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Arsenal v Manchester United, Champions League 2009

Arsenal v Manchester United, Champions League 2009. Photo: T&L / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The proposed ESL is an attempt to funnel the most profits to the fewest at the expense of the many, argues Martin Hall

There have been many bad proposals in football over the years but perhaps none so terrible as the European Super League, which has been roundly condemned by almost everyone in the game bar the clubs who have signed up to it.

What has happened?

The so-called ‘big six’ of English football – Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea – have signed up to a new European competition, along with three clubs each from Spain and Italy. Three further clubs are expected to join, with a midweek competition expected to ‘commence as soon as practicable’. As well as the 15 permanent members, 5 would qualify each year. Memoranda of Understanding have been signed and J. P. Morgan is underwriting it.

Why is this a problem?

  • It would destroy domestic leagues and remove the principle of competition based on promotion and relegation
  • It would entrench wealth in the biggest clubs and provide no way for other clubs to catch up, creating an effective monopoly at the top
  • It would sever the link, already severely weakened since the Premier League ratcheted the money up, between clubs and the communities that they serve
  • Given fans are unlikely to shell out to go to weekly games abroad, it would take football another step further to being a sport entirely predicated upon its television audience, with the members renegotiating global broadcast deals

In this context, the long-term trend of mostly working-class football fans feeling frustrated and ripped off by billionaire owners, which has taken the form of protests (such as those against Mike Ashley at Newcastle Utd) and frustration expressed on social media fan channels of the clubs involved in the proposed ESL will only worsen. It is already the case that ticket prices have priced many out of watching their local team.  A 2017 report put 5 of the Premier League 'big six' in the top ten highest ticket prices in Europe. It is obvious that the clubs will charge even more if the ESL goes ahead.

UEFA has said it will ban players from any other competition, severely weakening the European club competitions, while FIFA has said it will not recognise it and may ban players who take part from international competition, which could then weaken the international game as well.

Why is this happening now?

Talk of a European super league has been around for at least two decades, but the last year of Covid, in which clubs managed to keep going without fans, though obviously with a loss of income, will have cemented the idea in the minds of those pushing it. I mean, why do you need troublesome fans when you can still make so much money at the top level without them? It is also attractive to clubs whose performances are not necessarily good enough to get them weekly European elite competition; of the six clubs who’ve signed up, only the Manchester clubs are guaranteed (effectively) Champions’ League participation next season. Leicester City and West Ham United are currently in the other two CL qualification spots.

Talks began with J. P. Morgan last October, with the idea being that the ESL would replace the Champions’ League (already a competition set up to favour the richest clubs and ensure repeated participation). UEFA tried to head this off at the pass by revamping the CL to 36 teams, but it’s been beaten to the punch. While it’s tempting to hope it’s just a fishing expedition, the clubs are clearly serious about it and an almighty row, which will no doubt end up in court, is erupting.

Some may derive hope from the lack of German or French involvement, as any super league would need Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Paris St. Germain in it. Munich have voiced their opposition repeatedly to the idea over the years and significantly, after Andrea Agnelli, chairman of Juventus, stood down as chair from the European Club Association (along with the members from the remaining 11 clubs), Bayern’s Karl-Heinz Rummenigge took on the role. There is cause for hope there.

Football has always been a product of the particular era and form of capitalism that is dominant. For example, during the post-war consensus, there was more equality between clubs. Since the explosion of the movement of capital in the neoliberal era, football has reflected that model, with fans turned from active participants in the culture around the game to consumers of football-related products. What happens to it if the team in your town can’t play the team in the next town anymore?

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