In 1969, a football match between the national teams of El Salvador and Honduras sparked a four-day military conflict among the teams’ respective governments. Bilateral tensions had been simmering for some time and a hotly contested World Cup qualifier precipitated fighting that left thousands dead. Ever after, this conflict became known as the Football War and stands testament to the unquestionable influence of the sport on politics, identity, and society. In 2021, a new conflict inspired by football is taking place, this time not over territory, but for the soul of the game itself.
In April, twelve of Europe’s elite clubs announced the formation of a new European Super League (ESL) that would have dwarfed all existing leagues in terms of wealth and exposure. This sparked outrage across the sport, with major fans’ protests held at Chelsea FC and elsewhere, while governing bodies of the sport like UEFA prepared sanctions for clubs taking part. Eventually the proposal collapsed under the weight of this pressure. Nevertheless, even following the ESL’s failure, demonstrations continued such was the level of anger, with a match between Manchester United and Liverpool having to be abandoned as fans invaded the pitch.
For those who do not follow football, this may seem a trivial issue, irrelevant at a time when there are many more pressing problems like inequality, economic disempowerment, and wilting democracy. Yet these issues are at the heart of the anger felt towards the ESL, which is only the latest symptom of the huge democratic deficit in the world’s most popular and lucrative sport; between the fans who give their loyalty to their club and the owners who give theirs to their bank balance.
Modern football was born in Britain’s industrial heartlands during the late-19th century. It had previously been the reserve of gentlemanly amateurs, but the sport increasingly became popular as an escape for overworked factory labourers suffering under the unregulated conditions of 19th-century capitalism. A final break from the aristocratic amateur culture came with the professionalisation of the sport, whereby the factory workers who became the stars of their day were allowed to be paid, albeit modestly, by their clubs, to support themselves and compensate the loss of earnings they incurred by playing. From these humble origins, football spread to become the world’s most popular sport in the 20th-century. Yet for the majority of its life, despite its successes, football never lost its working-class and democratic roots. Clubs remained tied to their local communities. The majority of players and supporters came from everyday walks of life, and many of the players never earned enough to be able to retire upon completing their careers. My own ancestor, Norman Smith, a stalwart of Charlton Athletic in the 1930s, sometimes went without pay while taking his club to league success.
Something began to change in the 1990s, however. Football became a product in the newly globalised economy. The English Premier League, which attracted new-found riches through lucrative TV-rights deals, inspired a new type of success that meant money could transform middle-ranking clubs into global powerhouses, which could then accrue even greater wealth for their owners. With this, came a new type of owner, one who runs a club as a business.
As money became the decisive voice in the game, left behind were the supporters. Owners who are universally reviled by their club’s fans are able to stay in post despite their unpopularity. Newcastle United, an English club with a large fanbase, have for years been run by a detested owner who has exploited the club as an advertising mechanism for his company and the lack of voice given to fans has led a group of them to attempt to buy back some of the club and place it into fan-ownership. Their mission is folly; they can never match the riches of the owner; but their anger highlights what is central to the problems within the game: an undemocratic culture. Many things are wrong with the game, but fans are unable to take action in a sport that priorities money. The ESL was just the latest extension of the pattern, as it aimed to promote already rich clubs over national leagues and televised exposure rather than real participation at games.
This is not to idealise the history of the game, however. There have always been callous owners and corruption. But the fans’ ability to do something about either issue seems more restricted than ever before given the unequal distribution of wealth. Furthermore, the ESL was announced at a time when two of football’s most serious problems, racism and the unequal position of the women’s game, are only just beginning to receive due attention from the footballing authorities. In a sport where racism is highly visible, among both supporters and professionals, and women’s football is still unfairly underdeveloped and financially undernourished, to announce a new elite competition sent the wrong signal about the level of priority these issues hold within the sport and the ESL would have in fact diverted resources away from the development of European competitions for women’s football.
What can be done to fix football’s democratic deficit? First, a mandatory quota of fans on clubs’ boards and those of international confederations. Second, a minimum percentage of clubs’ shares should be in fan ownership. Something similar is familiar to German football fans to ensure consensual decision making, with the majority of shares at clubs in the hands of supporters (with a few exceptions). This would prevent ownership changes being made without a say from the fans. The unregulated manner in which clubs can be bought and sold in Britain has led to the complete breakdown of clubs, a process which the pandemic has only accelerated. Bury FC was famously run into the ground by its incompetent owners.
The infrastructure which supports provincial clubs like Bury, whose homes are often small, economically struggling towns, are vital to the wider well-being of the urban areas football clubs are located in. With fans on boards, the prosperity of their local communities could be defended and kept in the equation, rather than disregarded by owners who have no connection to the place. And in the bigger picture, the ease with which large, multi-million pound assets such as football clubs can be purchased and misrun, reflects a larger problem whereby international moguls can acquire national assets, like housing, with little regard for people’s economic well-being and the national security of the countries where they invest.
Some of football’s greatest clubs have seriously damaged their relationships with supporters through their part in the ESL saga. It has forced all of those committed to the sport to take stock of the state of the game and realise that it is not healthy. Hopefully, this can be a formative moment for football, one where the sport decides to finally get its whole house in order. Because, disruptive and painful as the ESL announcement was, as former player and anti-racism campaigner Clinton Morrison has said, it is regretful that the ESL prompted a greater level of action than the many calls to tackle racism in the game. If clubs and governing bodies can work together to defeat the ESL, why not the same for eliminating racism in football? Perhaps the energy present within the sport now can be redirected in constructive directions towards solving the sport’s problems.