21 April 2021
Dave Kellaway reports on capitalism's failed latest attack on the beautiful game and why sport needs to be democratised and wrestled from the hands of the rich
1. Why it collapsed within 48 hours
JP Morgan the main bank financing the project has displayed extraordinary incompetence and arrogance. These ‘masters of the universe’ with stratospheric salaries seemed to have done little preliminary research of analysis. They made a series of wrong assumptions that:
‘solidarity’ money that the ESL gravy train would recycle to smaller clubs would be enough to buy off or neutralise any opposition.
the government, media and club managers in the key country, Britian, which had six clubs in the project, would not be a problem.
fans wouild not be a factor in the equation of public opinion.
the football governing bodies might shout a bit but that they would be convinced after some concessions were offered to them.
announcing the whole project without any consultation would be a gambit leading to a serious negotiation.
When you are setting up a cartel in a capitalist market you also have to make sure the competition is destroyed, neutralised or bought off. This was not done. There is also a cultural or ideological aspect to any market. A few decades ago Ratners, the high street jewellers, collapsed when its managing director sneered at its customers by saying that they were making money by selling crap. Press reports suggest that the American owners were the driving force behind the project. They clearly did not understand the residual mass working class identity with their local football clubs. Nor did they consider that the players who make the whole sport possible might not be bought off by the increased rewards that the ESL would provide for the elite group.
2. The football status quo is not a lot better than the ESL
Amid the hullabaloo we have seen the media, politicians and some fans counter pose the British game as some sort of paragon of footballing moral values. This ignores the way that the establishment of the Premier League also followed the logic of capital concentration with the big clubs successfully gobbling up a bigger slice of the TV revenue. Rocketing ticket prices which puts the game outside the reach of poorer sections of the working class and the shrivelling of free to air TV broadcasts are not exactly ways to encourage mass engagement with the sport. Effective opportunity for smaller clubs to break into the elite is closed off unless your club can attract global corporate capital. Enlisting your local businessman who is a lifelong fan just won’t cut it. The notion of sporting jeopardy that has been thrown around – the right to lose – is pretty illusory at least in the top two levels. Clubs do not have anything like even the limited democratic input of fans that we see in Germany. Obviously fan opinion does count and cannot be ignored, particularly when they stop coming to matches if they are dissatisfied with the management.
3. Fan mobilisations are positive
Thousands of fans have taken to the streets over the past two days. Their placards have focussed on the greed of the owners who are ‘taking football away from’ them. One that summed up the particular masochistic culture of the fan was ‘I want the right to see Stoke on a wet Friday night’. It expresses a sense in which certain experiences cannot be decided or controlled by the fat cats who own the big clubs. There is a clumsily articulated democratic impulsion in all this, that somehow fans should have a bigger say in how the game is run. Yes it is contradictory. Fans at the big clubs do not complain when their Arab oil billionaires buy them the best players. An element of anti-US, anti-European feeling was apparent in the mobilisations too - our game is being taken away by the Yanks and Europeans.
4. Johnson and the Tories played a blinder
From the get-go Johnson saw an opportunity to head up an opposition to this European project. He correctly saw an easy win and a way to present himself as right down with the new Tory proletarian voters in the Red Wall towns. Crisis meetings were organised with the football authorities, fans organisations were acknowledged and a hitherto unseen passion for the national game was paraded. New legislation was waved aggressively at the beastly European Super League. A previously announced fan review was hastily re-launched. Such an obvious vote winner was a good price to be paid for presumably ruffling relations between the Tory party and a big friendly bank like JP Morgan. Labour has been pushed onto the back foot although it does not help that they do not have a radical alternative programme for the football industry. In any case the media outside of elections tends not to give equal time to the opposition on daily topics of interest.
5. Capitalist ownership works against democratic control or accountability
It is not just football where workers or consumers have little chance of accountability and much less any control. Football is as good a place as any to raise these questions. Who is the sport for? Who decides and why? Can there be a different model? Even short of a system change can we raise and win demands that make the game more accountable and give some control to fans? A successful campaign here can lead to consciousness being raised about how capitalist business generally is incompatible with a thoroughgoing democracy that goes beyond the democratic rights of voting and organising politically. Just take the ecological question. Many of the devastating consequences of business activity for the environment is not even considered to be part of a company’s responsibility because it does not have a definition in a legal system based on private property relation, for example. So car companies are legally free of the effects of car pollution on people’s health in the big cities. Labour and the movement generally should take up these questions, both for football and all sectors of the economy.
Dave Kellaway is a supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Socialist Resistance, Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.