“The biggest football joke of all time.” This was how Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet described the selection of Qatar as 2022 World Cup hosts in December 2010. “It is all merely an example of the unfeeling hyper-capitalism that has come to engulf the game – particularly among the super-clubs”, the Independent’s Miguel Delaney said of the decision by Arsenal last August to make 55 staff redundant due to the financial difficulties stemming from the pandemic. “Without fan involvement there would be no challenge to the corporate greed within football”; these were the words of a Liverpool supporters union, Spirit of Shankly, after the club failed in their attempt to trademark the name ‘Liverpool’.
When it was announced on Saturday that twelve clubs had signed up to a proposed European Super League (ESL), most football fans reacted with hysterical fury. Meanwhile, some sections of the football community, including many journalists, also displayed a weary resignation at the news; football has been building towards this moment. The above examples are just some of the most recent instances of greed within the game. But, as some are quick to point out, football has a long history putting profits before people. Indeed, 1960s football Twitter would have doubtless been rife with irate fans complaining about the abolition of the £20 maximum wage for English Football League players in 1961.
Football fans have had plenty of reasons down the years to give up following the sport altogether – or, at the very least, jump ship to another club. However, football fans are a complex sort. They are able to stomach some of the more insidious sides of the game, yet they are also prone to knee-jerk reactions, especially where their own club is concerned. Furthermore, there are myriad possible reasons why they may support a certain club, including family tradition, players they may find especially compelling, or simply that the team’s colours are quite fetching.
“It is an unspoken rule in football that the true fan should possess an undying love and support for their respective club.”
In other words, fans tend not to fall in love with football because of the game’s moral virtues; indeed, it would be misguided to look to football for lessons on morality. Therefore, it would be hardly surprising if fans of the so-called ‘Dirty Dozen’ clubs return to supporting their side despite this latest transgression. In any case, it is an unspoken rule in football that the true fan should possess an undying love and support for their respective club. Whether it’s a 40-year-long trophy drought or the club owners acting explicitly against the fans’ best interests, loyalty to your team is paramount.
This steadfast dedication has ensured that, even today, supporters are a crucial element in the football experience. Phenomena such as Arsenal Fan TV and the popularity of fake crowd noise during pandemic-era matches have shown that fans are as important to the atmosphere as ever. Furthermore, Liverpool owner John Henry’s apology (his attempt at one, anyway) demonstrates an awareness among club owners and governing bodies that the fan communities remain a key part of the football product. In fact, the fan is currently their biggest obstacle.
“The ESL was designed specifically to attract that kind of wealthy foreign fan who would happily clean out the club shop on a match day.”
It is not so much about the financial importance of the match-going supporters; for the major clubs in European football, the revenue accrued from gate receipts is virtually nothing compared to the profits made through the selling of jerseys and other club merchandise. The ESL was designed specifically to attract that kind of wealthy foreign fan who would happily clean out the club shop on a match day. Indeed, the last 30 years of football history can be viewed in terms of the attempts by clubs to become lucrative businesses.
The establishment of the English Premier League in 1992 was a result of, among other things, the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters of 1985 and 1989 respectively. These two tragedies proved that the problems within English football, namely hooliganism and derelict stadiums, had become too big to ignore. If football was going to become a successful product, it would need to ensure that attending matches was a far more attractive and comfortable experience. Fans were still essential, but increases in ticket prices squeezed out many working class supporters and, in turn, gave football crowds a more respectable, middle-class complexion.
The pay-per-view era brought subsequent and substantial change to the way football is consumed. With subscription services such as Sky, BT, and now Amazon Prime willing to pay ludicrous amounts for the TV rights to major club competitions, the match-going fan is becoming less and less important to the financial health of the so-called super clubs. While the ESL was obviously an attempt to cash in on football’s TV market, so too is the new Champions League designed to create more tantalising, must-watch fixtures between heavyweight sides, without much consideration given to the regular, match-going supporter.
“It is hard to argue the benefits of a new competition to your club with angry supporters criticising the move outside your ground.”
However, traditional fans are important because of their effect on a club’s image. When Liverpool are advertising themselves in the relatively new markets of Asia and the Middle East, they are not simply selling the prospect of watching Mo Salah or Virgil Van Dijk; they’re selling moments, like the sheer euphoria in the Anfield Kop as the home side clinch a vital victory with a goal deep in stoppage time. “Mes que un club”, the iconic message emblazoned on the seats of the Camp Nou, is also, it turns out, a useful slogan with which potential customers can be drawn to Barcelona. Conversely, unrest among supporters can, naturally, have harmful effects on the club’s brand. Chelsea’s withdrawal from the ESL came off the back of protests outside Stamford Bridge; needless to say, it is hard to argue the benefits of a new competition to your club with angry supporters criticising the move outside your ground.
And, unlike in American sports organisations, such as the NFL or the NBA, it is not simply a matter of relocating a team to a new city in order to create a more amenable, less troublesome fanbase (MK Dons are a cautionary tale in this regard); the community of a football club is vital to its brand. In other words, despite their best efforts, owners and organisations have found the traditional fan to be a fly they just can’t seem to swat. Once they figure out a way around the problem, however, the old-fashioned fan will no longer be necessary.
Of course, there have been more long-term protests by fans against the growing commercialism of football. Instead of paying through the nose for an official club jersey every year and lining the pockets of the already-rich ownership, many supporters have opted for fan-made jerseys and merchandise as a means of wearing their colours with pride. Meanwhile, beginning in 2010, the so-called “green and gold movement” saw Manchester United fans don green and gold scarves protesting the Glazer family’s ownership of the club.
Still, if football fans have one fatal flaw, it is their short memories. While there is still plenty of outrage and disgust at the clubs who signed up to the ESL, it is only a matter of time before this sorry saga is put to bed and fans return to supporting their favourite players. After all, it is inevitable that owners and fans will have different ideas about what their club represents, and the last few days will have done little to change those perceptions. Moreover, generations of fans have had to endure numerous heartbreaks and setbacks while supporting their respective clubs; why should this nonsense with the ESL be any different?
Yet, the last few days have shown that clubs will take any course of action to maximise their profits, even if it comes at the expense of the fan. The last 30 years have seen the marketability of football become the main concern of those in charge. If left unchecked, football will eventually move beyond their dependence on the match-going supporter and the club communities. The cheap apologies from club owners cannot and should not suffice; traditional fans need to become less permissive and more vocal – otherwise, they face extinction.