What can the European Super League teach us about monopoly capitalism?

The monopolisation of football is teaching workers all over again some of the lessons taught to us by Lenin over a century ago.

Proletarian writers

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Divided by traditional rivalries, patronised by self-important pundits and commentators, bombarded with false promises of reform or pessimistic warnings that nothing will change, football’s working-class supporters nevertheless understand that they are the real custodians of the game. The successful disruption of the European Super League, and the forced postponement of one of the biggest matches of the season, is a threat to the profit-hungry parasites selling out the game and a beacon of hope to everyone else.

Proletarian writers

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In a startling turn of events, football fans discovered on Sunday 18 April that Uefa (the body responsible for oversight of Europe’s national football associations) and Sky Sports – who together with BT are paying the English Premier League (EPL) £4.46bn to televise their football matches until 2022 – have actually been the good guys all along.

That’s the same Uefa whose former president Michael Platini was stood down by Fifa in 2015 over allegations of financial misconduct in relation to an unexplained £1.3m payment; the same Sky Sports that has spent three decades in monopolistic control of Premier League broadcast rights at extortionate cost to football fans. (Has competition in the market for subscription sports broadcasting benefited consumers? by Robert Butler and Patrick Massey, Journal of Sports Economics, 2018)

Sufficiently apocalyptic to cast this shower of corrupt egomaniacs and entitled fat-cats as the heroes of the hour was the sudden announcement on that Sunday evening of a breakaway European ‘Super League’. Twelve teams – including Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur – were already committed, unbeknownst to their managers, players or fans.

The new league was to be bankrolled to the tune of $5bn by JPMorgan Chase, with Florentino Perez (president of Real Madrid) as chairman. Andrea Agnelli of Juventus and the US owners of Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal were lined up to be vice-chairmen.

The two north London teams, Arsenal and Spurs, are currently outside the top six domestically and neither club has a history of success in Europe, but they and the other invited clubs do sit amongst the upper echelons of Forbes’ list of the most valuable football clubs (although a significant number of them are heavily ‘leveraged’ – ie, indebted). All the clubs were set to receive welcome payments of €200-300m each, and would have been protected from relegation within the league.

The move was described by one source as a pivot away from “legacy fans” (a euphemism for the clubs’ traditional support base) in pursuit of the “fans of the future” (a hypothesised global market hungry for superstar names). In the spirit of Wizzard’s I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day, Europe’s (financially) elite teams would face one another week in, week out, from here to eternity.

This heralds an era predicted by investigative journalist David Conn back in 1997: “A European super league will come in at some stage. This will not be because any supporter wants it; indeed, the majority are probably against it, preferring the parochial rivalries built up over a century, with European competition a knock-out treat.

“The super league will come in because the television revenues to the clubs from such a competition will be Europe-wide, not restricted to the ‘domestic market’. In other words, it will make very much more money for the few clubs which go into it and as individuals and PLCs they will be unable to turn the money down. The rich clubs will get richer.” (D Conn, The Football Business: Fair Game in the 90s?, 1998, p291)

Justified backlash from the fans

Cue scenes of the end times.

Liverpool fans burned the team shirt outside their match with Leeds the following night (19 April). Chelsea fans took to the streets outside Stamford Bridge on 20 April. Man United fans broke into the team’s training ground on 22 April to protest against the club’s ownership and ‘stormed’ (strolled around) the pitch at Old Trafford on 2 May, forcing the postponement of the scheduled match against Liverpool.

The gist of the visceral response felt by fans across England and Europe was captured by a statement from Liverpool supporters’ group Spirit of Shankly. Its authors cited three main themes that characterise the feeling among all supporters: disgust at seeking profit by reducing competition; shock at the attack on working-class values and history associated with club football; and a sense of shame and betrayal at the underhanded way in which the plans were sprung.

The Spirit of Shankly group is named after former Liverpool manager and semi-deity Bill Shankly, a man associated more than any other with the values felt to be under attack:

“I’m a socialist, though I do not have any great faith in any of the political parties. The socialism I believe in … is a way of living, it is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day.” (B Shankly, Shankly: My Story, 1976)

This goes some way toward articulating an attitude that so many football fans – including Shankly’s own grandson – feel has been betrayed by the attempt to create a ringfenced new league.

