Julian Fellowes, who worked on the popular television series Downton Abbey, a study of the rigid class society of Victorian England, had a keen sense of the power of soccer’s ability to level out the differences between aristocrats, the bourgeoisie and the working class in that stiff-collared era. Fellowes also wrote The English Game, a six-part series based on historical events that recounts the rise of the sport from the moment the game turned professional. Soccer, a game invented by the ruling class, was appropriated by the people and became the national sport, with every side steeped in local history and supported by a passionate fanbase.
The club owners and presidents behind the European Super League project, in their billionaire designs to package a universal sport for their own benefit by squeezing maximum efficiency and profitability out of a closed-doors competition, failed to understand that globalization in sport can tap into the sort of rage that led to Brexit and easily result in the burning down of stadiums. Neither did they take into account the ease with which a prime minister with nothing to lose and everything to gain could place himself at the head of a popular revolt. Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola refused to toe the party line after the announcement of a breakaway league sent shockwaves through the game: “It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed or it is not a sport when it doesn’t matter if you lose.” Despite the fact that the reality is soccer remains the business of a privileged few, among fans the dream that David can still get the better of Goliath persists and the notion of a Super League stirred up the fury of those who felt the ennobled few were pulling the rug out from under the feet of the many.
Protests were swift and organic. One of the first took place in England before Chelsea hosted Brighton and Hove Albion at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, around a thousand fans delaying kick-off by 15 minutes and forcing popular former goalkeeper and a technical advisor at the club, Petr Cech, to plead for calm. “Created by the poor, stolen by the rich,” read one of the placards on display, along with others such as “RIP football.” Dozens of police officers nervously watched events. The assembled fans erupted in cheers as it was announced Chelsea’s board were preparing the necessary paperwork to facilitate the club’s withdrawal from the Super League. “We’ve saved football” the fans shouted when news filtered through that Manchester City were following suit.
David Beckham, the closest thing English soccer has to royalty, joined the popular revolt
Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, Chelsea’s billionaire owner, maintained that the Super League adventure was never about money. Abramovich was the first to raise the white flag when the groundswell of public opinion became apparent. One by one, the Premier League “big six” – Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool – fell like dominoes, issuing corporate statements announcing their withdrawal. Initially, only Arsenal went so far as to ask fans for forgiveness: “It was never our intention to cause such distress […] As a result of listening to you and the wider football community over recent days we are withdrawing from the proposed Super League. We made a mistake, and we apologise for it,” the club said. Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy – the only British chief among a group containing three Americans, a Russian and an Emirati – also expressed his regret at the “distress caused.” Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward announced his resignation at the end of the current season in the aftermath of the protests against the club’s involvement in the Super League.
Liverpool owner John Henry, whose other sporting interests include the Boston Red Sox, was forced into an apology to fans of one of the game’s most storied clubs on Wednesday. “In this endeavor I’ve let you down. The project put forward was never going to stand without the support of the fans. Over these 48 hours you were very clear that it would not stand. We heard you. I heard you.”
David Beckham, the closest thing English soccer has to royalty, joined the popular revolt: “We need football to be for everyone. We need football to be fair and we need competitions based on merit. Unless we protect values, the game we love is in danger,” the former England captain wrote on social media. Even actual royalty felt obliged to speak out. Prince William, second in line to the throne and a fan of Aston Villa, eschewed the royal obligation toward neutrality in public affairs and voiced his own dissent. The Duke of Cambridge is also the president of the English Football Association (FA) and has taken part in tournaments to provide support to grassroots soccer and local leagues. “I’m glad the united voice of football fans has been heard and listened to. It is now really important that we use this moment to secure the future health of the game at all levels. As president of the FA, I’m committed to playing my part in that work,” the prince stated on social media after the Super League fell apart at the seams.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson benefitted from the breaking of the storm and recovered some of the political capital lost during the past year over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He immediately met with executives from the FA and the Premier League but also with supporters’ groups to assure them he would move heaven and earth to prevent what he termed as a “cartel” from achieving their ambitions. Johnson announced a “legislative bomb” of sanctions, including the withdrawal of administrative support for the “big six” in the form of visas for players and the policing of matches if the Super League pushed ahead with its plans, emboldened by the knowledge that the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, would have little choice but to applaud his initiative and offer his support.
Soccer is no longer “the English game,” any more than it is Argentine, Italian, German, Spanish or Brazilian. The apparent avarice of the rich clubs has been universally condemned by fans, commentators and players. At the same time the proponents of a Super League, among them Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez and his counterpart at Italian giants Juventus, Andrea Agnelli, have laid out their reasons for seeking to form a breakaway league and suggested the battle may have been lost, but the war between the clubs and UEFA will continue. Pérez was interviewed on Spanish radio on Wednesday night and said the project is merely on standby, having previously suggested a Super League is needed to “save soccer.” But fans in England have enthusiastically thumbed their nose at the “big six” and, for now, scored a notable victory in preserving the soccer pyramid in the form it has been played out in for the past 158 years in England.
English version by Rob Train.