The European Super League is a Liberal Democrat issue

The news that six of England’s biggest (if not currently best) football clubs are intent on joining a so-called European Super League is dominating both back and front pages today, and rightly so. This is a story about football, but not just football: it drives home the point that excessive foreign ownership of many of our industries is not in the public interest, and illustrates the grotesque outcomes we get when we allow market and consumer logic to totally dominate the economy at the expense of citizen and community power. As such, this an issue on which the Liberal Democrats should have a very clear point of view, and a very loud voice.

As the late England Manager, Sir Bobby Robson said: “What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city.” Football is a crucial part of the fabric of British community and society. With well over a hundred years of history, clubs up and down the country host not just sporting endeavours, but community rituals, places where people young and old find themselves. At their best, these clubs are institutions through which thousands of people develop, exercise and express their identities in a constructive, locally rooted way that is in playful tension rather than aggressive conflict with others.

But this isn’t just about sentiment and tradition meeting change. As Gary Neville said yesterday, it’s about power, and though Neville didn’t express it that way, it’s an idea central to any attempt to build a more liberal Britain. It’s about who gets to own and control the institutions at the heart of our communities. And it’s about the purposes they should be expected to pursue beyond the naked greed of a few billionaires.

This is why this should be a heartland issue for the Liberal Democrats. At our best – as Paddy Ashdown, Jo Grimond, and Tony Greaves knew – we are the party of community, of participation, of decentralisation, of power in people’s hands. We are the party best placed to point out that, away from the awful nonsense of the ESL, something else has been happening in football in recent years, a powerful reclamation of power in the hands of fans – as exemplified by the founding of AFC (Affordable Football Club) Liverpool and FC United, by the transfer into community ownership of clubs like Bath City, by the surge in fan voice and organisation through Supporters’ Trusts and the growing influence of the football fan “union”, the Football Supporters Association.

As such, this moment is not just a footballing aberration. It is a moment that drives home the relevance of, and the need to build, a Citizens’ Britain in which more power is put in more people’s hands, not just in politics but in corporate boardrooms too. People and communities matter.

One of our greatest tasks as a party, to reclaim our relevance, is to kill off the aberration of neoliberalism, the idea that largely unconstrained markets and whatever makes most money is “liberal”. Our response to the European Super League is the perfect issue on which to do it.

* Ian Kearns is the Director of the Social Liberal Forum and Jon Alexander is a Council Member at the Social Liberal Forum.

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19 Comments

  • Adrian Sanders 19th Apr '21 - 1:40pm

    A very good piece, but I wonder if this Super League idea isn’t just a ruse to get Uefa & the national leagues to offer a bigger share of the existing cake to the elite clubs in order to stop it.

    Whether it is or not, it is not good news for those who see the elephant in the room continuing to be ignored. That is the significant gap between the elite Premiership clubs (and former clubs with their parachute payments) and the rest of the football league and professional/semi-pro teams outside of it.

    I’ll declare an interest here as I support a National League club formed in 1899 that is on target to rejoin the football league after a long gap having first joined in 1927. The club has a proud history, is firmly ingrained in its local community and from time to time becomes a major focus of interest and unity across the district when facing a crucial game, usually to avoid relegation! But the dream is kept alive that through merit and perhaps a little luck we might win the FA Cup or reach the Premiership one day.

    Sadly, there are three similar clubs that have gone bust in the last 12 months; Bury and Macclesfield in the football league; Dover in the national league. There are dozens more teetering on the edge who for just one weeks’ wage paid to any player of one of the six clubs wanting to breakaway might be assured of survival.

    The value of a local league or non-league team goes well beyond their immediate contribution to the local economy, while their loss can be felt across the whole of it. This is why a fairer distribution of the existing resources is so important and if a new super league has a more progressive distribution mechanism resulting in more funds for those clubs towards the bottom of the pyramid, it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but only if it allows for promotion and relegation and no guaranteed places.

    Perhaps our attention should focus more on the social and economic value of sport from the grass roots up and how the elites could do more to help it, super league or no super league.

  • George Thomas 19th Apr '21 - 2:11pm

    Please be mindful of potential traps when talking about this emotive issue: we can’t say it’s foreign owners when Daniel Levy of Spurs is one of the culprits here and it would be wrong to say the existing structure (Qatari money chasing, extreme ticket prices etc.) or alternative (elitism of wanting smaller nations qualify for chance to play England and b sides in cups etc.) is without issue.