Despite the shock of the announcement, however, this is hollowing out has been going on for decades, and goes beyond any plan for a European super league, concurrent with the same hollowing out of the NHS and the rest of Britain’s public services.

Decades of the commercialisation of football

First, there was the end of the non-profit ownership model for FA teams, which had previously prevented clubs from being exploited as tradeable, speculative companies, restricted dividends to five pence a year (five percent of the £1 value of each share), and limited clubs to only one paid director.

Then, in 1992, came the creation of the Premier League out of the old first division, and the transformation of the European Cup into the Champion’s League: “Sport, it was clear to BSkyB executives, was the only kind of television that could bring in enough of an audience to give Sky a hope of survival.” (The Football Business, p20)

This paved the way for the global corporate takeover by American sports billionaires, Russian oligarchs, Arab oil … and Mike Ashley. There was the Bosman ruling at the European Court of Justice in 1995, and extortionate ticket pricing. This is the historical context of the current reignition of anger in the wake of the super league announcement.

Some of the demands are myopic (‘Heads must roll!’, although everyone knows that similar heads will only roll into their place), and there is a desperate faith in the ability of our institutions to listen and to legislate against the power of monopoly capital.

Traditional rivalries between groups of supporters mean that solidarity has hitherto been difficult to come by. But this is an evocative and visceral lesson that we as a class must learn and learn again about all that we have built and all that we hold dear – none of it is sacred so long as capitalism exists.

The small but genuine successes that have been achieved by football fans so far – in pushing back against the super league; in forcing the postponement of a crucial end-of-season match – mean that the time is ripe to join the dots: to make it clear that what ails us is not limited to football alone, and will not be solved by a changing of the guard or some patchwork legislation designed to quell our anger for another few years.

What ails us is the entire system of production for profit itself. Community belongings like the football club and the health service are subject to the logic and the whim of finance capital.

VI Lenin described this phenomenon more than a century ago. “Capitalism only became capitalist imperialism at a definite and very high stage of its development, when certain of its fundamental characteristics began to change into their opposites … the main thing in this process is the displacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly …

“Monopoly is the exact opposite of free competition, but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our eyes … carrying concentration of production and capital to the point where out of it has grown and is growing monopoly: cartels, syndicates and trusts, and merging with them, the capital of a dozen or so banks, which manipulate thousands of millions.” (VI Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Chapter 7, 1916)

The hypocritical corporate backlash

It was Gary Neville, former Manchester United defender turned highly-visible pundit for Sky Sports, who emerged as the vanguard of the revolution. Describing the owners of the invited clubs as “impostors” committing a “criminal act against football fans”, he reserved particular ire for Liverpool and Manchester United.

These teams he attacked for their pretensions of working-class origins, history and culture: Liverpool paints itself as the “people’s club … the fans’ club” whose anthem is ‘You’ll never walk alone’; United are “one hundred years born out of workers”. These are the same teams now seeking to ringfence their profits by creating “a breakaway league without competition which they can’t be relegated from”.

This is the same Gary Neville who, in his other life as a Manchester property tycoon, has pushed perennially unpopular luxury developments – such as those at Castlefield – to gentrify the inner city at the expense of social housing. The same Gary Neville who, as a director of Zerum construction consultants, has helped other developers to game the Salford planning system in the same way, saving them millions of pounds in the process.

The same Gary Neville who, in 2014, along with several former teammates and in combination with the Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, took ownership of Salford City. The team, previously being run “from an industrial estate down in Pendlebury”, is now part of a global network of companies financed by Lim’s Incanto Investments – registered in the British Virgin Islands.

Fans of another club owned by Lim, Valencia CF, are currently protesting against his ownership in much the same way as United fans are up in arms about the Glazers (the US billionaires who own Manchester United). They are protests that began in 2017 and have, like those at United, reignited in recent weeks.

