What Does the European Super League Furore Tell Us About Modern Capitalism?

The new league wasn't about sporting excellence - it was about solving a debt crisis.

by Aaron Bastani

21 April 2021

Football fans protest the proposed European Super League.
Tottenham fans protest against the European Super League. (REUTERS/Paul Childs)

It’s tempting to think the furore surrounding the proposed European Super League – which would have seen 12 of Europe’s leading clubs participate in a new ‘closed shop’ tournament designed solely to make them money – is a distraction from real politics.

Such a perspective was offered by Guido Fawkes, who compared the future of a domestic industry more than five times larger than fishing to the standoff between Aldi and Marks & Spencer over baked goods. “Caterpillar cakes and football super-leagues are the new bread and circuses. They become prominent because real political problems are too complex and tiring to contemplate.”

For all the affected world-weariness, such cynicism couldn’t be more wrong. The Super League and its rapid collapse reveal the key fault lines of politics and economics in the 21st century, from a clash of models – debt-leveraged finance trying to keep pace with fossil fuel potentates – to a newly assertive state, offering protection against the ravages of global capital in the name of place and identity.

Late last week it was announced that some of Europe’s leading clubs would create their own competition. Having failed to consult fans, players and the game’s most powerful associations that quickly fell apart, with the English clubs involved withdrawing first after a wave of protest. Soon after came Italy’s AC and Inter Milan, and Spain’s Atletico Madrid, leaving just three of the original twelve. On Wednesday morning Andrea Agnelli, the Juventus chairman, admitted that the project was no longer “up and running.”

However fleeting, the debacle highlights a rift within the ‘ruling class’ of football readily translatable to the wider economy. While each of the founding clubs was set to receive more than €200 million, it is no surprise that the competition’s prime movers were Florentino Perez and Joel Glazer. Both are in charge of clubs, Real Madrid and Manchester United, mired in debt and increasingly unable to compete with the newly arrived powers of Paris and Manchester City. With a model beholden to the stock market losing to one where shareholders are irrelevant, this deal always made the most sense for them. The Super League, for those clubs built on financialisation and debt, represented something of a bailout.

Thus the catalyst wasn’t the pursuit of sporting excellence, but a financial crisis among Europe’s leading clubs. Real Madrid presently possesses a net debt of €355m, a figure which rises to €488m for Barcelona and €520 million for Manchester United. It’s a similar story elsewhere, and from Atletico Madrid to Tottenham, the continent’s ‘giants’ face financial ruin if they fail to qualify for the Champions League. The proposed solution? Make that impossible.

The means to pay for all of this is strikingly reminiscent of how the Glazer family came to control Manchester United in 2005, a club which at the start of the 21st century was highly profitable and held no debt. Just as the loans Malcolm Glazer then accessed to buy the club were guaranteed against United’s own assets, JP Morgan was set to provide an ‘infrastructure loan’ of €3.25 billion secured against future broadcasting rights. With the debt-driven model the answer is always the same: more debt. The Glazers are debt addicts par excellence, and it should come as no surprise that Ed Woodward, United’s controversial chief executive, previously worked for the US banking giant.

So when Real Madrid chairman Florentino Perez said the Super League will “save football at this critical moment” he was half right in so much as it is the only means by which Barca, Real, Manchester United and other ‘elite’ clubs can continue to operate in the manner they presently do. More games mean more TV revenue, while the risk of failing to qualify for the most lucrative tournament in world football is removed. From an investment perspective, the proposal is almost too good to be true, completely detaching sporting performance from financial return.

Which explains why Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and PSG chose not to participate, while Chelsea and Manchester City were the first English clubs to break ranks. Both Bayern and Dortmund enjoy significant fan ownership, and their business model is stable in a manner unthinkable to most English fans. Meanwhile, PSG, City, and to a lesser extent Chelsea, have owners so immensely wealthy that they certainly aren’t desperate for the promise of the Super League in the way Real, United and Tottenham are. The money would be welcome, for sure, but they don’t need a get out of jail card.

When asked on Twitter what he thought of the proposal Alexei Lalas, the former US footballer replied “owners are trying to do what they think is best for their business. If they produce a better product than the existing competition in the market, then I’ll be a customer.” Putting aside the claim people support a team because they are the best ‘product’, such a statement is just plain wrong.

In English football, no team, other than Manchester United, was significantly profitable during the 1990s – even after the advent of the Premier League. In fact, the only teams that initially challenged the Manchester Club were Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United, both of which were owned by wealthy businessmen, Jack Walker and John Halls, who were happy to lose money to compete at the highest level. Call that what you like but it certainly wasn’t about profits, products and markets.

Sovereignty and the rise of the protective state. 

In the background to all of this is the issue of sovereignty, and the re-emergence of the state as something willing to discipline private enterprise rather than simply ‘get out of the way’.

Responding to the story Boris Johnson spoke of how: “These clubs, these names originate from famous towns and cities in our country. I don’t think it’s right that they should be dislocated from their home towns and cities and turned into international commodities and somehow circulate the planet”. That train left the station when Johnson was a cub reporter fabulating stories about Brussels largesse, but just as Brexit was about sovereignty, and the public wanting a measure of control over the institutions which matter to them, so too with the nation’s most popular sport.

Alongside the intervention from Johnson came a surprising missive from the Duke of Cambridge. “Now, more than ever”, William tweeted, “we must protect the entire football community – from the top level to the grassroots – and the values of competition and fairness at its core. I share the concerns of fans about the proposed Super League and the damage it risks causing to the game we love.”

While the future king was making a surprisingly overt criticism, the leaders of the two main parties were locked in a bidding war on how to bring football back to the people, with both Labour and the Tories considering fan ownership as one bulwark against billionaire ownership.

The state is back, and that is something the likes of Perez and Glazer failed to foresee. This was alluded to in last night’s statement by Manchester United which simply read: “Manchester United will not be participating in the European Super League. We have listened carefully to the reaction from our fans, the UK government and other key stakeholders.” Pushback from fans they no doubt expected, but the prime minister and leader of the opposition? Probably not.

Speaking on Monday Night Football, Manchester United’s Gary Neville called the Glazers “scavengers” who need “booting out of this football club, and booting out of this country”. The following night Graeme Souness went full Brexit proclaiming: “This isn’t America. This is a proper country with proper people.” The language of populism, both left and right, is becoming the idiom of everyday life. Meanwhile, the financial crisis at the top of European football isn’t going away and now, for the first time in decades, fans feel they can exert influence over the game they love.

The European Super League may have been short-lived but it captures much about the possibilities for politics over the rest of this decade. Ours is an age where dissent will emerge from the most unlikely of places, while politicians and governments involve themselves in ways unthinkable a decade ago. Above it all is a gilded elite increasingly unsure of its footing. It’s had everything its own way for a generation – nowhere more so than in football – but that has decisively changed.

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

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