April 19, 2021

There are many ironies to the plans for a European Super League. There is the inclusion of Arsenal, who have never won the Champions League, and on the day of the announcement stormed to a 1-1 draw with Fulham, cementing their position in ninth place in the Premier League. And Tottenham, who have never won the Champions League, never won the Premier League, and last lifted its predecessor, the First Division, in 1961. Or what about the exclusion of Leicester City — who won the Premier League in 2016 and have just qualified for the Final of the FA Cup — as well as Nottingham Forest, who have won the top European elite competition two times more than Arsenal and Spurs put together.

But the biggest irony is the attempt by a bunch of American owners to create a closed shop in European football. In the interest of money-making and in the name of laissez-faire capitalism, they want to drive competition out of European sport.

For those who never quite understood the motivations of the Glazers, John Henry or Stan Kroenke, the key is the parallel (or lack of parallel) between the Premier League and the way American sports operate. The American owners of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal have always dreamed of replicating American conditions on European soil — and thus replicating the riches of NFL and Major League Baseball owners. The Glazers have done very well out of their NFL franchise, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and John Henry out of the Boston Red Sox.

But American rules are very different from European ones. Professional sports leagues in North America operate with a fixed number of teams, known as franchises. The franchisees have territorial rights, usually covering a large metropolitan area exclusively. New teams may enter the competition only by a vote of current members. The leagues operate in a closed system and do not have to contend with the inconvenience of promotion or relegation. Very occasionally a league may decide to grow by admitting a new team, the last new team to join the NFL being the Houston Texans in 2002.

There is another fundamental difference between American sports and European football, and that is the way the transfer markets work. New players out of college in America are recruited through an annual draft. This is scrupulously fair, even egalitarian. The NFL draft is seven rounds long, with each team getting a pick in each round, in reverse order of the finish of that season. The worst team picks first, the second worst next and the champion picks last. But there is also a salary cap, which  places a limit on the amount of money a team can spend on salaries.

Although the original intention of this may have been to level the playing field, the effect has been to enrich the owners in a closed system where the surplus can only go to the owners or the players. The problem in Europe is that there is no cap on footballers’ salaries so that the players get to keep much more of the surplus. It also leads to a free-for-all in the transfer market, with new teams constantly vying to enter the top leagues and new owners trying to pour in money, which they can spend freely on transfers in order to buy success.

With precious few rules around ownership and suitability, the Premier League is a constant lure to questionable money, whether it be Middle Eastern sheiks or Russian kleptocrats, who know that with a big enough budget they can buy the top players and secure the prestige which comes with success. Cue Manchester City and Chelski, the parvenus of the Premier League.

The lack of entry barriers is not specific to Europe — there are plenty of new owners in the US, too. The difference is that in Europe, without any restrictions, owners with enough money can be almost assured of getting their hands on a trophy — and this is what brings us to the closed shop “Super League” proposed by the Group of Six. It is a protectionist money grab intended to ossify a momentary status quo in the interests of the current owners, preventing even richer club-owners from muscling in.

And of course it is much worse than that. Football clubs are not just capitalist enterprises. Indeed they should not be seen as capitalist enterprises at all.  The leading clubs have illustrious histories — some, like Liverpool and Manchester United, with more than a share of tragedy, redemption and heroism. Clubs have souls. They play in a certain way. Manchester United always have brilliant wingers, and the No 7 is a hallowed shirt. Great Liverpool teams are built on a bedrock of dominant central defenders.

Football clubs have their origins in working men’s clubs or factory teams, bringing together their local communities in shared support of their local side. In areas which have seen the downsides of globalisation, they are one of the last great symbols and anchors of local community, even if some have become global brands. They represent the sense of place. They enrich and unite their towns and cities. They give local pride.

This is no doubt why the German clubs have refused to take part. With its 50+1 model, the Bundesliga has created a much more balanced model for football club ownership, trying to achieve a balance between staying competitive financially while preserving the association with and respect for the local supporters.

It is no surprise that Boris Johnson came out so quickly against the Super League proposal. He may not be a football fan, but he understands intuitively that this is about much more than the game. It is about the ties that bind. It is also about the globalisation debate that defined Brexit. Unfortunately it may not be sufficient for the Prime Minister just to tweet on this.

I bear the scars of trying to challenge the Glazer takeover of Manchester United, through the Green and Gold campaign and the Red Knights. There is no way of regaining control of the club unless the owners want to sell, and the Glazers acquired control through a legitimate takeover process (albeit by saddling the club with huge debts). Private markets cannot rescue English clubs and it is fairly clear that the Premier League have no intention of challenging the current ownership model.

The only hope is that the latest proposal triggers a long-overdue review of football ownership rules in the UK, one that reconnects football clubs with their supporters, protects local communities and deters the predators from the other side of the Atlantic.