So, the European football coup is over.
After universal condemnation, angry fan protests and threats of sanctions, nine of the traitorous twelve breakaway European Super League clubs have now sheepishly returned to the fold, forcing the heinous project to collapse like the proverbial house of cards.
It was heartening to witness the power of collective action. As the byline from the Daily Star newspaper wryly observed: ‘owners do the IMPOSSIBLE and unite players, coaches, royalty, celebs, God’s best mate, and, er, actually the whole bloody world, against their greed…’ It really was united we stand, divided we fall. Never has that truism been more effectively proven.
However, lest anyone gets complacent, the fight for football isn’t over; it isn’t even beginning. It is never-ending.
Football is the beautiful game, and like all things beautiful it attracts the ugly: the greedy, the venal, the corrupt; those who want to possess and exploit, and ultimately, tarnish its effulgent beauty beyond recognition for their own self-aggrandizing ends.
Avaricious, covetous, rapacious, insatiable, gluttonous, voracious, selfish, grasping, profiteering, mercenary, unethical, unprincipled, unscrupulous – pick your synonym for the shameful owners of these big, rich, privileged clubs. These people – wealthy, powerful, and unprincipled – are not going anywhere. And even if they did, who would replace them but other wealthy, powerful, and unprincipled people?
They may be weeping crocodile tears on social media now with faux-contrite statements about needing to do better, but the pernicious threat of their power and influence remains ever-present. Thus, the need to make cowardly concessions to placate them continues to be a driving principle for football’s authorities.
Amidst all the hoopla, what appears to have gone conveniently unnoticed is UEFA’s disgracefully hypocritical appeasement of the big clubs with their Champions League ‘reforms’, even whilst they were vehemently condemning the breakaway.
As well as expanding the current number of teams from 32 to 36 – more football equals more money, after all – two out of those four new teams will get in on the basis of the highest UEFA co-efficient, should they fail to qualify automatically. In other words, if a big, rich team – who else would have a sufficiently high enough co-efficient to qualify? – has a poor season domestically, they get a special, sneaky back door entry into elite European competition just because they have been successful in the past.
So much for meritocracy.
With these so-called reforms, due to commence in 2024, the elite clubs will still be getting what they need – guaranteed qualification to a bigger money-spinning European tournament – even if they may not get what they want, namely to lord over the Champions League itself.
The stark reality for those who actually care about the integrity and traditions of football is that unless the ownership model for individual football clubs is forced to change, nothing will change for the better. It will continue to change for the worse unless football governing bodies implement compulsory fan-ownership of the kind that exists in Germany.
In the Bundesliga, the fans own a 50+1 per cent majority of voting rights with no commercial investor allowed more than a 49 per cent stake in a club. It is not a coincidence that no German club was involved with the ESL. It is also not a coincidence that German football is less expensive, the best-attended, and with safe standing allowed, the most atmospheric, with vibrant fan culture.
If such a radical change is too much for the delicate constitution of football’s establishment, then at the very minimum an alternative model where fans have the power of veto to curb the unchecked excesses of the owner, must be imposed.
Whilst no system of governance can ever be entirely perfect, a fan stakeholder model would at least ensure that fans get to be active participants in the running of the club they love, rather than mindless consumers who exist solely to fill the bottomless coffers of grasping billionaires. It would also ensure that no megalomaniacal owner could make a football club their sole private fiefdom.
For the sake of its future, football must be placed in the custodianship of those who care.
Without the egalitarian fan-ownership model exemplified by the German Bundesliga, the game will continue to remain the personal plaything of corrupt billionaires, shady oligarchs and oil-drenched theocracies.
However, there can be no revolution without revolt.
It is up to fans to mobilise, organise and engage in collective action to pressurise football’s governing bodies and national governments to instigate ownership reform. They need to join their club’s official supporters group and the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA). They need to stop spending money on new club strips and pay-per-view and donate their cash to support the organisations’ work, promote their campaigns and join their protests. Only through vigorous and relentless fan activism can the hegemony of the rich self-serving club ownership be broken and fans get back the game they love so dearly.
Without fan unity and ceaseless activism, football will remain forever divided. The big, rich clubs at the top of the pyramid creaming off the spoils and leaving everyone else languishing in their wake, struggling to keep up and failing woefully, and destroying themselves in the process, like poor Bury FC.
In the current climate of righteous anger and scornful opprobrium, there is no better time for the fans to succeed – if they have the will. This is the moment and it must be seized. The momentum is with those who want change for the better, but they must actively hammer home the message until a change is forthcoming.
Football doesn’t just need its fans; it needs its fans to be the game’s guardians, its safe-keepers, its protectors. Football without fans at its heart is a game without a soul: dead.