    This about wealthy businessmen wanting their investment to become too big to fail no matter what risks they take and obtaining success based on who their friends are, ignoring needs/wishes of the wider community and feeling no responsibility for then, and wanting to exclude competing medium sized teams from building success on hard and smart work. There is a valuable political message in opposing such a structure and reason to point out our current Westminster government is a friend to much of this system regardless of what Boris’ team tweets today.

  • John Marriott 19th Apr '21 - 2:20pm

    “Some people think football is a matter of life or death. I assure you, it’s much more important than that”. When the late Bill Shankly spoke those words, while I suspect that even he might have had his tongue slightly in his cheek, I also think that he spoke the truth as far as football’s many fans were concerned. The football played back then, often on mud baths in winter even in the upper divisions, with spectator comfort generally nonexistent and with a ball whose weight has probably made a major contribution towards the alarming levels of dementia amongst former players we are only now just coming to terms with, was still the ‘working man’s game’. But not any more. Yes, it might still be the case at the grass roots and in the lower leagues; but even their young players can earn the sort of wages that many of their contemporaries could only dream of. As for those youngsters fortunate enough to play in the Premier League, well.

    One of the first questions an aspiring politician or ‘personality’ – and even a royal prince – feels obliged to be in a position to answer is “Which football team do you support?” I gather that the Duke of Cambridge, and David Cameron, for example, support Aston Villa. Goodness knows why! Our best friends support Sheffield Wednesday, although neither has ever to the best of my knowledge had anything to do with the city. I used to teach with a York City supporting colleague in my Lincoln comprehensive, who was proud of the fact that he attended virtually every match his team played, both home and away. Mind you, he was single at the time.

    Now that football, at least at the top level, has ceased to be purely a sport and become a global commodity, the last persons it appears to consider are its fans. Mind you, it might just need them now if this current madness is to be avoided. What it manifestly does NOT need is for politicians, established or aspiring, to jump on the bandwagon!

  • When I read this para in the article above, I immediately thought of our media industry.

    “This is a story about football, but not just football: it drives home the point that excessive foreign ownership of many of our industries is not in the public interest, and illustrates the grotesque outcomes we get when we allow market and consumer logic to totally dominate the economy at the expense of citizen and community power.”

    It has always seemed very unfortunate to me that a few wealthy individuals living abroad are able to have such an enormous influence on our political outcomes. I think of Murdoch – not even a British citizen as far as I know – who has had similar influence in the USA, Rothermere (Mail) reportedly based in France and the Berkeley Brothers (Telegraph) in the Channel Islands. Is this healthy for our democracy?

  • David Sheppard 19th Apr '21 - 10:14pm

    What a disgrace should never be allowed. Pure greed and big business does not understand that relegation and promotion is the reason fans love it. I’m a Baggie so well used to ups and Downs it’s what makes the sport and the clubs beloved. The fans of Stourbridge Fc dream of playing in the League and These big American ideas want putting back in the box we demand working class sport is left well alone Than you.

  • Should be easy enough for the government to kill this stone dead courtesy of taxes & visas.

  • It’s an attempt by the rich teams to bypass competition. Tottenham never win anything and Man U have been out off form for years. Basically, it’s sports gerrymandering . The FA should stand up to them, ban them from all domestic competitions, bar their players from all international football events and the fans should boycott them for even suggesting it.
    Having said that, I suspect it’s doomed to be a very costly failure. It reminds me of those attempts to kick start football in the US with big names coming to the end of their careers, crossed with sulky kid who threatens to take the bally away if they aren’t made captain.

  • Steve Trevethan 20th Apr '21 - 10:43am

    Might this matter cause us to consider/reconsider the concepts and language of the “Free Market”?
    Might this matter be an powerful example of the “Free To Market?
    Might any of the interferences with this be practical, if unstated, examples of the “Free From Market”?
    Might society benefit from our theorising upon and applying both (allegedly) “Free Markets”?

  • OK – I am sure that I should be up in arms about this as everyone tells me I should but I struggle to see where the problem is, But I am not a great football fan – I take an interest in how my local club is doing and watch the World Cup and European Cup and that’s about it so I am probably missing something.

    1. It is what the fans want
    2 It is naïve to say that there isn’t already a “super class” of clubs
    3. People and companies have the right to sell their labour, skills, services and goods for as much money as possible. We ask that they pay a fair whack in tax in return.
    4. Normally such proposals improve the sport involved (and indeed there is some compromise)

    1. It is what the fans want

    The clubs say that they will make money from this. This can be only from fans watching it. If the fans don’t want it, they won’t watch it and it will fail.

