At our editorial meeting on 19 April, we discussed the putative European Super League (ESL) and whether we should publish a long magazine story about it. We chose not to because we expected it to collapse, but not within 48 hours! Premier League football is already one of the purest manifestations we have of let-it-rip, free-market, winner-takes-all globalisation, and the ESL, which would have operated as a cartel for the wealthiest, was the modern game taken to its logical conclusion. Most leading English clubs are foreign-owned, the playthings of speculators and asset strippers, and the Premier League is a hyper-meritocracy. “In the vote England made for Brexit, I read personally a desire for people to gain back their sovereignty,” said Arsène Wenger, the former Arsenal manager. “But it’s funny because nobody spoke about football, which has lost completely sovereignty on its own decisions.”
Not completely, Monsieur Wenger – as last week’s events revealed.
What this tawdry episode reaffirmed was that English football clubs are more than businesses, franchises or brands, and the government is correct to explore ways of reforming how they are owned and operated. Football was invented and codified in England and the clubs grew out of their local communities, and even today, when most of the owners, the coaches and the players are foreign, they serve as vessels of continuity across the generations. “When you start supporting a football club,” Dennis Bergkamp, the great former Arsenal player, once said, “you don’t support it because of the trophies, or a player, or history. You support it because you found yourself somewhere there; found a place where you belong.”
Fandom can be irrational, enraging and even absurd. But football allegiance matters deeply to many millions of people, as the passionate response to the ESL revealed; the Prime Minister and the future king were stirred into action against it, after all, sensing an opportunity to catch the public mood. Fandom is a marker of identity and belonging, as Bergkamp recognised, to a cause and an institution over which you have no control, but to which you feel a deep sense of loyalty and attachment.
I was sympathetic to the opponents of the new breakaway league but there was a lot of performative outrage against it all the same, especially from those who benefit from the status quo, such as Uefa and sports broadcasters and the pundits who work for them. Top-flight football long ago ceased to be the people’s game. Today it is played for and controlled by the broadcasters, and Uefa’s club competitions are already rigged in favour of the super-clubs. Uefa’s latest proposal for the revamped Champions League is simply to make it bigger: more games, more money!
Foreign ownership of a football club is not intrinsically a bad thing, of course. Try telling the fans of Leeds United – a club rejuvenated under the on-field guidance of the remarkable Marcelo Bielsa and the off-field leadership of Victor Orta and Andrea Radrizzani – that the people who own and run their club serve only their own interests. What’s most important is the culture of a club, how it operates, how it recruits and nurtures talent, how it responds to the local community, and how it treats those who matter most, the fans.
Keir Starmer and Labour are rightly agitated about events inside Boris Johnson’s Downing Street court of clercs and sense they have another opportunity to remind voters of how sleazy the Tories can be. But as usual Labour is missing the bigger picture. The Conservatives keep winning because of their shape-shifting pragmatism. Johnson is by instinct a rampant free marketeer, but he also likes spending a lot of money, investing in grand infrastructure projects, and he loves to be loved. Above all, he isn’t an ideologue and he entered politics not to slash taxes and reduce the size of the state, but because he found it exciting, narcissistically craved attention and sensed he might one day become prime minister. The story of Johnson’s life, sadly, is that he ultimately gets what he wants, and Labour has never really understood why this should be.
The Prime Minister’s response to the ESL – he threatened to drop a “legislative bomb” to blow it up – was significant because it confirmed the Conservatives’ communitarian turn. The desire to “level up” is more than a slogan. Despite the presence of “Britannia Unchained” ideologues such as Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng and Dominic Raab in the cabinet, the party has moved on from Cameroon right-liberalism and is becoming a strange hybrid as it seeks to solidify its support in Labour’s former Red Wall fortresses. There is some interesting thinking happening on the fringes of the party – note the work of Will Tanner at the Onward think tank or Danny Kruger’s New Social Covenant Unit, a group of post- liberal thinkers from left and right who dislike the destructive effects of market capitalism and seek to dignify community life – and Labour should be alert to it.
My sense is that, because Labour has suffered a near-extinction event in Scotland and is losing in its old heartlands, while having little chance of winning seats again in southern counties such as Essex, Hertfordshire and Kent, it has ceased to be a national election-winning party. Under a proportional voting system, Labour would split, and a reconfigured coalition of progressive parties would emerge. If it loses the Hartlepool by-election on 6 May, a constituency it has held since it was created (Peter Mandelson was once its MP, which tells us all we need to know about how Labour has used these former heartland seats), the crisis will be deeper than perhaps even Starmer imagined.
This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas