The entire football world was thrown into disarray this week when the self-proclaimed ‘Big Six’ of the Premier League signed themselves up to a new European ‘Super League’ breakaway project.
Six English clubs [Arsenal, the two Manchester clubs, Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool] joined several other football giants cross Europe in doing so, in what would have represented the most radical change to football for over 30 years.
It would have seen the aforementioned clubs join an elite European league, with access hinging on wealth and status, rather than success. The teams would never have been faced with relegation, and opportunities to enter the league were insultingly small.
The plans were met with an unmistakable backlash from leading voices across the football landscape; Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher tore the plan to pieces live on television, while ex-footballer Rio Ferdinand labelled the project a ‘war on football’.
The response from within the game itself was no different. When asked about the plans, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp proclaimed that he and his players had nothing to do with the breakaway project, while vice-captain James Milner said: “I don’t like it, I don’t want it to happen”.
Football organisations from the Premier League to UEFA and FIFA also spoke strongly against the plans, threatening to ban players from competing in domestic and international competitions.
Perhaps the most hard-line response came from the UK government, and was led by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. He threatened the plans with legislative action, ranging from the removal of work visas for international players to an outright ban on the league going ahead.
While we will never know whether such levels of government intervention could have got through Parliament, Johnson did send a special envoy to the United Arab Emirates to warn its government that Manchester City’s involvement in the plans would put a strain on UK-UAE relations, given the status of City’s owners within the nation.
Though several sources, including from within UEFA itself, have confirmed that Johnson’s staunch opposition was crucial in bringing down the plans, there is little doubt that ultimately, it was the collective voice of football fans who made the difference.
Within 24 hours of the league being announced, hundreds of Liverpool fans gathered outside Elland Road ahead of their game against Leeds United to make their opposition heard.
The following day, thousands of Chelsea fans congregated outside Stamford Bridge and chanted ‘Fuck the Super League’. They blocked the team bus from entering the ground, leading to former goalkeeper Petr Cech engaging with the fans and a delayed kick off.
Within hours, Manchester City announced that they would no longer join the Super League – all six clubs had withdrawn by the end of the night. Just like that, the whole project came crumbling down like a pack of cards.
Apologies to the fans came pouring out of each club – Liverpool owner John Henry released a three minute video, while Manchester United owner Joel Glazer wrote an open letter to the fans expressing his remorse.
And yet, while Boris went back to his usual business and UEFA and the Premier League were relieved to see the status quo maintained, the fans remain as hungry as ever.
Just this morning a group of Manchester United fans broke into the club’s training ground waving banners around hailing ‘Glazers Out’. The group only left after they were confronted by manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and several other coaches and players.
While some may disagree with these methods, no one can dispute the power that football fans still hold within the game. The symbolism of owner apologies show just that – while it may be a surprise to those not involved in football, fans rarely, if ever, hear from their club’s owners.
They are shrouded in mystery, and this is no accident. It allows them to carefully pull the strings from behind the scenes, whilst drawing out as much money as possible to line their own pockets. It would not be out of line to say that for these owners, it is money first, football and fans second.
So the fact that the fans managed to draw an apology from these usually absent owners is a victory in and of itself – though an apology is the bare minimum to be expected.
Perhaps, though, there is something that society can learn from this this saga – that is, the power of effective group mobilisation. When you disagree with something the government is doing, for example, make your voice loud and clear.
Protests are nothing new – they have worked before and they will fail in the future. What made these protests so successful so quickly was not only because of the outrageous nature of the project but because almost every single person who spoke on the issue viscerally opposed it – every fan, every ex-footballer, every player, every manager, every politician.
Naturally, this dominated social media for days upon end, to the point where companies felt they had to get involved too. Two broadcasters, Sky and BT, who may have benefited from the project, said they could not support it. Gary Lineker, former player and current football TV presenter, also vowed never to work on such a job.
The backlash was so large, so collective and so powerful that club owners were left with no other choice but to withdraw their support for the plans. And yet, not a single bit of violence ensued, not by the fans nor by the police.
It is easier said than done – clearly, the fans had those in power on their side, from the government to celebrities and football organisations. If the government had supported these plans, the outcome may have been different. Yet, they did not because it was abundantly clear what the implications would have been for football clubs, fans and their communities.
When the message is loud and clear, and when mobilisation is collectively strong, the people can win. Ultimately, power still lies with the people.