The ESL Fiasco and the battle for the soul of football: A Mirror of Greed and a Mirror of Resistance

Despite the pleas of some to “keep politics out of sport”, politics and sport have mixed since the classic Olympic games, via the Roman (bread and) circuses, through Medieval England’s archery (where other sports were banned so as not to distract from the use of the longbow), to the use of sports to support and embed colonialism.

Power has always attempted to use sport to bolster its authority, and under capitalism sport has been yet another common that has been gradually become more and more enclosed. So, the commercialisation of sport, especially the most popular (and profitable) sport, football, is nothing new. The formation of the Premier League itself was the result of a previous round of enclosures. No one with the slightest sense and decency could deny that the status quo – the blatant corruption of governing bodies, the awarding of the World Cup to a country that has worked (immigrant) labourers to death, billionaires buying clubs as vanity projects, immoral sums of money being doled out – is anything but repulsive.

Even so the latest move by some of the largest European football clubs to break away and form their own “super” league is an especially blatant example of greed. Only those utterly blinded by their own venality could possibly think that such a move would not go down like a swimming pool of cold sick. The protests and anger shown by fans show that despite the best efforts of capital to expel fans, and society, from their business they have not totally succeeded.

Part of the reason why this move has generated such anger is that it is a mirror for what is happening across society – a rampant neo-liberalism that is munching its way through the world. Clubs that are hundreds of millions of pounds in debt paying £100k+ per week salaries to players follows the same logic that has “disruptor” companies like Uber (yet to generate any profit) being valued at more than the combined worth of major car manufactures.

The dismissal of ‘legacy fans’ follows the same logic that has seen centre-left parties write off their working-class base, in the words of Peter Mandelson neither ‘has anywhere else to go’ (at least in the view of the Mandelsons and Pérézes). As in wider society the only purpose of the ESL is to make the already very rich even richer at the expense of the rest of us.

With the destruction of so many working-class cultural institutions and traditions over the last 40 years (unions, churches, community groups, working places), sport (even a much-commercialised sport) is one of the few spaces that people still felt some sort of belonging.

Just as in the aftermath of the global financial crisis the blatantness of big capital in consuming everything is so naked, so apparent that even sections of capital have been forced to (rhetorically) oppose it. There may be more ‘important’ issues in the world – the huge ecological damage climate change will cause, the constant attacks on people’s working conditions, the deaths due to attacks on public service, the COVID crisis – but the response of fans to this move should give us all heart.

The truth is…

Working class football fans achieved what the fractured so called “left wing” political groups in this country can only dream of. Football fans united behind a single issue and built so much pressure collectively (disrupting the balance of power) that the so called “super league” only lasted a day with all English clubs pulling out.

There is nothing that the professional middle class left hate and fear more than working class people organising on our own initiative away from politics. This situation is no different. The response from the “politically engaged” and the middle class has been predictable. Tired old tropes such as, suggesting every day football fans are too “uneducated” and/or too “lazy” to care about other issues This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The mobilisation of fans outside football grounds in the immediate aftermath, showcased the ability and potential of everyday people to reclaim power and ownership from a game rooted in working class communities and traditions. The elite are not owners of our football clubs; they are merely temporary residents.

Football, its culture and its tradition belong to the fans. We don’t need political permission to strike back against a corrupt clique of owners (who have no interest in football’s heritage and working-class culture), and we certainly don’t need our cause hijacked by other political movements. This movement must remain autonomous, and rooted in the grassroots of community and working-class culture.

To quote F.L.A.F (Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism)

“The proposal for a European Super League is the last straw for football fans. Just as we are seeing a bit of light at the end of the Covid tunnel, the bankers & greedy club owners have proposed the Great Football Robbery in the form of an elite ‘super league’ that is based on accumulating cash from sponsorship & TV deals. When Jock Stein said, ‘Football without fans is nothing,’ he didn’t reckon on the greed of football’s new owners, the dictators & oligarchs whose very existence relies on robbing & subjugating those ‘beneath’ them. The only thing in football that matters to them is the money. The fans are seen as an obstacle to their aims, a quaint sideshow of noise & colour that they now refer to in their secret documents as ‘legacy fans’. This really is the last stand. The modern game has been commercialised, sanitised & tamed in preparation for this final betrayal. Football fans of all clubs must unite to oppose this theft of our game & our clubs by an unaccountable capitalist elite. Enough is enough!”

By a Leeds United fan & FLAF supporter

This article was first published on the website of the Anarchist Communist Group