April 23, 2021

Sport

One for the fans

By Martin McKenzie-Murray

A Tottenham fan takes part in a protest over the planned creation of a European Super League. Image © Clive Rose / Pool via AP

After an extraordinary week in football, fans of all stripes have something to celebrate

The other night I read, on the cardboard box of my chicken tenders – “lovingly prepared” at the local Domino’s – a cluster of platitudes as oily as the container they were printed on. “We’re hungry to create real food,” the global behemoth assured me. “Packed with real flavour,” they said. “Hungry to be better.”

These slogans were merely the ones written on one face of the box, and I was surprised to see that the chicken itself hadn’t been commercially emblazoned with edible ink. To be honest, I thought Domino’s protested too much: Only the worst food could be conspicuously wrapped in proclamations of its goodness”.

And so it was.

I looked at the box again and thought of the stirring messages written on the massive tarpaulins that have been covering the empty seats in the stadiums of those other global behemoths – upper-tier English football clubs. Arsenal included on theirs “Victory through harmony”, Liverpool featured their famous motto “You’ll never walk alone”, while Manchester United quoted legendary manager Matt Busby: “Football is nothing without fans”.

Inspiring stuff.  

If you’re a fan of the Beautiful Game, you can probably see where I’m going. If you’re not, let me quickly summarise one of the more extraordinary weeks in the history of modern football/plutocratic venality.

On Monday, the world learned that 12 of its largest football clubs – six from England, plus three each from Spain and Italy – had quietly plotted a historic coup. They were the founding members, they said, of what would eventually be a 20-team European rebel comp – the “Super League”. It was announced as a fait accompli, but how badly wrong that proved to be.

The problem? The Super League would effectively destroy one of the most cherished tournaments in the world – the European Champions League – and replace it with a cartel. 

Despite awesome inequities in European football, the principle of openness – of competitive qualification – remains almost sacrosanct. Antithetically, the Super League would be hermetically sealed, its founding clubs competing in perpetuity. The chutzpah of Arsenal – a club that has never won a European Cup/Champions League trophy, has failed to win a domestic title in almost 20 years, and currently sits ninth in the Premier League – was especially galling.

The 12 clubs had acted imperiously. So imperiously, that their owners didn’t seem to have bothered consulting with their own players or managers – remarkable given that they would bear the potential consequences of this failed coup, via the stripping of points and their eligibility to play for their countries. Oh, to be a fly on the wall now at Emirates Stadium, Old Trafford, etc.

Anyway, that was Monday. By Tuesday, fans were torching shirts and blockading the Chelsea team bus. Boris Johnson, Prince William and Emmanuel Macron condemned it. So did the sport’s various governing authorities – the FA, UEFA and FIFA – who threatened sanctions. Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps the closest thing English football has to a religious icon, was critical. Gary Neville, a shrewd pundit who played 602 games for Manchester United, delivered a blistering monologue on Sky Sports: “I’m disgusted with Manchester United and Liverpool the most,” he said. “Liverpool, they pretend ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, the people’s club, the fans’ club. Manchester United [was] borne out of workers from around here, and they’re breaking away into a league without competition that they can’t be relegated from? It’s an absolute disgrace. Honestly, we have to wrestle back the power in this country from the clubs at the top of this league – and that includes my club … It’s pure greed.”

It was an astonishing failure of judgement from the club owners. Within 72 hours, each of the English “big six” had apologetically capitulated. 

To be a football fan is to engage in a stubborn suspension of disbelief. At some level, however subtly, one must pretend that the subject of one’s fandom is not a global brand possessed of vulgar instincts, owned by greedy, aloof billionaires, and staffed by talented, but self-interested contractors.

This suspension of disbelief can work, more or less, because the love of the game generates gorgeous social webs: the family inheritance of allegiance, the post-game autopsies in the pub, the shared vocabulary and memories. And tragedy can form or bind communities, too: no Liverpool fan of a certain age will forget the Hillsborough tragedy, nor the cynical tabloid confections that blamed terrace “thugs” for the 96 deaths. It was the bereaved football community that began – and helped sustain – a 30-year city-wide boycott of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, a measure vindicated years later when the fatal crush was formally attributed to poor stadium design and lax policing.

Through love and ritual, the fan’s imaginative and social life can still exist independently of their club’s commodification and condescension of it.

But this week, that suspension of disbelief was collectively broken. Necessarily and powerfully. And, sure: it’s a simple narrative that portrays UEFA and FIFA as benevolent – or at least benign – actors, but fuck it. Let the fans have this one.

What’s more, this great chastening of football’s plutocrats may trigger substantial reform. During the 2019 election, the Tories pledged a review of football’s governance and ownership laws. This week accelerated that. Boris Johnson promised an imminent “root and branch investigation into the governance of football and what we can do to promote the role of fans in that governance”, while his culture secretary said that Germany’s model of majority fan ownership would be examined.

Humbled, and threatened with the dilution of their power, the billionaire owners now say they’re hungry to be better.

I’m sure they are.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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