In Valencia’s case, the spark was an interview Lim gave to the Financial Times. In that interview, whilst lambasting the ESL (“it’s just purely [for big clubs to] survive, it doesn’t care about the fans”), he also stated his ownership of the club has been “incredibly good for networking”. Previously, his daughter had offered similar sentiments via her Instagram account: “Don’t they get it? The club is ours and we can do anything we want.”

This is the family that the ‘saviour of English football’ Gary Neville is mixed up with, in Salford and on the continent. Do we really think the Lim family care more for the fans of a League Two outfit than the parasitic Glazers care about the fans of their Premier League investment?

A similar case of the pot calling the kettle a slightly darker shade of black was the statement given by current Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin. He branded the renegades “snakes” and took time out from announcing his own further revamp of Uefa’s existing Champion’s League (UCL) to excoriate their “disgraceful, self-serving proposals” as “a closed shop run by a greedy select few … fuelled purely by greed above all else”.

Ceferin’s own plans, however, will see the Champion’s League cram even more matches into the schedule, almost doubling the number of games – maximising revenue by increasing the number of high-ranked teams playing one another early in the contest, and reducing risk for high-ranking teams by enabling entry to two teams who failed to qualify, based on their historic performance. (This latter revision was intended as a compromise to those teams who had been threatening to create their own ‘closed shop’.)

This may be the lesser of two evils, as Man City’s Ilkay Gundogan put it. But you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. As Super League chairman Florentino Perez argues that they were “just working on saving football, after this pandemic”, Lenin’s words remain relevant:

“Crises of every kind – economic crises most frequently, but not only these – in their turn increase very considerably the tendency towards concentration and towards monopoly.” (VI Lenin, Imperialism, Chapter 1)

The cunning plan that won’t go away

Within 48 hours, it had all collapsed. Clubs pulled out of the project one by one, faced with intractable opposition from their supporters. Self-flagellating videos were released by club owners promising penitently never to do it again.

Only Super League chairman Florentino Perez was left, like Monty Python’s black knight, insisting on 22 April that everything was quite alright: “It is not dead. We will keep working … We are almost all still in this, they have not left yet.”

Ridiculous as this might have seemed in light of the embarrassing U-turn that had just been forced on the six English clubs, the super league is an idea with a history, and, if the clearly cash-strapped owners have anything to do with it, a future too.

Perceptive observers have long realised that a European super league would be the ultimate consequence of the Premier League – itself created in the early 1990s by a cabal of TV execs and top-flight teams with pound signs in their eyes – combined with European competition under Uefa. In 2009, Arsene Wenger, then manager of Arsenal, warned:

“The way we are going financially is that even the money that will be coming in from the Champions League will not be enough for some clubs because they spend too much money. The income is basically owned by Uefa and they distribute the money to the clubs.”

The continual reformation of the Champions’ League since its creation in 1992 has dealt repeated blows to football across eastern Europe – to the benefit of the same rich western teams that recently saw fit to once again break away to a new league.

When the Champions League was created in 1992 it meant that “money flowed towards a select few clubs at the top of the English, Spanish and Italian leagues, and away from many of the historic centres of eastern European football”. (The fallen giants of eastern European football by Billy Crawford, These Football Times, 26 March 2018)

In 1997, the number of berths in the UCL for the richer western leagues was increased:

“Now that we are about to enter the first season of the Champions and Runners-Up League, Uefa scarcely bothers to pretend that the European competitions have not been restructured purely and simply to maximise the chances of teams from the wealthiest leagues winning everything.

“And what strange teams they’re becoming, too: polyglot collections of superstars who are beginning to resemble tennis players more than footballers as they traipse around the world playing tournaments here and there, always on the move from Madrid to Paris and Barcelona to Milan, with occasional stopovers in Newcastle or north London.”

