Boris Johnson’s wild threats against the European Super League may backfire – but they shouldn’t be ignored

Tom Peck
·5-min read
<p>Boris Johnson has threatened to drop a ‘legislative bomb’</p> (Reuters)

Boris Johnson has threatened to drop a ‘legislative bomb’

(Reuters)

Under normal circumstances, the very best practice when it comes to sport and the government is to ignore everything politicians say.

In the neverending build-up to the London Olympics, to take but one example, I was one of many reporters who would spend at least one morning a week visiting some primary school or other, listening to the then-mayor of London, Boris Johnson (whatever happened to him?), spinning the same old line about how the games were going to “inspire a generation”.

All of us knew that the promise to “inspire a generation” was not designed as a solution to a growing inactivity crisis among schoolchildren. Rather the former runner and Tory MP Seb Coe, who was in charge of London’s bid, had correctly identified a different crisis facing the International Olympic Committee, which was a collapse in youth viewing figures.

This, in turn, threatened a collapse in the amount of money Coca-Cola and McDonald’s would be willing to pay to be top-level sponsors. So when Coe and co came along with a bid for a games to inspire young people to choose sport, but also, hopefully, to choose a Big Mac, fries and a large Coke as well, they quite literally stole the show.

And yet, there we would be, week in week out. There would be Boris, doing his little schtick about the Greek gods and the power of sport, while the children stared dutifully on, not ever really quite knowing their role in a phoney dance that rattled on for years.

While this was happening, as it happens, the then-education secretary, Michael Gove – whatever happened to him? – was busy selling off school playing fields. The promised lasting increase in sporting participation did not happen, principally because no games ever have managed it and London was no different. This is occasionally viewed as a failure, but it was only ever meant to be promised, not actually delivered.

Nine years on, now-prime minister Johnson is talking very tough indeed about stopping the European Super League. Even with the disclaimer that a politician’s words are their currency and no one has ever spent them quite as cheaply as Johnson before, he has issued some fairly seismic threats.

At a meeting with Premier League executives, he has threatened to drop a “legislative bomb” on proceedings. This could include not granting visa rights to foreign players from Super League clubs (this, we must presume, is a favourite because it could also be badged up as a Brexit dividend).

There is also talk of new legislation to make English football clubs 51 per cent fan-owned, as is the case in Germany (though said rules have not prevented Red Bull from setting up a team from scratch and currently being second in the entire league system within a decade).

So is Johnson serious? Previous words, as ever, do not offer much guidance. It was barely weeks ago that he was talking up the power of corporate greed for coming up with the Covid-19 vaccine, even if it was claimed to be a joke. He still likes to boast, every so often, that he was about the only person who defended the banking industry in the wake of the criticisms it received for, well, causing the 2008 financial crisis.

Of course, there is a very large amount of inconsistency in being in favour of the very worst excesses of capitalism, but not when they come to football, a game which Johnson freely admits not to care very much about. But such inconsistency won’t bother him.

Johnson is a politician, and so likes to win electoral events in order to carry on being a politician. He also likes to be liked, and is, somewhat uncharacteristically for his profession, sometimes not afraid to match words with action.

It was just after the Olympics when he swept in and personally sorted out the ongoing mess over the future of the Olympic Stadium. Of course, he swept in and accidentally made everything much worse, but he still took action, when others at the time were far more into words.

Though it backfired, and though it probably wasn’t his idea anyway, he really did attempt to shut down parliament to force it into taking action it didn’t want to take. That is not the ordinary way of things.

By making these wild legislative threats against The Super League, he has turned its success into a potential political failure for him.

At time of writing, the managers and players of the clubs involved all appear to be doing their utmost to kill it off anyway. And the abysmal fashion in which it has been launched strongly suggests it may all have been just a negotiating tactic anyway.

But in the meantime, for Johnson, the opportunity to become The Man Who Saved Football is not one he is likely to pass up. The Super League club owners, ruthless hard-nosed capitalists as they have constantly been described in the last mad 48 hours, could find they have taken on a more formidable opponent than they realised.

Even if The Super League doesn’t happen, it is hard to see, from here, how it all goes back in the box regardless.

A failed coup attempt has consequences. And the thin cabal of men who tried to kill off football may – just may – find there is an actual price to be paid for being on the wrong side of the people, and a populist leader just as ruthless and just as shameless as the club owners are.

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