BARELY ANYONE has a good word to say about the proposed European Super League, which could be the biggest shake up to “competitive” football in generations. The plans would effectively create a closed shop of Europe’s richest teams. Everyone, from fans groups to Tory Prime Ministers, seems dead against. There has been a lot of anger, both righteous and performative. But money talks, and even if this doesn’t go ahead, the implications could still transform the economics of sport.
The truth is that football has been heading down an uncompetitive road for some time. In our own country, it’s claimed that Celtic’s “nine in a row” is an unprecedented, never to be repeated success, a quixotic Scottish exception. In truth, Paris St. Germain has won seven of the last eight Ligue 1 championships. In Italy’s Serie A, Juventus are about to be dethroned after winning their own nine in a row. Even in Germany’s Bundesliga, usually considered the paradigm of well-run, fan-centred football, Bayern Munich are heading for a ninth straight championship.
The English Premiership, by these standards, looks comparatively competitive. But that reflects another absurdity: the Premiership has been almost entirely captured by billionaire owners. Even many mid-table and relegation battlers (and some in the lower leagues) are bankrolled by oligarchs.
It’s not just Marxists complaining that capitalism has commodified the people’s game beyond recognition. Two fans outside Old Trafford yesterday spoke for much of the reaction: “created by the poor, stolen by the rich”.
However, this controversy also tells us something about how capitalist ideology has shifted. Conventional thinking has it that our economic system, while being vastly unequal, has the virtue of being dynamic because it is competitive. But savvy capitalists reject this old hat. “Actually, capitalism and competition are opposites,” claims Peter Thiel, one of the world’s leading entrepreneurs. “Capitalism is premised on the accumulation of capital, but under perfect competition, all profits get competed away. The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear: If you want to create and capture lasting value, don’t build an undifferentiated commodity business.”
The Super League thus conforms to the logic of our economy’s most dynamic industries. School marmish pieties about fair competition are for losers. Equally, the Super League isn’t an irrational product of state intervention into markets. It’s the natural consequence of free enterprises seeking to maximise profit, in a system where, as Marx and Engels put it, “all that is sacred is profaned”. And the outcome, as Thiel says, is a closed shop.