    2. There is already a “super class” of clubs

    It fairly naive to say that there isn’t – rightly or wrongly a cadre of clubs that already earn far more money than the rest – even in the same division. I haven’t checked but I guess that none of the British clubs involved have been out of the premier league/premiership since it was formed (or may be one for one year) – and mostly I suspect they have finished in the top half.

    3. People and companies have the right to sell their labour, skills, services and goods for as much money as possible. We ask that they pay a fair whack in tax in return.

    It is a bit like saying to J K Rowling – you made a lot of money from your books – I am sorry it will be too much to turn them into movies – although you want to and your fans want to watch them.

    4. Normally such proposals improve the sport involved (and indeed there is some compromise)

    I suspect that as @Adrian Sanders says this more a ruse – to bounce UEFA into doing more to revamp the European competitions.

    It reminders me a bit of the Kerry Packer break away in cricket. And the old fogies said that the innovations in cricket would change cricket for the worse. Well may be but the cricket of the 70s was the most boring thing on earth -and dying a slow death some pointless county match of Boycott blocking every ball. The innovations in the cricket format – such as the amazingly exciting super-over of the World Cup have re-invigorated it and even the old diehards would consider for the better.

  • Laurence Cox 20th Apr '21 - 10:51pm

    Two down, four to go; Chelsea and Man City have now announced their withdrawal from ESL. I will not be surprised if all the English clubs are out before the end of the week. Spurs and Arsenal are the two teams with most to gain from ESL because they don’t win anything, but even they won’t be able to hold out once ManU and Liverpool withdraw. Ed Woodward quitting as ManU executive vice-chairman is a clear indication he is the fall guy. while the Liverpool team all have publicly expressed their opposition to ESL.

  • LibDems adopted policy with respect to the governance of football in 2014 https://www.libdems.org.uk/f29_reclaiming_the_people_s_game
    that include:

    1. Measures to strengthen democracy, equality and representation within the governance of football.

    2. Measures to improve football administration, and;

    3. Measures to reform football finances.

  • It now seems that all 6 English clubs have pulled out of the proposed super-league’…

    I just hope that their ‘stunt’ won’t result in any concessions from English/European authorities..

  • John Marriott 21st Apr '21 - 11:44am

    With the latest capitulation, however temporary, to rework a pithy letter in today’s Guardian, one might say that the sh**s have been hit by the fans!

  • David Evershed 21st Apr '21 - 1:05pm

    It is market forces which have killed the Super League.

    Fans are the customers and customers can take their business elsewhere.

    Also fans are voters and exert influence on the politicians to pre empt the fans having to take their businesss elsewhere.

    Football team directors were out of touch with their market. The fans were never going to accept the Super League.

  • @ David Evershed “It is market forces which have killed the Super League”.

    I doubt that, but I don’t doubt market forces have something to do with the Mr Fixit Johnson/Dyson relationship and the Cameron/Greensill relationship.

    As for the English Premier League, it is a cartel based on the market forces of that well known liberal organisation Sky Television and all those nice gambling organisations that pray on juvenile machismo.

  • Barry Lofty 21st Apr '21 - 2:19pm

    Well said David, just about sums up where we stand at present!

  • John Peters 21st Apr '21 - 3:00pm

    Football fans everywhere can rejoice in Brexit. The deal would otherwise have gone ahead.

    https://www.politico.eu/article/juventus-chief-blames-brexit-for-super-league-collapse/

    Is complaining about the Dyson deal Lib Dem policy? I assumed they voted for the tax concessions when they came before Parliament.

  • David Evans 21st Apr '21 - 4:11pm

    John Marriott – very pithy, and very true.

  • David Evershed 21st Apr ’21 – 1:05pm…..It is market forces which have killed the Super League…….Fans are the customers and customers can take their business elsewhere……….

    Firstly it was ‘market forces’ that initiated the bid for a super league…

    Secondly, ‘fans are to customers’ what ‘addicts are to dealers’… Despite umpteen ‘revolts’ over club ownership the fans still keep coming and, BTW, top clubs make many times more money from TV and sponsorship than ‘bums on seats’..

    The threat of punitive financial regulation by government and the withdrawal from World CUp and internation games seems, at least to me, to have had more effect on the ‘money-men’ than disaffected fans…

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