For obvious reasons, football and politics rarely mix. Even more than the average voter, most football fans are walking lie-detector machines and inherently distrustful of any attempt to co-opt their beloved game for party ends.
That ability to sniff fakery at a 50-yards is why MPs often come unstuck when they dare dabble in chat about our national sport. David Cameron’s Aston Ham mix-up was excruciating, but I also remember that Ed Miliband was never more terrified than when a real Leeds fan asked him a detailed question about the club he claimed to support (he was much more comfortable talking about the Boston Red Sox).
Even being a genuine fan doesn’t make you immune. One of the defining moments of Andy Burnham’s political career came when he was culture secretary in 2009, and his speech at the Hillsborough anniversary at Liverpool’s Anfield ground was interrupted by a wave of anger. He was the face of government, of the establishment, and the “Justice for the 96” chant forced him to stop and acknowledge that action was needed more than words.
Boris Johnson’s own affinity to football is undeniably pretty weak. Unlike his alleged love of pints of beer (why not just admit he prefers wine, and rather expensive wine at that?), at least he doesn’t pretend to support a club, let alone understand the game’s basic rules on tackling. But the PM could spot straightaway that he needed to tackle the proposed European Super League.
The political imperatives of this become clearer when you realise that in the 2019 election, the Tory gains were in towns that happened to have both a strong Leave-voting record and a football club in the lower leagues. While Labour piled up votes in the big cities like London, Manchester and Newcastle, the Conservatives took seats that were home to Accrington, Bury, Blackpool, Burnley, Lincoln, Ipswich, Crewe and Port Vale.
The widespread outrage among fans at the Super League idea centres on the fear that it is a step too far in the commercialisation of the sport. The very idea of creating a league for the richest clubs, where there is no possibility of relegation, removes the sense of jeopardy that gives sport its meaning.
Football was given the extraordinary and rare privilege by the government of an exemption from Covid rules in this pandemic because it is an “elite sport”. Yet the Big Six clubs who want a breakaway now look more than ever like a financial elite than a sporting elite. And after more than a year of fans being locked out of their matches, they’re being locked out of their clubs’ future.
It’s worth saying at this point that rich football club owners don’t have a monopoly on humbug and hypocrisy in this current row. UEFA and FIFA have overseen the money-grubbing commodification of football for years, and their record on corruption makes the International Olympics Committee look like paragons of virtue. Fans too have gone along for the ride as big money and debt has piled up.
Even supporters of lower league clubs can recall the days when the Football League was itself a real closed shop until 1986, using a byzantine system of “re-election” for decades to keep out non-League clubs. My own club Rochdale benefitted from a wily chairman’s ability to schmooze other League bosses to avoid oblivion. Hartlepool United had to apply for re-election 11 times in 28 seasons after finishing in the bottom four of the Fourth Division, but were successful every time.
It may well be that this Super League idea is a mere tactic to getting a better deal from the Champions’ League. Yet the backlash has been so strong that it feels like a tipping point not just against those clubs’ reputations but also in the role politicians and governments are prepared to take to intervene.
In the Commons, culture secretary Oliver Dowden said that “as a Conservative” he felt his role was to defend institutions “under threat”. The government would back the football authorities’ severe sanctions but he also put “everything on the table”, from tighter legislation on competition to clawing back Covid funding.
The new review by former sports minister Tracey Crouch (a genuine fan) will look at financing, governance and the creation of an independent regulator. Dowden even claimed the government would “do whatever it takes” to protect football fans’ interests, a line that may prompt scepticism from the self-employed and others who feel let down by similar promises on Covid.
Labour’s Jo Stevens (another proper sports fan) was withering about it having taken 11 years for the Tories to act, and that it had taken the Super League threat for Dowden to trigger the Tory 2019 manifesto pledge of a review. Yet again, the charge against Johnson is of dither and delay, or as Stevens put it “all punditry and no progress on the pitch”. She could have added that “greed” is so revered by the PM that he cited it as a reason for Big Pharma’s vaccine progress.
Perhaps Stevens’ most potent line was that football is proving that “Tory trickle-down economics does not work”. The bigger picture is also just how much the Johnson government is prepared to use the state to intervene in broken markets. The idea that clubs are businesses that are “too big to fail” (or be relegated) and can create a new, (literally) anti-competitive cartel is something that alarms many in different parties.
Most interesting of all is whether this whole row emboldens the Johnson government into a wider rethink of traditional economics, one where things like wellbeing and environmental degradation are baked into new measures of GDP, and where “stakeholders” matter as much as shareholders.
That may be a stretch for many Tory MPs, but perhaps not in those Red Wall seats that are home to many of our lower league teams. The whole point of the Brexit vote was that some things (like national sovereignty) are worth more than money. “Take back control” could mean giving football fans a chance to do just that through new, fan-led football ownership rules.
Indeed, Dowden explicitly invoked memories of the 2019 election by saying: “We are The People’s Government, unequivocally on the side of the fans”. Those are pretty bold words and they carry political risk. Having raised hopes of radical action, if Johnson fails to follow through, or fails to fully endorse the Crouch review, he could feel a backlash as big as the breakaway clubs themselves.