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20 April 2021

Why the European Super League is a defining political test for Boris Johnson

Whether the Prime Minister honours his rhetorical commitment to do “whatever it takes” will show if he really values new Tory voters.  

By Stephen Bush

If it weren’t for Arsenal Football Club, I might still be stuck in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport now. A little over a decade ago, my return flight from a fortnight with my grandfather in Zambia was redirected by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull. What began as a flight from Kenneth Kaunda International to Heathrow with two stops, one in Kenya and one in Amsterdam, became a flight with one – indefinite – layover in Kenya.

In a state of considerable shock and uncertainty about what to do next, I ended up in the airport bar, where, as if to compound the wretchedness of the occasion, Arsenal’s recent 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur – our first to our neighbouring rivals in more than ten years and one that in essence ended that year’s title challenge – was being replayed on the TV. I swore, loudly, which drew the attention of a stranded American businessman, also an Arsenal fan. We got talking, and when they realised I was on my own they marched me to the ticket hall, remonstrated on my behalf about the airline’s duty of care and arranged for me to be taken back to Europe via Egypt and Rome.

That businessman saw something that neither I nor the airline really had: that although I was 20 years old at the time, I was essentially a child travelling alone. But our conversation only took place because of our shared interest: mine in a football team just a few miles from my birthplace, his in a club an ocean away from his.

As I made my way from Rome to London – via a series of trains and a ferry across the English Channel – time and again, Arsenal’s global fan base was a source of comfort and friendship to me, in station waiting rooms and on the long journey across Italy. (Meanwhile Arsenal’s players were, miserably, capitulating on all fronts, an activity the club now prefers to get out of the way at the beginning of the season but which they then tended to save until its end.)

Now, Arsenal’s global network of supporters are the inspiration for a wretched scheme by 12 of Europe’s biggest football clubs to abandon the traditional structures of European football and establish their own “European Super League”. Under the plans, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea (which subsequently withdrew), Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Internazionale, AC Milan and Juventus, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal would abandon the traditional structures of European football. They would remain within their own domestic leagues but would guard the bulk of the profits from the Super League for themselves – regardless of their performance in either. The plan bears the imprint of American sport, with its closed system and the absence of regulation, and the driving force behind the plans is said to be the American billionaires who own Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.

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The theory behind the Super League is that while “legacy fans” may care about competitiveness and local clashes, “global fans” want to watch the supposed greats duke it out every other week. My experience in a lifetime of meeting Arsenal fans from across the world is that the depth of commitment to the club – be it among people in Zambia, US businessmen in Kenya, or any of the commercial travellers, international students or politicians I have commiserated with about the club’s form – is no less deep and meaningful than mine. But some of the world’s richest men think they can further swell their wealth with the new competition, which has led the stock price of both Juventus and Manchester United to surge.

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The story of the putative new league is in many ways the story of globalisation in microcosm. On the one hand, the international reach of football facilitates a brotherhood (and it is mostly a brotherhood, though Arsenal is also a leader in the women’s game) across international borders and class divides. On the other, that international reach has inspired some of the clubs’ owners – oligarchs, plutocrats and American multibillionaires – to believe that they can put aside the concerns of their local fans and free themselves from the demands of proper competition on the football field.

They may well be wrong, though: while the laws of the European Union might provide a shield for the six founding members from within the EU, a rare Brexit upside is that the British government, can, if it wants, use its parliamentary majority to bring the disastrous experiment to an abrupt end. The question is, will it?

The opposition to the breakaway is near-universal: the 12 clubs have succeeded in uniting not only all of Westminster and essentially every politician of significance across Europe, but much of the football hierarchy too. Pep Guardiola, who manages Manchester City, has broken ranks to criticise the competition, as has the Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp. Marcus Rashford, the United forward and anti-poverty campaigner, has also questioned the plans. The Football Association, and its president, the Duke of Cambridge, have called for the Super League to be abandoned. And Jordan Henderson, Liverpool’s captain, has organised a meeting of team captains to discuss the plans.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has been happy to pose as both the opponent and the ally of unrestrained globalisation. His government, however, has yet to make a clear decision either way as to whether its newfound support for the “left behind” comprises more than just rhetoric and a smattering of infrastructure projects.

Whether the Johnson government matches its rhetorical commitment to do “whatever it takes” to block the creation of the new European Super League is not just of interest to the global fraternity of football fans; it is also a test of whether the rebrand of the Conservative Party will prove as ephemeral as modern club football’s endless changes of kit. 

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.