European football has just experienced the most tumultuous three days in its history. Little more than 24 hours after it was announced that 12 of the wealthiest clubs in Europe intended to establish a new European Super League (ESL), in which their places would be assured indefinitely, the project had collapsed.
The big question is not what gave birth to the ESL - we know it was the potential to attract larger investment, secure greater broadcasting revenue, and raise share prices – but why it met with such unanimous condemnation resulting in dizzying U-turns, humiliating personal apologies and resignations.
Fundamentally, the plans failed because the ESL conflicted with one of the 21st century’s most vaunted values, ‘fair competition’.
We, in the Competition and Competitiveness Project, have been able to discern that the defence of competition in the ESL fiasco has taken various forms.
Bitter rivalries are cherished in football. The proposals contained in the ESL would certainly have devalued traditional league and cup competitions. Some feared it would lead ultimately to their termination. Supporters across the country, whether of the ‘big six’ or beyond, were united in their desire to maintain the fierceness that characterises existing competitions.
In the words of a placard of one outraged Chelsea supporter, gathered with others outside his club’s ground in London’s exclusive West End, ‘We Want Our Rainy Nights in Stoke’.
The day after the news broke the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, threatened to ‘drop a legislative bomb’ on the project. Some commentators have suggested that the Conservative government’s willingness to intervene signals a break with neoliberal orthodoxy. However, the absence of relegation from the ESL was correctly characterised by government as introducing anti-competitive practices into the sport.
While the current system of European competition overseen by UEFA also has characteristics of monopoly, it remains competitive in the sense that no club is currently assured their place in the top competition.
Prevention of cartelisation, and maintenance of the conditions for effective competition, has been a tenet of neoliberal theory from its earliest years in the 1930s, being particularly emphasised by the German ordoliberal school admired by Thatcherites.
The move could therefore be justified on classic free market grounds. The populist element of British neoliberalism was also in evidence; the frequent description of the ESL as a ‘closed shop’ by government ministers drew directly on an anti-union, pro-competition, discourse with its origins in the Thatcher era.
"It is not a sport where the relation between effort and success does not exist. It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed, it is not a sport where it doesn't matter when you lose." This was the verdict given by Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola, the manager of Manchester City, one of the ESL’s so-called founder clubs.
If, as many recent studies have claimed, ‘meritocracy’ is the prevalent ethic of the age, nowhere is it more hegemonic than in the realm of sport. The fact that the founder clubs were assured of their places, regardless of their performance in the league seemed to be the factor that united professionals in their contempt.
Furthermore, such an assurance would not only render the ESL unmeritocratic, but also undermine any enduring domestic tournaments, with the big clubs having no need to secure victory in them either.
According to recent mutualist theories, competition is justified because everyone enters freely and everyone benefits. The new scheme, it was argued, would work to the detriment of clubs involved in domestic competition, but excluded from the ESL.
It was not opposition to ‘big business’, or billionaires, or even the fear that clubs were being somehow stolen from supporters that made the campaign against the ESL so effective.
All those things were there and were potent, but what resulted in such widespread and effective condemnation was a genuine affront felt to the principles of fair competition (a rhetoric often employed by the billionaires themselves), combined with an ability to tap into a ‘common sense’ perception that anything contravening those principles must be wrong.
There are currently calls by many supporters, ex-players, and even members of the governing party, to reform football, perhaps introducing forms of collective supporter ownership thus preventing any repeat of the recent debacle.
An analysis of why the ESL failed suggests that an appeal to fair competition, just as much as to solidarity, must be maintained if such a campaign is to be successful. And what fair competition means in this context, for example for profit-sharing between larger and smaller clubs to maintain a level playing field, will require more research.
Senior Research Officer, University of Essex
Dr Sean Irving works on the intellectual history of ‘competition’. He is particularly interested in market competition, having published work on FA Hayek, ordoliberalism, and the Virginia School. He is exploring how the ranking and rating of companies and states has enabled competition to become a principle of global order.