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We Are Still in Charge
By Daniel M. Rothschild
Last week, European soccer—and, by extension, the sport worldwide—was rocked to its core with the announcement late Sunday of a new European Super League (ESL) consisting of 12 of the continent’s most elite teams. Less than 72 hours later, the league had all but disbanded and one of the biggest ruptures in the history of sports was already in the rearview mirror.
Here’s the brief backstory. Twelve elite teams from England, Spain and Italy announced they’d leave the high-level European club competition called the Champions League—for which teams qualify annually on the basis of their performance in national league play—to start their own league playing midweek matches against one another.
Reactions from fans and the organizations that oversee soccer (or football, as it is generally called in Europe) were swift and severe. Fans almost universally panned the Super League. Detractors were quick to blame Americans, and the governing bodies of European and national football threatened to ban participating teams from club play. Soccer’s worldwide governing body, FIFA, even threatened to prohibit players on Super League teams from playing for their national teams in the 2022 World Cup.
The economics of European soccer are very different from the economics of most American sports. Each European country has what’s known as a pyramid, with different leagues and divisions stacked one on top of another. Each year, the best teams in a given league are promoted to the next league up and the worst teams are sent down, or relegated, to a lower league. It’s not unusual for a team to move between leagues. For instance, it was less than 25 years ago that Manchester City, who this past weekend won the Football League Cup for the fourth consecutive year and have all but won the Premier League title this season, were playing in the third tier of English soccer.
Why did fans reject the ESL? Primarily, it was because it seemed like a naked cash grab that contravened the spirit of the game and circumvented the ways in which European football associations share the wealth among teams. The league would have been essentially closed, along the lines of the NFL or the NBA. The open nature of European football allows for giant-killers, particularly in cup tournament like the FA Cup. Yes, the better-ranked teams usually triumph—but not always. Tournaments are more like March Madness than the NBA.
Much has been written placing the ESL within various geopolitical narratives (see, for instance, this column by my friend Henry Olsen). But this whole debacle is really a story of events that started in the 1990s.
That’s because the ESL is fundamentally about globalization, which was of course the cause of great consternation in the late 1990s; indeed, it provoked perhaps the paradigmatic schism of the era. The 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization were among the largest street protests since the Vietnam War and brought together activists ranging from left-wing nongovernmental organizations to black bloc anarchists. Earlier in the decade, the North American Free Trade Agreement was a dominant issue in the 1992 presidential race, helping to earn an eccentric billionaire almost 20 million votes in his campaign against the “giant sucking sound” of jobs he believed (incorrectly) would move to Mexico under the treaty.
As European soccer (with its hugely popular clubs such as Arsenal and Real Madrid) has taken over the world, soccer is now consumed globally. The median ESL team supporter doesn’t live in the team’s community, and likely doesn’t live in Europe at all. The Football League Cup has been renamed the Carabao Cup for a Thai energy drink; stadiums bear the names of Middle Eastern airlines, American credit cards, and a Bangkok-based duty-free conglomerate. Advertisements in Chinese are seen by viewers of top teams worldwide.
European Soccer has taken over the world. The Leicester City FC shop at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand. Image Credit: Daniel M. Rothschild
The globalized culture that people fretted about in the ’90s has been realized by European football, and its consumers (as distinct from “fans” or “supporters”) are worldwide.
This globalization extends beyond the worldwide fan base to worldwide ownership and worldwide finance. JP Morgan Chase backed the ESL with a €3.25 billion package, and owners of the would be ESL teams hail from countries around the globe. Chelsea FC is owned by Roman Abramovich, a Russian tycoon with a fortune of somewhat unclear provenance, and Liverpool FC and Manchester United (among others) are owned by Americans.
Likewise, players in the top flights of European soccer no longer hail mostly from the countries of their clubs, or even from Europe. When Manchester City won the English League Cup in 1970, only one member of the squad wasn’t English: defender Willie Donachie, who was born in Glasgow. The cup-winning squad this year had just 11 English players, 13 from elsewhere in Europe, and seven from further afield. Current Premier League champions Liverpool have 21 nationalities represented on their first team squad.
Finally, the ESL went right to the heart of sticky, hard-to-pin-down questions about place, identity and ownership that have been the topics of robust debate for the past quarter century or longer. Football looms large in many people’s identity, and it’s bound up with sense of place at a very granular level. Most European soccer clubs are privately owned, but there’s always been a norm that ownership is not primarily about maximizing profits. Clubs don’t move around the way American sports franchises do, and supporters’ views are taken seriously. (The only major team to move in modern history was Wimbledon FC, which in 2003 became the Milton Keynes Dons—and spawned a new Wimbledon-based club, AFC Wimbledon.) The ESL was seen as violating that trust—a theme that should sound very familiar to anyone who remembers the 1990s.
So, what can we learn from this whole sordid affair?
First, yes, we are living through history—but not at the timescale we imagine. It seems to be a natural tendency for people to take a few data points from the recent past and project trends in a linear fashion into the future.
To classical liberals, this means a rapid decline in the culture of free speech, debate and thought; it also means attacks on success and merit. To conservatives, it means the continued collapse of major social institutions. To progressives, it means the emergence of large firms with not just economic but also social and political power. (This final item is of course now a concern shared by more than a few conservatives, albeit largely for misguided reasons.)
This isn’t to say these aren’t legitimate concerns—but simply that we tend to place far greater importance on what’s happening now and in the immediate past than on the generation-length sweep of history. Today’s debates and pathologies don’t spring up ex nihilo; they evolve and mutate over a span of years and decades.
The focus on the now is only exacerbated by a news media devoted more to developing and selling narratives than to reporting. Context matters, and the institutions through which we consume current affairs are lacking at providing that context, now more than ever.
Second, the backlash against unpopular ideas can provoke change, and rapidly. From the time news of the ESL broke, a united front of football fans, commentators and former players pushed back loudly against the owners of the defecting teams. Meanwhile, in Britain, Italy and Spain, there was condemnation from lawmakers of all parties. Even Prince William, the president of the Football Association, weighed in.
Indeed, last week may prove to be not just the birth and death of the ESL but a turning point in soccer, especially in England. The British government is already taking action that may limit the ability of owners to make decisions that lack fan support. In other words, the ESL may turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Reining in the Americans, Emiratis, Russians, Chinese, Saudis, and Thais who own and run much of elite English soccer is an easy win for an increasingly populist Conservative Party. Indeed, the 2019 Tory manifesto promised a “fan-led review of football governance.” It took the ESL debacle to get the review underway.
Whether you think exerting more government and fan control over soccer teams—which are, after all, privately owned and in some cases even publicly traded—is a good idea or a bad one, this development should for different reasons give those of us who hew to liberal values some cause for optimism. Ultimately, the ESL teams buckled not because of the threat of policy action but because of the moral suasion (and anger) of those most affected by their decisions.
It may feel as though we went through a time warp sometime in the last few years and teleported to a strange new land—a place where clearly erroneous and even dangerous ideas are in widespread circulation and people are expected to pay obeisance to them regardless of their own thoughts and consciences. But we didn’t go through a time warp: today has more in common with 1999 than 1999 had with 1968. And dangerous ideas are in circulation, yes—but, as the example of the ESL shows, an otherwise docile populace can quickly become enraged at a crucial activating moment.
Reasoning from short-term trends and discounting our own agency are common thinking errors. And if the combined power of the titans of European football can be forced to reverse course, then so can those peddling illiberal ideas.