The news that the biggest teams on the continent (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus) have disobeyed the European football federation (UEFA) and announced the creation of the Super League, a closed, elite competition for only a select few, has stirred up great emotions around the world.
Critical voices dominate the debate, many indicating that business logic has triumphed over the spirit of the sport, and football will no longer be the same as it once was.
The point is that football has “no longer [been] the same” for decades, and the vision of an elite competition for only the richest has been looming over stadiums since the Champions League was launched in 1992. It was only a matter of time before it materialised.
The peripheries pushed further out
Modern football perfectly reflects the division between the capitalist centre and those on the peripheries. The European competition has been dominated for more than two decades by the so-called “Big Five” – the leagues from England, Germany, Spain, France and Italy. Teams from these countries have completely overwhelmed the continental competition and have made the biggest profits from the sale of television broadcasting rights. Because of the liberalisation of transfer regulations, they are always attracting the best players from all over the world.
The semi-peripheral countries unsuccessfully try to compete with the elite. Only older fans remember the times when European football trophies ended up in the hands of the clubs from eastern Europe, such as Red Star Belgrade and FC Steaua Bucharest, or even clubs like Ajax Amsterdam or Anderlecht Brussels.
The transformation of the cup competitions (European Champions Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup, UEFA Cup) into a Champions League and Europa League was a way to strengthen the football centre at the expense of the peripheries. The creation of the Super League is simply another step in that direction.
Critics of the new Super League have pointed out with indignation, first and foremost, that the competition, designed by the rich, is exclusive, there’s no room for promotion or relegation based on sporting rivalry. And, of course, they are right to be outraged.
This model, based on American professional leagues (including the basketball NBA), has little to do with the spirit of sport. Once again, however, it is only a logical development of the current regulations of the Champions League, in which, after all, not only the champions of national competitions play already. The strongest and richest footballing countries have more guaranteed places for their teams and a shorter way into the qualifiers for the group stage than the smaller ones.
The Europa League, the poorer sister of the Champions League, is designed for the latter, it is a sort of consolation competition for the football peripheries.
The rich will win anyway
Of course, this concentration of football trophies and the resulting financial benefits in the hands of a few of the wealthiest clubs was justified by UEFA’s concern for the development of the sport across the continent. Similar rhetoric is now being used by the initiators of the Super League.
Andrea Agnelli of Juventus declared: “We want to increase solidarity and provide professionals, amateurs and fans with a top quality game that fuels a passion for football.” Joel Glazer of Manchester United has in turn said: “We will provide world-class competition, facilities and therefore increased support for the foundations of the football pyramid.”
The turbo-capitalist model of football, and its latest incarnation in its “super” version, is thus justified by an argument we are all familiar with from the arsenal of neoliberalism: the trickle-down theory. Making the richest richer is supposed to serve the poorer ones as well, because from time to time something will fall from the table (that is from the pitch) for those who can only experience elite games through a TV screen.
The creation of the Super League has one revolutionary feature. It is a declaration of independence from FIFA and UEFA, institutions whose mandate to organise football competitions has so far gone unchallenged. It resembles, to a large extent, the turbo-capitalist problem of the global economy with large corporations slipping out of the control of states and international institutions.
It is difficult to predict who will be victorious in this confrontation. Probably after a period of tug-of-war, threatening with consequences, and even after UEFA introduces some kind of sanctions against the clubs behind the Super League project, a compromise will be reached, which will still result in even greater privileges for the richest. Only such concessions will be able to protect the European federation from losing its monopoly on the organisation of competitions.
Against modern football
Is it possible to resist the turbo-capitalist colonisation of football? So far, the successes of the “alter-globalists” against modern football have been limited.
Fans attached to the social roots of sport, the communal role of clubs in local communities and the openness of stadium stands to all, regardless of their wallets, are winning only small battles. They take over existing teams, democratise the processes of their management, or create new ones, designed from scratch with a view to promoting an alternative model of operation to the business model (for example the Warsaw-based AKS Zły).
However, these are only attempts to find gaps in the system, not systemic changes. Such changes require curbing large international interests, which is impossible without an appropriate political force. Such attempts are made by the European Parliament, which through its reports, speeches, and the interventions of its members demands sanctioning of the European football model.
The proposed features of the EU football order are: a pyramid structure based on amateur football topped by professional competitions; a system of promotion and relegation rather than buying places in the league, as is the case in the US; curtailing the gap between the richest clubs and the rest; preserving the social character of football and preventing clubs from becoming corporations disconnected from local communities.
The rules laid down in Brussels and Strasbourg are therefore in conflict with those on which the Super League is to be based. Will this provoke a political reaction? And can politics have an impact on the shape of modern football, which has become an entertainment controlled by big business?
Perhaps more important than a political decision or the self-organisation of fans, football trends will be determined by… boredom. Yes, boredom. Is there anything more boring than watching the same teams of millionaires compete for twenty years? After all, the magic of football lies, among other things, in the fact that in no other sport there is such a high probability that David can beat Goliath. It is the sensational, unexpected results that constitute the history of football passed on from generation to generation. Hungarian Videoton Székesfehérvár’s performance in the 1985 UEFA Cup final is a far more exciting episode in history than another Barcelona, Juventus or Manchester City triumph.
The Champions League and Super League are commercial products, tailored for television and its audience. Meanwhile, nothing can replace the real emotions experienced in the stadium. And these can only be provided by local teams.
The answer to the TV-turbo-capitalist globalisation of football may be a return to locality. Especially since the development of social media and video technology allows you to follow the lower domestic leagues without any hassle, also in Poland. The days of waiting for the Monday paper to check the result of a game of a fourth division team from your home town are long gone. Today you can watch the match live on the Internet. And – once we are done with Covid-19 – you can go on the following weekend to your local stadium to meet friends or make new ones. Highly recommended!