The Super League: a major loss for community-powered football

April 19, 2021  

While capitalism and football have rubbed together for years, the new European Super League threatens to sever football clubs from the communities that built and help sustain them, writes Luca Tiratelli.

My name is Luca and my brother’s name is Matteo. When we were both little, a team that played about two miles down the road from where we lived had players called Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Di Matteo. And basically that’s the story of how we became Chelsea fans.

As our father was an immigrant to this country, we didn’t have the family ties to any club that are the basis of many people’s relationship to football. Despite this, however, we found in a local team, something that somehow represented us. A club that was unequivocally a London club, and yet at the same time seemed international and, well, Italian.

We’ve both supported Chelsea ever since. But what exactly is it that we’re devoted to? Not the players – they come and go. Not the manager for the same reason, and certainly not the ownership –  as there’s little to be proud of there. As Chelsea fans, we can’t even really invoke a more tenuous object of allegiance in the form of ‘the badge’, because even that has changed during our time following the club.

The affinity between us and Chelsea – between any fan and any team – is something much more abstract. It’s about what that club represents to you in the time and place that you live in. It’s about what the club means when it is seen through your eyes, after having been refracted through your community, your place and your history – in both a personal and a folk sense.

It is in this sense that football clubs can never be ‘just businesses’. Nor though, for that matter, can they ever be ‘just football clubs’. They are institutions that both create and represent community. They are assets to local places in every sense of the word: they generate money and jobs, but they also generate pride, belonging and meaning. None of this is an accident of history or a weird cultural projection by the way. In most cases, football clubs were built by local people to serve these ends. Working class communities came together to create things they felt were useful and important, and the football clubs we see today are the product of this.

The relationship of capitalism to institutions of this nature can only ever be parasitic. Most clubs were not founded as ‘businesses’, and the connection of fans to them is not really analogous to traditional customer-proprietor relationships. Legal ownerships may have spiralled out of local control over the course of decades, but the clubs can never truly belong, in any meaningful sense of that word, to the people that ‘own’ them in monetary terms. If you don’t believe me, think of AFC Wimbledon and MK Dons. Which one of those clubs represents the actual continuation of Wimbledon FC? ‘The Club’, any club, transcends its own legal categorisation.

The proposed European Super League is an effort to sever these links between institutions and the people and places that built them. ‘Legacy fans’, as the proponents of the plan describe them, who are overwhelmingly against the new proposals, will be replaced with ‘fans of the future’. The local, imagined as parochial, old fashioned and embarrassing, will be replaced by the global. Or more likely, by Amazon Prime.  

Throughout their history, football clubs have been living, fluid institutions. There have been ups and downs, peaks and troughs, and these cycles have closely mirrored the wider picture of what’s been going on the places they represent. The owners of the 12 clubs that plan to breakaway are, however, in the words of William F Buckley, “standing athwart history yelling stop”. They are saying that their control of clubs will be eternal not temporary – and that the current footballing order, randomly produced by the past century of competition, will now be frozen in indefinite suspended animation.

Quite simply, they are planning to take what’s not theirs. Institutions that have been created by local people, and then built through symbiotic relationships with other clubs across the entire ‘football pyramid’, will now be transformed from community assets, to simple financial assets among a portfolio of other interests for individuals and hedge funds. Of course, this has been a gradual process. But the creation of a new, non-competitive league, against the wishes of the fans, will mark a point of no return – a point where football clubs not only change what they, but what they can be.

At New Local, we have spent the last few years campaigning for community power, and making the radical case that somethings should exist beyond market or state control. The story of the European Super League may not be the most important story to demonstrate the relevancy of this agenda, but it may be the clearest. What communities have can, at present, be randomly taken away from them. The forces that govern our lives are not under our control.

If we take the idea of democracy seriously, then we must challenge this.

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