the country) also empty, doing nothing other than accruing more wealth for those who never intend to live there.

Whether it’s next season or next decade, the European Super League, like the Premier League before it, will be another nail in the coffin of football’s community roots. Football clubs, like neighbourhoods, are first and foremost social institutions whose value comes from shared experience. The cold glass experience of walking through our gentrified urban landscapes is matched by the sterile corporate experience of the modern stadium – neither have any sense of the soul that belonging provides. Tribalism in football stems from that sense of belonging; as real for a football club as it is for a council estate (with often the same levels of rivalry). It’s that sense of community that has built football clubs for well over a century.

But as council homes are bulldozed to make way for more expensive houses, football clubs have undergone the same transformation: the working-class communities that used the terraces to release the tension of the working week are now finding that they’re being exploited on the terraces too – that is, if they can afford a ticket to get in, plus a replica shirt for their child, a burger, a programme or, failing that, a monthly subscription to BT Sport, Sky, Amazon Prime, Facebook, and whatever other platform is showing their team this week. In the same way (and often, it can be the same people), the council home residents are being told that they can now longer to afford to live in the place they’ve called home for generations, while the creative financial and tech professionals wait impatiently for the luxury condo replacements so they can breeze in and out for the weekend.

The urban geographer Loretta Lees called the massive influx of financialised capital into the city ‘super-gentrification’ because the original un-prefixed term just wasn’t fit anymore to analyse the violent transformations unfolding. So the European Super League—which we should therefore perhaps called the Super-Gentrification of Football—will be the next phase of how capital is destroying the game that billions love.

We can’t just turn away and ignore it. ‘If you don’t watch it, it’ll fold pretty quickly,’ some will say. But football, like our neighbourhood parks and the estate squares we played it in, is part of our culture, part of our history, part of our identity. We can’t afford to leave it in the hands of the super-rich – whose only loyalty is to profit. Why should we have to give it up simply because these bullies want to take our ball away and play with it among themselves forever? Taking the game back into the hands of the people who love it means kicking capitalism out of football.