At first glance, the proposal to create a new European football superleague pits two top ideological teams against each other: communitarians v markeeters – and not for the first time.
To the former, the game is about more than money. It has a soul which they repeatedly warn is being lost. For a town to lose its football team is for it also to be deprived one of the three wellsprings of its identity: the local trade, the high street…and the club. The first and the third are often related.
So it is that, for example, Luton Town are “the Hatters”, Northampton Town “the Cobblers”, Scunthrope “the Irons”, Yeovil Town “the Glovers”, Wycombe Wanderers “the Chairboys”..and so on. Football Club nicknames are sometimes, particularly in the lower divisions, a rough guide to their economic history.
If you doubt the anguish that the closure of a local club can cause, remember the outcry when Bury were expelled from the Football League having failed to find a buyer. The claim that money has corrupted the game seeps out into commentary on cheating, diving, foul language and the abuse of referees.
To the latter, what’s all the fuss about? Football clubs must attract supporters if they want to thrive – and if they can’t that tells you something you need to know. From this point of view, the game at the top is played by fitter, more skilled and better players than was the case 50 or even 25 years ago.
And just as free marketeers tend to be champions of more migration (some of them, anyway), the holders of this point of view point to the presence of foreign players in the UK as evidence of the improvement of football. Who would really want, say, to see Liverpool without Mohammed Salah?
So if his club, plus Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur want to participate in a closed superleague, and support and money follow the new competition, that’s just how it is. Just as World Series Cricket broke the established order in its time, so this new football superleague may do too.
Before we probe all this further, one smallish point if we may – before running for cover from outraged Spurs fans. What qualifies their team be in a superleague from which none of these six can be relegated? They haven’t won a major trophy since the Football League Cup in 2008. If cup wins from that year are the measure, one might as well chuck in Portsmouth.
As we retreat from the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium amidst a welter of verbal abuse, can we also point out that the simplicities of marketeers v communitarians is a bit misleading? Football isn’t really a free market and neither is it a community enterprise. Quite what it is instead almost defies description.
As Oliver Dowden points out, “we have a football pyramid where funds from the globally successful Premier League flow down the leagues and into local communities”. Then there are the governance structures: the Premier League governs itself except where it doesn’t, since the Football Association is a special shareholder, is responsible for football’s rule books.
The Football Association runs the F.A Cup but the Football League runs its own competitions. It’s a bit like a planned economy in which some supersized firms have a mass of commercial freedoms and play a big role in shaping the market, but must fork out to help keep some of the smaller fry afloat – while the regulators jostle for position.
The way in which the various cookies are allowed to crumble is fiercely contested. Not that you’d necessarily know it from the anathemas being hurled at the heads of the superleague planners by the Premier League, plus a mass of international regulators – including UEFA and FIFA.
There are threats of player and team bans from national and international competitions – a bit rich coming from FIFA, the superleaguers may say, given the corruption charges regularly thrown at it. (Lord Triesman, a former Chairman of the English Football Association, once described it as “behaving like a mafia family”.)
We can’t help wondering if the whole caboodle is a ploy by the bigger fry, here and abroad, to squeeze terms that suit them out of the Champions League. There is no downside in the proposal for Boris Johnson – in the sense that it’s easy for him simply to come out and condemn it, which he duly has.
Mind you, Labour is already in on the football act, demanding that no club be allowed to closed because of the consequences of Covid. Which return us to Bury: Damian Collins, then Chairman of the Culture Select Committee, was scarcely alone in arguing that there was a failure of oversight.
“If the football authorities had enforced their own rules effectively, action could have been taken much earlier in the process and before Bury was expelled from the league,” he said at the time. The superleague, football in the UK, and the plight of smaller clubs may be remote from the political action, but more voters will be chewing them over this week than they will be the Greensill affair.