Some radical changes to failing institutions emerge well matured after long debate. Others happen suddenly because a society seizes on a sudden chaotic moment. Modern football’s complex current crisis contains elements of both the historic problem and the sudden opportunity. Look back nearly 30 years to the creation of the Premier League. It was an innovative moment for a very insular British football culture, exciting and beneficial in many ways, not least by internationalising the domestic game. Yet everything that generated the now-doomed European Super League was in there too. All the roots of today’s yawning financial inequalities, greedy oligopoly, elite global branding and new model ownership were already visible. Fast forward to this week, and these now well-established and familiar dynamics of the commodification of modern football have triggered an astonishing act of self-destruction.
The ESL was promulgated on Sunday, denounced on Monday, began to collapse on Tuesday and bit the dust – for now – on Wednesday. As failed coups go, this must be among the most ignominious ever. But what happens now? Is that it? Crisis over? Surely not. The events of this week have laid bare ugly truths about football’s place and problems. But the pre-eminent and overriding wrong is the disconnect between the deluded worldview of the owners – who see clubs merely as businesses and want only to safeguard and expand their income – and the worldview of the millions, not without occasional delusions of their own, who are consumed by the excitement and unpredictability of the game, as well as the community identities in which football, like other sports facing similar stresses, remains rooted.
This week’s fiasco is a carnival moment for fans. But it cannot end here. Nothing will be gained by cheering the collapse of the ESL and then getting back to business – note the word – as usual. Too much of what has been rawly exposed this week about the modern club-ownership model has been festering unchallenged in football for too long. It will fester again if it is not shown an emphatic red card. If the briefly triumphant fans now resume their old passive roles in the game, the forces that tried to hijack the world’s favourite sport from them while the pandemic kept stadiums empty will regroup and start planning their next attempt. When the owners’ cartel and the fund managers who support their failed business model come again, as they will, it must be assumed – in spite of this week’s evidence – that they will be well prepared.
Fans, players, communities and countries need to act now too, to reform football. Some of the most immediate options lie with the game itself – points deductions, fines, transfer embargos and bans from competitions should all be on the table. Planned changes to the European Champions League that lock in the privileged and protected position of the richest should be scrapped. The role of governments, nationally and in cooperation, is indispensable; there must now be a robust legislative framework for reformed football. In Britain, the appetite is suddenly enormous for some workable form of fan-ownership mutual model, safeguarding clubs as community assets rather than as assets to be traded and brands to be exploited, and including voting rights, board membership and veto powers. Effective independent regulation of the elite cartel of clubs is needed too, as is an enforceable suitability test for owners and directors.
Now, when the breakaway clubs are at their weakest and most humiliated, is precisely the time for tough action and decisive restructuring. There will never be a better moment to counterattack. Bismarck once said that, at moments when the statesman can hear the steps of God striding through events, it is time to leap up and grasp the hem of his garment. Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar, called it taking the tide at the flood. On such a full sea is football in Britain now afloat. This is a time for radical reform of the people’s game, and the opportunity must be grasped.