Just like Brexit, the European Super League is built on hubris – and it will bring them both down

Tom Peck
·8 min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For several years that felt like several decades, people like me howled about Brexit. Occasionally we continue to do so. Our moods would alter in a flash, sent down a rabbit hole of wild emotion by the latest inconsequential development or other.

There were many rabbit holes, too. Furious anger. Terrible depression. Sometimes what felt like actual grief, that everything we thought we believed in was dying. That our country simply wasn’t, and indeed isn’t, what we had always thought it was.

But underpinning it all was a delusion about one’s own impotence. Brexit’s Versailles phase went on for so long, its negotiations so vicious that it felt like the war itself was ongoing, that the result might still be changed. That it hadn’t actually been settled on 23 June 2016, which it certainly had.

Different outcomes were available, of course, different Brexits were available to be brokered. But for all the shouting, only a vanishingly small number of people had any meaningful power to influence them. (Yes, there was a general election. In fact, there were two, but elections are the bluntest of instruments. The fact that two were required to sort out one referendum shows how poorly suited to the task they are).

Now, it would appear, football and football fans are in a moment of complete shock and horror. The European Super League has arrived in the middle of the night like a terrible nightmare. But football fans might be well advised to learn some of the very readily available lessons, if only to spare themselves a small amount of the pointless emotional misery of it all.

The first question is one of power. The normal, match-going fan, that doesn’t want any of this to happen, must work out how much real power he or she has to wield. And pouring your anger into technological platforms specifically designed as rocket boosters for it, is not power.

So what power does the fan have? A bit, perhaps, but not much.

At the heart of the European Super League idea is the belief, clearly held by a handful of American, Russian and middle eastern billionaire owners, that English football’s biggest clubs can pivot away from a business model that was once underpinned by what they now apparently call “legacy fans” and toward the “fans of the future”. Which is to say, massive global audiences with no actual links to the places involved, but who just want to watch Europe’s big boys playing each other all the time – a European NFL of soccer.

Clearly, they think this can be achieved at the ordinary fan’s expense. On this front, there is not that much the ordinary fan can do about it. They can refuse to go to games, refuse to generate the on screen atmosphere that is required. But Premier League football stadiums have been turning into tourist attractions for a while now. Atmosphere is not what it once was. Not turning up probably will not work.

What is especially depressing is that for a very long time, football has sustained this global balancing act with remarkable success. Growing huge audiences around the world, lapping up the huge broadcast rights sales, transforming the game (by which one means the part that is played on the pitch), very much for the better, with faster pitches, better players and ever more spectacular matches.

But ordinary fans are compromised. It is not sustainable for the fans of big European clubs to enjoy the beneficial support from fans elsewhere in the world, and expect the game to be forever blind to what these fans want. An ordinary fan may want the Guangdong Reds to just shut up and go away. But that is not going to happen. That boat has sailed. No point getting angry about that.

The globalisation and staggering financialisation of football is, like Brexit, very much a tide that won’t be turned back.

Ordinary fans may make angry demands of the players. They should refuse to play, they should walk out in disgust. But to expect young men with about a decade of earning potential in their whole lives to take a principled stand so enormously against their own best interests is not realistic. Unionised workers at companies that have been screwed by their management tend to shout similar things in angry meetings. In the end, almost no one decides they can afford to be as brave as other people would like them to be. Footballers will almost certainly do the same.

What can an ordinary fan actually do about the grim fact that the club they love has an owner they loathe, and who is harvesting their passions and emotions like a Dementor from Harry Potter to deploy in their own malignant self-interest?

On current evidence, not very much. The world is full – and getting fuller – of countries that are criminally run, and civil unrest is making precious little difference. Putin, Xi Jinping, Mike Ashley and the Glazer family have more in common than they might like to admit.

Kick them out. Call their bluff. Easier said than done. That there are six Premier League clubs signed up appears to be no accident. Premier League rules are clear that such a thing can only happen if three-quarters – ie 15 – of the current clubs agree. Twenty minus six equals 14.

Can they survive without them? Most of a Premier League club’s income still comes from domestic TV rights sales – from Sky Sports, BT Sport and Amazon. What would be the market value of a rights deal without those six clubs? Not very much, one imagines.

Twenty-nine years ago, for complex and different reasons, the world’s best darts players broke away and formed their own new competition. There was genuine rivalry between new and old, for a while. Now the old one, still televised by the BBC, is all but dead.

Can football survive, thrive even, if it pivots entirely to its “fans of the future”. If it becomes little more than a TV product for a global audience?

Political scientists who write about revolutions, like the American sociologist Theda Skocpol, like to point out that revolutions themselves are not the moments of change, but rather the moment in which change which has already happened is revealed.

For a very long while indeed, an ordinary Manchester United fan, for example, has been able to live in a state of denial, that this is still the club, founded by 19th-century railway workers, who his dad and his dad and his dad before him used to go and watch on a Saturday afternoon.

They will be able to claim, with a little justification perhaps, that in this seismic moment it was all taken away from them. But they know, really, that the hopes and dreams invested in it by their ancestors started to disappear from the balance sheet a while ago. There is precious little point in howling at the moon and hoping for things to be different. Or rather, for them to stay the same.

Of course, revolutions do not tend to follow the trajectory their instigators map out for them. Revolutionaries tend to find that sweeping away the old does not sweep away the reasons the old ever came to be. George Bush found this out in Baghdad in much the same way as Robespierre did in Paris, though he cared a great deal less and the personal consequences were not quite so severe.

Joel Glazer and Sheikh Mansour may find the “legacy fans” to be rather more important to the future they have in mind than they realised. That they can’t just loot the museums of the past and run off to the markets of tomorrow with the artefacts they like.

It is an obvious point but one worth repeating that, even in a season with a runaway champion, interest in Premier League football is sustained through the thrill of possibly qualifying for European football, and the promise of further thrills therein.

A closed league of big clubs whose global reputation is currently very much not matched by their performances on the pitch, in which the vast majority of matches will be of no consequence, is not that thrilling a prospect.

But this is the key point. Hubris only comes to pass on its own terms. Brexit is almost certainly set on a path to failure and has been since day one, but that path has not been changed by long years of howling rage from its opponents, all of which began too late.

The European Super League is being led by a small cabal of people who do not care for football and have precious little understanding of it. The most likely cause of its demise is itself.

The ordinary fan that doesn’t want this to happen might find life a little more bearable if they come to accept, sooner rather than later, that the most potent weapon at their disposal is the overarching greed and arrogance of those involved. If it is to be derailed, that is what will do it, and nothing else.

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