The spectacle of Boris Johnson, acme of an old Etonian rugby man, weighing in on the side of football fans against the breakaway European Super League, is a collision of political and sporting cultures that has been brewing for 30 years.
The abortive participation in the venture of England’s “big six” clubs, all owned by investors from overseas, is the culmination of a financial carve-up that began with English football’s own breakaway, the 1992 formation of the Premier League. The then big First Division clubs were determined not to share the new pay-TV riches with the clubs in the Football League’s other three divisions. As their fortunes subsequently boomed, British owners made multimillions by selling their shares.
As the Premier League roared to unprecedented wealth and global popularity, supporters’ groups warned successive governments that the cherished heart of the game and clubs’ beloved character were at risk from the ruthless imperatives of mega-commercialisation. Many fans alarmed by the acquisition of their clubs as financial investments educated themselves, and came to admire the German sporting model, which embeds football’s social role, keeps match tickets affordable and blocks corporate takeovers by requiring clubs to be more than 50% controlled by their supporters. It has been striking that while England’s six clubs – three, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, owned by US investors, Manchester City by Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi, Chelsea by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and Tottenham by the Bahamas-based currency trader Joe Lewis – signed up to the Super League, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, great German clubs still formally controlled by their fans, refused.
This exact scenario was explicitly predicted for years if the commercial juggernaut were not slowed: a tiny group of clubs would grow much richer than the rest and irresistibly dominate, with a European breakaway a logical final destination.
Yet while UK governments have dabbled, prompted by a string of select committee inquiries, none has been prepared to decisively intervene. New Labour came closest with a “task force” that produced some progressive reforms, but that was as long ago as 1998; its administrator was a young Andy Burnham, now mayor of Greater Manchester. As governments held off, insufficiently concerned and generally dazzled by the game’s reinvention, the big clubs’ demands escalated to this point where Johnson threatened a “legislative bomb” to stop them.
His sudden discovery of football as turf for the Conservatives to park on clearly falls within the Tories’ strategy of appealing to their new voters in the north and Midlands former “red wall” seats, taken from Labour in 2019 in the fallout from the Brexit referendum. The Tories do not need their relentless focus groups conducted with these voters to understand that many of them are football fans. Hence Johnson leaping immediately into action after the clubs dropped their own Super League bomb, the Conservative prime minister writing in the Sun that although, he acknowledged, he is “far from an expert on the beautiful game”, he would give the breakaway “a straight red”.
The appeal to red wall voters is apparent in his and other ministers’ language, similar to that in which the promises of “levelling up” come wrapped, funds to make small-scale improvements in selected provincial towns.
“Football clubs in every town and city and at every tier of the pyramid have a unique place at the heart of their communities, and are an unrivalled source of passionate local pride,” Johnson’s piece propounded.
This championing of football’s traditional values has come just days after Johnson was revealed to have wanted a takeover of Newcastle United by a Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund to go ahead last year. Yet the apparent contradiction between that support for a Saudi takeover and his condemnation of the “ludicrous” Super League plan does not mean his threats of legislation are necessarily empty talk.
The view that football needs regulation has been hardening among Conservative politicians, particularly after the culture, media and sport select committee, chaired by Damian Collins and now Julian Knight, inquired into the truly grim 2019 collapse of Bury, a Football League member club since 1894. Tracey Crouch, the former sports minister newly appointed to lead yet another inquiry, the government’s promised “fan-led review,” is thought to be prepared for it to recommend meaningful reform this time. The Football Supporters’ Association, which has campaigned against corporate takeover and over-commercialisation all these years, is to have a central role in the review.
Whether Johnson’s government will produce legislation for football given the outcry against the Super League remains to be seen, but the clubs have certainly been jolted by the volume of opposition, and a prime minister exercising himself about it.
Seasoned campaigners are rolling their sleeves up now for another round, while also lamenting the missed opportunities and warnings, that the heritage heart of the people’s game needed to be preserved while its top clubs were enjoying the fruits of their modern bonanza.