For anyone who’s not a fan of the so-called ‘beautiful game’, the passions evoked by football are sometimes difficult to comprehend. Or at least so I imagine, as a fan myself. Why does football attract so much more money, energy and emotion than other, far more worthy causes? Why do millions of fans flock year after year to freezing terraces to watch teams that have almost no hope of ever winning anything, in a game increasingly dominated by a small, exclusive clique of ultra-wealthy clubs? And why would anyone in their right mind travel half-way across the country – in the middle of the week, no less – to watch twenty-two overpaid professionals kick a ball about on a cold, wet Tuesday night in Stoke?
In answer to these questions, I could invoke the importance of community and local history, the catharsis of shouting at referees (where else can you scream such abuse at someone and get away with it?), or the sheer thrill that many fans experience at the skill – and sometimes luck – that the game so frequently requires. But in truth, there are as many answers to these questions as there are football fans. What seems clear, however, is that football won’t be relinquishing its title as the world’s most watched and popular sport anytime soon. And as a result, the beautiful game’s more than just, well, a game; it’s big business too.
In 2019, the accountancy firm Deloitte valued the European football market at over £25bn. Merchandising, broadcasting rights, advertising – it all adds up. This money isn’t spread evenly among clubs, but rather concentrated in the hands of a privileged few, who’ve transformed themselves into highly successful global brands, capable of making – and spending – hundreds of millions in a single year. Think Chelsea, Man City, Man United, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus – clubs whose fanbases have long since outgrown the areas they claim to represent.
At the end of last month, the profit-driven trajectory of football marked another milestone, perhaps its most significant to date: the announcement of the European Super League, or ESL. Twelve of Europe’s richest and most popular clubs, including those mentioned above, announced that they were forming their own league, from which they couldn’t be relegated. There would be twenty members in all: three more permanent ones, yet to be announced, and five non-permanent ones, who would have to qualify through their domestic leagues. The organisers of the ESL were proposing blockbuster football week in, week out, and the potential profits from broadcasting rights alone were enormous (certainly enough to offset the financial impact of the pandemic). What could go wrong?
Well, just about everything, it turned out. Reaction to the scheme was almost universally negative, not least among football’s most volatile stakeholders, the fans, who protested in their thousands. Sensing the mood, several clubs withdrew, and plans for a European Super League were shelved within forty-eight hours (though not, it should be emphasised, scrapped). But while many in the football world contemplated what this all meant for the future of the sport, I found myself thinking about its past, and about my own club in particular: Oxford United.