Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
The essence of football, indeed sport itself, is not the success that can be bought by the richest patron. It is the raw emotion that stems from the uncertainty.
It’s the thick and thin – believing your underdog could have a manna from heaven, Premiership winning season. It’s enduring a desperate relegation struggle, and putting on a brave face when you go to work on a Monday after your team has taken a battering.
Sure, it’s great to see world-class strikers, sublime skill and jaw-dropping goals – but if ultimately there is no jeopardy and no risk, what is there to play for?
For this reason, the already disintegrating European Super League would, in any case, have ended up as stale entertainment, seeing the stars do their tricks like basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters on their global tour.
When Alex Honnold, the American rock climber, summited El Capitan, solo without ropes and no safety net, it captured the world’s imagination for a reason; great achievements are made greater by the risk of failure.
The new European league structure would have protected the 15 founder members from relegation, allowing them to dine at the top table year after year. For most, this is not sport, it is circus: entertainment for the masses, which may compel for a few years, but will never provide the true peaks and troughs, which so engage the diehard supporter.
Of course, it may be no bad thing to break the mould and build a European league founded on new principles (it wasn’t so long ago that The Sunday Times exposed the corruption at the heart of FIFA, an organisation surely due for radical reform).
And there is precedent for breakaways in the sporting world. In 1977 Kerry Packer created an international cricket competition for his television network (to which many at the time were vehemently opposed). In 1895, the Rugby League split from the Rugby Union to form its own governing body, and in the early 1990s, the top darts players broke away from the British Darts Organisation to build their own Worlds Darts Council.
Nonetheless, the widespread outrage is tangible – and it has cut through. Snap polling showed that only 14 per cent of us are in favour of the creation of the European Super League, versus 79 per cent who oppose it. Fans up and down the country are rightly asking: is football only about money? Does respecting your club’s roots and heritage mean nothing? Is there no pride left? This story reaches far beyond football: it’s about community and belonging.
As an issue that is so close to people’s hearts, it’s hardly surprising that it’s become, well, a political football. Ministers rapidly rushed to condemn the idea because there is clear political capital to be won.
The Prime Minister may have admitted that he’s “not into football much himself” but after his meeting with the FA, Premier League and fans’ representatives, Number 10 was swift to announce that they would take “whatever action necessary”. This includes legislative options, to stop the plans going ahead.
Keir Starmer hopped merrily on the bandwagon, calling for laws to “take back control” from foreign owners and suggesting tough new regulations. Am I alone in seeing the irony in his rejection of supranational organisations in the Super League case?
As Robert Conquest said: everyone is conservative about what they know best and, surely, this applies here. It is only natural that football fans are up in arms at what they perceive to be the desecration of what they hold sacred.
While football may not be for everyone, there are many other things people feel passionately about – not least their cultural heritage. Whether it be the Monarchy, the Union Jack, the National Trust, or the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, there remain many symbols of British history and culture that evoke strong feelings. Having witnessed such a strong reaction from the public, it may be that parts of our political establishment begin to feel more empathy towards those who seek to defend other elements of our culture.
However, is it really the place for government to intervene in football? Many people seemed to think so. The reaction from Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, should have set alarm bells ringing in the ears of those in favour of a smaller state, however much you dislike the idea of a European Super League.
The Government announced it was ready to change the law and impose everything from a windfall tax on those clubs participating to fewer work permits and loss of help with policing on match days. Such is the length it claims it would go to in the name of punishing those clubs that take part.
By what right do politicians get involved in such matters? As Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute asked: is how a sport structures itself really a legitimate matter for government? With policies like these, would the Rugby League or the Worlds Darts Council have even been allowed to be created?
The hundreds of millions of pounds at stake are certainly compelling for the top club owners, but with clubs withdrawing at a pace, it is fans voices which are being heard loud and clear – perhaps this can serve as a warning against this knee-jerk emotion-driven policy that this government has become so accustomed to.