As news broke earlier this week that a handful of rich European teams were forming their own closed “Super League”, I couldn’t help but feel visceral disgust as a fan. The 12 founding teams appointed themselves as permanent members of a competition that they created.
Make no mistake. This was nothing different than a coup – a badly planned one.
The cardinal rule of hatching such conspiracies is you have to have public support. And on this one, the planners pushed not for something the fans deeply want but for something the fans, across countries and cultures, deeply despise – and that is soccer that is devoid of merit.
Growing up in my home country of Egypt, soccer was the only lens through which we could express opinions, argue and freely exchange views. It was also one where you saw a resemblance of merit in a deeply unfair society. If the ball is in the net, it’s a goal. Nobody can steal that from you.
Merit doesn’t carry the same weight as strongly in other domains of life, especially for the downtrodden and the disenfranchised who root passionately for soccer teams. Yet, this is the sport where you see a tangible, physical, visible evidence of why some teams win and why others lose. It is a neat microcosm of whatever fairness is left in our world. If the manager screws up, he is fired. If a defender doesn’t tackle well, he is substituted – all compensations for exactly the opposite way things often happen in life.
This is why the European Super League failed.
Resistance to it also looked like attempts to reverse a coup. On Tuesday, Chelsea fans blocked the team bus, in what you might call a “nonviolent direct action” in the lexicon of civil disobedience. Ed Woodward has resigned from Manchester United. Florentino Pérez appeared shaky on TV, like a coup leader about to be rounded up.
There is also another reason this conspiracy was a gut-punch for fans. Although famous soccer players do make a hefty amount of money, that is not the reason they got into the sport. Trace the story of any player, and you will inevitably find markers from his or her childhood pointing to a deep-seated passion.
Kylian Mbappé, one of the fastest forwards on France’s national team, dreamt of one day meeting Cristiano Ronaldo. In one famous video, you can see Mbappé’s room adorned with pictures of his Portuguese soccer idol. What animated Mbappé was passion, not money.
And again, it’s this sentiment that fans are defending.
David Beckham also echoed this feeling. “We need football to be fair and we need competitions based on merit. Unless we protect these values, the game we love is in danger,” he said on Facebook.
When Liverpool FC was struggling to win the Premier League, I too was struggling in Trump’s America. As a new immigrant with a name unfavorable to the then-sitting president, I would listen to Liverpool’s famed anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” As Trump’s xenophobia heightened my angst, I’d murmur, “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high, and don’t be afraid of the dark.” The anthem goes on: “At the end of a storm, there’s a golden sky, and the sweet silver song of a lark.” Every time Mohamed Salah scored a goal, it became fuel for me to march on during a deeply lonely immigrant experience.
Soccer is not without blemishes. The demons of bias, prejudice and racism still permeate the sport. But for most passionate fans, it remains sacrosanct.
Mohamed Abdelfattah is an Egyptian editor living in Chicago and a passionate Liverpool fan