Damian Reilly

Football’s Super League critics are being hypocritical

Football's Super League critics are being hypocritical
Gary Neville (Credit: Sky sports)
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Is it possible meaningfully to oppose the decision by Europe’s biggest football clubs to form an unaccountable, anti-democratic Super League if you voted to Remain? The obvious answer is that it’s not. Not that that will stop anyone.

The proposed Super League is an almost exact sporting distillation of the issues that defined the European Union referendum: the continent’s financial power house football clubs are threatening to carve up immensely lucrative markets while simultaneously shutting down external competition irreversibly.

A televised rant by Gary Neville – vocal remainer and stalwart of the Manchester United team that in 2000 infamously turned its back on the magic of the FA Cup in order to participate in the FIFA Club World Cup in Sao Paulo – has crystallised public opinion against the new competition: it’s 'disgusting' and 'disgraceful', he said.

After Neville, Britain’s other famous Gary piped up. People’s Vote campaigner Gary Lineker implored fans to vote with their feet. He tweeted: 

'If fans stand as one against this anti-football pyramid scheme, it can be stopped in its tracks.'

The footballing firmament, in fact, is apparently united in its abhorrence for the new competition. Many former players have taken to expensive non-terrestrial subscription television channels – BT Sport, Sky Sports – to point out the game is losing touch with its working-class roots. They are complaining that the biggest clubs, rather like permanent members of the UN Security Council, can never be relegated from the proposed competition.

Ever since Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV bought the rights to English top flight football in the mid-nineties, football fans in the UK have wrestled with a simple question: how much corporatism is enough corporatism? The answer has always been far from clear.

Despite occasional howls of protest over the years about the ever escalating cost of following a team, when push has come to shove fans have always swallowed objections to stump up. It’s a process that has made men like Neville very rich indeed.

But is the proposed super league really so different to what Sky did to English football’s top flight? Yes, it might seem absurd that the winner of the Premier League – say, Leicester – might not be able to qualify for European football. But if we are honest wouldn’t the new arrangement merely formalise, with refreshing honesty and candour, the power structure long celebrated by Sky, one that has for decades made it impossible for smaller clubs to compete? To the richest club, the spoils.

Corporatism is the great homogenising commercial force of our times – eradicating in the name of the creation of economies of scale individuality wherever it might be found. It’s why every high street in the land is now identical, and why entertainment, like beer, has become so bland. 

Why should football be exempt? Better by far, surely, to corner the market, bring its constituent parts together under one carefully designed and marketable brand – and then unblinkingly to crush all rivals. This is the way of modern commerce.

As I have written before, football clubs are by no means kind-hearted, public-spirited institutions. Instead, they are highly sophisticated commercial operations concerned only with bleeding stupidly loyal fanbases for every penny they can. In this respect, the new league is a fantastic idea – a guaranteed revenue stream, blessedly free of the pesky problem of results. 

If you are opposed to it, then why do you draw the line here, and not, say, at the reality that the likes of Manchester City or Chelsea operate according to commercial models that are completely different to most of their rivals? Are you sure it is fairness you are worried about? And, if it is, is football really the game for you?

Perhaps one day soon the men and women who formulated and so secretively schemed on the Super League plans will be forced to apologise publicly for the dishonour they have bought upon all concerned. Until then, it is strange to see prominent Remainers railing so passionately against it. Isn’t this exactly what they wanted?