Some of the reactions to the planned European Super League give the impression that money and profit are something new in football. Yet money, and arguments over money, are central to football’s history.
There were loud and emotional complaints that football was all about cash as early as the 1880s. The Victorian elite complained that the working classes were taking over the game, with players only interested in pay and fans only interested in winning. For them, the soul of their game was being destroyed.
For a century or so, the Football League operated a closed shop not dissimilar to the European Super League. It had no promotion or relegation until 1987 and instead elected new members. Since the election of a new member required expulsion of an existing club, this rarely happened in practice. Members looked after each other, to the cost of the wider game.
The owners of these clubs were usually local businessmen but they were often accused of only being interested in what football could do for them. Such accusations were not always fair but the idea that local ownership ensures clubs not being used to enrich owners is wrong.
The goal of keeping a lionshare of broadcast revenues is also in line with the recent history of English football. Although it did retain promotion/relegation, the central goal of the creation of the Premier League in 1992 was to ensure the top clubs got most of the money. It was never about fairness or equity.
Thus, in many ways, the creation of a European Super League is in line with the game’s history. This is not to deny that there have been changes in football, not least in the scale of money involved. Nor is it to deny how the Super League idea is a product of how the finances of football are changing. The Super League is a product of the falling importance in match-day revenues for the biggest clubs and the creation of fanbases that are international. Sponsorship deals and shirt sales are now about global television audiences, not the people who go to games.
These global audiences are not hostile to the idea of a Super League. Fans who watch English clubs outside the UK seem to want to see their team play the biggest other teams. Their support is real but it is not based on any sense of history or on belonging to the local and national communities that the clubs exist in.
They are thus not interested in watching, say, Manchester United play Burnley. For them, Burnley is not a place or part of a shared national and football heritage. It is not a cub they think of as being like their own. It is a small team with little meaning because no one they know supports Burnley and no one they have really heard of plays for Burnley.
But the European Super League is making a very significant mistake concentrating only on the market that such fans represent. The global audience for the Premier League is tuning in to not just watch a game of football but a spectacle. And central to that spectacle are the fans in the stadium.
Some of them will be supporters who have flown in for a rare chance to watch their club. Some will make a noise but others will be uncertain how to behave. They are there to observe more than to participate. They clearly care but they care in a different way to the bulk of the crowd, the season ticket holders who are there every week.
Many of these fans will be from that city or region. Those who are not, will still often have long family associations with the club. The club is not just part of their individual identity but their community and family identity too. Their emotional investment in the team is considerable. It runs far beyond football and is clearly visible at a match. Their chants and songs draw upon a shared sense of history and reference points. Their pain and joy are both real and deeply felt. Their love and anger feeds the spectacle and everything football represents.
These fans are of more than financial value to the clubs they follow. As the shut stadia of Covid has shown, games without fans present are often dull. This is not just about bums on seats. It’s about how the crowd behaves. Football needs the fans’ excitement. It needs their pain and joy, their songs and chants, their colour and sound. Fans in the stadium turn an exciting match on the pitch into something that seems to be about life itself. They turn a 0-0 into something still worth watching and being part of.
It is very clear that the vast majority of the match-attending fans do not want a Super League. They do care about their club playing Burnley and about the wider community their clubs are part of. Ignoring what they want is not just a betrayal of the lifetimes of emotional investment these fans have given. It will also endanger the very spectacle that the clubs are seeking to sell.
Parts of the Victorian elite thought football was destroyed by professionlism and large partisan crowds. Their game was not destroyed but it was reinvented. What was created in the late 19th century was a football culture dependent on money but not driven by it. It was a culture fed by loyalty, community, and family. What mattered was your team, not who they were playing. This culture still persists today. Its passion draws people from outside in. It is why millions outside the UK love the Premier League.
The European Super League will not destroy football but, unless the match-going fans buy into it, the football on offer, the product on offer, will be much poorer.