Last week some ordinary people who love the game made a stand against the football tycoons and not only won, they wiped the floor with them. So what was that all about?
Football fans often grumble about greed and commercialisation, most notably in relation to the pie prices. But now we’ve cooled down a bit after this travesty of a mockery we can ask: what next for football and the Super League?
With the sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance of the proposed European Super League we experienced a moment of horror and hilarity football had never seen. I was about to start a football podcast that week too but found myself lacking the stomach for it – and lacking stomach is not something I am usually known for.
Despite my nausea, despite being done with Chelsea, the club I supported since I was five years old (how could they have signed up to this abomination?) and most significantly, despite being done with football, I was still willing. But had to wait.
As it became evident that football fans everywhere were not having it, and England had, according to the European press “saved football” with Chelsea fans in particular, after a wild protest on the Fulham Road, cast as the unlikely heroes, a dark cloud seemed to lift. The forcing of the six English clubs into a U-turn even Marcus Rashford couldn’t have seen coming was now (rather urgently) worth unpacking.
Starting a podcast now is not the most original idea, I know. I am officially the last person in the world to do one. Bill Gates even sent me a congratulatory telegram. My guests on the first ever episode had to be respected voices in the game, and none more so than Patrick Barclay, a football journalist of some renown and Pat Nevin, who having thrilled Chelsea fans on the wing in the mid-1980s, is now the thinking fans’ TV pundit. Together we lined up some possible solutions.
Having a regulator. We don’t have one and there’s never been an Ofcom equivalent in football. When there’s so much money in the game, I imagine the last thing they want is someone to control them. Having a regulator to owners of football clubs is like being in a sweet shop: when they put a quarter pound bag of lemon sherbets on the counter to pay up, it’s the regulator who notices 32kg of pick & mix stuffed in their under pants. But having a regulator would be going against the current tide. Brexit is taking deregulation in the financial sector to a new level. But that’s another matter.
Until the early 1980s gate receipts at football matches were shared. These days that only happens in the FA Cup when so called "minnows" celebrate when they’re drawn away to a big club. Back in the day if a smaller team like Coventry City played a bigger team in the first division like Man Utd at Old Trafford they used to get half the money. For years this kept a semblance of equality. And it worked, which is why over an eleven-year period between 1967 and 1978 eight different teams won the English football league.
A regulator would have a remit to even things out financially between the clubs again. Personally, I’d like to see Cristiano Ronaldo at Norwich City next season. Not only would it be a pleasure to see the East Anglians challenge for the title, it would be hilarious.
Many people are in debt and live in the hope that one day a kind benefactor will wipe away these debts in one fell swoop. But how much debt is too much debt? At its core the Super League was not really about greed, it was driven by panic and desperation.
Real Madrid and Barcelona are two of the most successful teams in the world, yet both are currently hundreds of millions in debt. The share of the €3.5bn in their coffers courtesy of JP Morgan bank would not only have cleared the debt, it would have guaranteed short term domination and allow them to continue to buy the best players in the world. But no team has a God-given right to be dominant every single year.
Last week it was as if football fans were screaming at them: “Live within your means! If you’re not top dog for a while, then so be it!”
After all, what is the point of money in football? It’s supposed to go back into the game to develop the younger generation of players, not into the pockets of billionaires. If the governing bodies Fifa and Uefa, who still distribute money down (not as much as they could but they still distribute) are seen by some quarters as the “vampires of football” then what on earth do Man Utd fans call the owners of their club, the Glazers?
Their takeover of the club has reportedly taken £1bn out of Manchester United. Gary Neville came up with a pithy term which he uses publicly and repeatedly to describe the Glazers: “scavengers”. And I suspect he’s holding back.
Ownership in football is not always clear, to the owner or to the fans who by and large expect those who buy the club to have the same love for the team as they do. Fans want the owners of their clubs to be custodians, trustees of a legacy. Do owners see this? Sometimes they do. I was delighted when Roman Abramovich publicly backed a policy to bring ex-players back on match days to mingle with the fans. But could owning a football club be similar to owning a grade I listed building?
When purchasing such a property in this country apparently you are legally bound to prove that you’ll maintain its integrity to an expected standard. As people are searching for ways to articulate why football fans felt so offended by these owners and their chief executives (some of whom have now resigned) maybe there needs to be a new category for football clubs, a new position somewhere between a publicly listed company and a grade I listed building, with specific rules on how to run it?
For now, the Super League is over. But the masterminds of the project say it’s “on hold”. I worry that it’ll come back again in a new guise, like how the poll tax came back after nationwide riots against it. No one thinks twice now about paying the council tax, the exact same tax, just rebranded. Ditto when Jif became Cif and Marathon bars became Snickers bars. So it would not be a surprise if they tried again.
It’s been suggested that salary caps are the way forward; I’m not sure, but there’s a good argument for it. Things done solely for money sometimes work, but as music producer Quincy Jones once famously said “God walks out of the room when you do music for money.”
Those who achieve true greatness are never motivated by money. Surely as the first lovers of the game footballers would be happy taking a maximum wage which they could work towards in the full knowledge that the excess money (and there’s a lot of it) filters down to grass roots rather than up into the outside business interests of owners.
But the most extraordinary thing, and I don’t think we’ve properly digested it, is this: working people, the average everyday football fan, spoke truth to power and told billionaires what they can and cannot do. Just think of the recognisable protests where little came afterwards – like the near-million anti-Brexit march, or Greenham Common, Or CND. Or the global anti-war demonstrations in 800 cities of 15 Feb 2003.
This time the sudden protest, the speaking out, the social media outrage, all of it, worked. People stood together against outrageous wealth and they won. The billionaires listened, they retracted the Super League and in an unprecedented move, actually apologised.
As a paradigm shift this was huge. I suspect people in some quarters would prefer we don’t dwell on it for too long. After all, there’s nothing more dangerous than allowing ordinary people believing they have power to change things.
True and lasting power rests with the fans. It always has, and always will. Only we can ensure that values and wealth go hand in hand. Because ultimately power must be about empowerment of others rather than individuals just seizing power for themselves. Fans need to be aware of this and use this newly found superpower wisely. Only when this happens, we can look back at the Super League moment as a real game changer.
Omid Djalili’s podcast ‘What Was That All About?’ is available now on Acast