In the past year, football has gone ahead in silent, soulless stadia. It has been a testament to how important fans are and there was hope that when COVID restrictions lifted and clubs could welcome them back, they would do so with open arms. It would be a new era where they would appreciate and value their fandom more.
Then the breakaway European Super League (ESL) was announced with six Premier League clubs among its 12 founding members. It caused widespread outrage and was described by Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin as a “disgraceful, self-serving plan” and “a spit in the face of football lovers”.
One of multiple leaks from what ultimately became a sinking ship described domestic football supporters as “legacy fans”. The suggestion was that traditional home-based support is perceived by some club owners as a poor relation to an overseas armchair fanbase or “fans of the future”, as BBC Sport reported.
It is no secret that those clubs agitating to form a football cartel have become increasingly concerned at getting larger shares of broadcast rights and recognise the untapped potential of global markets.
That is essentially what the ESL was about – maximising profits through global expansion with like-minded invitation-only clubs. But at what cost? There was a gross underestimation of how big the backlash from politicians, governing bodies, sidelined clubs, and of course, fans would be.
English football’s disregard for fans is not new. In the past, the recommendations that clubs curb ticket prices, made in the post-Hillsborough-tragedy Taylor report, were ignored. Then there was the implementation of the dubious “fit and proper” person test, which ascertains the suitability of a person to take over a club. The test has only led to a multitude of takeovers from investors with suspect motives, further pushing fans to the sidelines.
A Football Task Force was introduced in 1997, to reportedly “give fans a fair deal” at a time when ticket prices were rising exponentially above the rate of inflation. An enduring outcome of the task force has been Supporters Direct – amalgamated into the Football Supporter’s Association (FSA) – a group with cross-party support that has helped establish more than 140 supporter trusts to provide greater accountability and strengthen fan influence in the running of clubs. And yet, the ESL reached an advanced stage without any supporter consultation.
Increased fan input to club administration, perhaps even involving a presence in the boardroom, has been suggested in the wake of the ESL debacle. The reality of wholesale takeovers is unlikely though, with the sums now required to own a so-called “big six” club far beyond the reach of supporters’ groups.
Boris Johnson promised to “drop a legislative bomb” to thwart the ESL. Whatever that would have entailed is unlikely to be required now all six English clubs have withdrawn. Nonetheless, the UK prime minister is said to be keen to continue working with supporters groups to help reform the governance of football and prevent similar moves in the future.
One idea is for an independent regulator to have overarching powers to keep renegade clubs in check. Another potential option could be the introduction of “golden shares”, providing fans groups with the power of veto over board decisions.
The FSA and others have highlighted Germany’s 50+1 model that requires fan ownership of a minimum of 51% of shares. This explains why the ESL was a non-starter for the likes of Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, whose absence from the “dirty dozen” was applauded.
For some, the German model is the ideal. Again, this could be unrealistic with some of England’s top clubs now valued in the billions. At the very least, there will now be a discussion involving supporters’ groups to test the practicality of these and other ideas for reform amid calls for greater transparency from club owners and better engagement with fans.
Responding to news that his team was pulling out of the ESL, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta commended the fan protests, saying that:
[They were] really loud and clear, and they sent probably the strongest message that has ever been sent in [the] football world … we have to listen to them.
As the ESL crumbled, owners witnessed the power their “legacy” fans wield and they should realise that if they are to avoid such failures in the future, having their interests in mind and listening to what they have to say is worthwhile.
Whatever measures are put in place, if steps are taken to give supporters more control over how clubs are run, then perhaps Real Madrid president Florentino Perez had a point when he claimed the ESL was being created to “save football”.
Paradoxically, the league that was killed within 72 hours of its unveiling could have a lasting impact.
David Randles, Senior Lecturer in Sports Journalism, Liverpool John Moores University