In this way, the UCL has become “little more than a portentous name for an exclusive club for multimillion dollar businesses with football teams attached” and Uefa has made a mockery of its own mission “to promote football in a spirit of unity, solidarity, peace, understanding and fair play”. (Eastern promise?, When Saturday Comes, August 1997)

Little wonder that in that same year David Conn predicted that a super league would come to pass, “The future of football will follow the course of every ‘industry’ which has been subjected to the divisive acid of ‘market forces’ … The result is ‘consolidation’ …

“Football will continue to present itself as ‘entertainment’ and to take for granted its loyal adherents [‘legacy fans’], treating them as a ‘captive market’. Increasing numbers of people, consuming their football via Sky and its attendant gloss, will not support a club for the traditional reasons of family or where they live, and therefore stick with it, ‘in the blood’, all their lives …

“The same teams will constantly be on television, aggressively marketing themselves, through merchandise and publications, as the ‘brand’ of preference to all ‘customers’, wherever they live.” (The Football Business, p292)

But if we are tracing where the rot set in, we must go further back than this. How David Conn describes the conception of the Premier League – at a dinner held by Greg Dyke along with Martin Edwards, chief executive and major shareholder in Manchester United, Noel White and Peter Robinson from Liverpool, David Dein of Arsenal, and Irving Scholar, then chairman of Spurs – is sufficient to show that the ESL is by no means the death-knell for the domestic league. That bell sounded long ago.

“The fans … cannot do without football … If Sky could get hold of football exclusively, take it off terrestrial television, football supporters would then have no choice but to fork out for a dish and a subscription.

“Sky came to see football supporters as a ‘captive market’, just about the only group in Britain who could be made to pay to watch television. Greg Dyke … knew this very well, and had foreseen that satellite, fighting for its life, would try to pay the top football clubs enough for them to agree to take the game off free television.

“Dyke made it clear to them he was only interested in showing the top clubs. ‘We believed we could get a better deal from the big clubs only,’ explains Dyke. Irving Scholar recalls that … if the top clubs could break away, it was obvious there was going to be plenty of cash for them: ‘Even if we only got the same money as 1988, we would each get more because, after breaking away, we would not be sharing the money out with the other, smaller football clubs’.

“The big clubs … sent David Dein and Noel White ‘for a quiet word’ with the Football Association, to see if the FA would back their plan … The FA, to its shame, betraying its historic role as regulator, controller of commercialism for the wider good of football, was to put its name to the breakaway, which would make a fortune for the owners of the big clubs and open up enormous inequality in football.

“The Big Five were to carve the television money up between them, no longer to have to share it, as they had always previously done, with the other professional clubs.” (The Football Business, p20)

Not a matter of life and death

VI Lenin described imperialism as “the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries”. This was a process we saw in microcosm as the monopolisation of football continued apace over the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Football is a sport that has given us narratives of hope and struggle that form the backdrop to our lives – built from cooperation, discipline, individual effort and collective success. These are the values that Bill Shankly articulated and that supporters, players and managers want to realise. They are socialist values.

When those values are found sorely lacking; when the comfortable weekly and season-long rhythms that football provides are disrupted and face existential threat from financial tectonic shifts driven by men with no love for the game and certainly none for the average punter, it dawns on us that something quite the opposite is going on:

“Everything becomes saleable and buyable. The circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as a gold-crystal. Not even are the bones of saints … able to withstand this alchemy.” (K Marx, Capital Vol I, Chapter 3, 1867)

The visceral reaction to this understanding is what sends fans onto the pitch and into protest, driven to assert their moral ownership of their clubs and of their game.

So Uefa and Sky Sports will hypocritically demand reform and Boris Johnson will pat himself on the back for promising to drop a “legislative bomb” on the super league. But so long as sports minister Nigel Huddleston is calling even the 50-plus-1 system (a German model of fan involvement which is itself a roll-back of genuine communal ownership) “a quite draconian thing to force … on a private sector”, we have a government that, when it comes to legislative weaponry, is staunchly pacifist.

No reform of the FA, of Uefa, or of Fifa will return football to a golden age where it can remain untouched forever.

But the genuine impact that merely a light sprinkling of direct action has had – postponement of a crucial end-of-season match, the loss of a £200m sponsor contract – shows just how quickly the financiers run scared. While so many are seeking to lecture football fans on what they should and shouldn’t be doing, we should really be learning from them: from their passion and anger, and from their collective effort.

As fans struggle against the corrosive influence of finance capital on the sport, their fight must be connected with the broader struggle for socialism in Britain.

Only in this way can the position of football as a cultural expression of working-class communities be secured.