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Who owns football?

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - April 24, 2021 - 12:00am

Across England people rallied to the call to “wrestle back power” from business interests “motivated by pure greed,” overturning what would have been a radical threat to one of the most loved aspects of life here: football.

The furor began on Sunday night when the announcement of the formation of a European Super League was made. The pushback was immediate and unanimous – veteran players took to the airwaves and social media to condemn the proposal, as did fans who also took to the streets. Six English football clubs had signed up, but beyond their initial announcements that they were joining, kept quiet while opposition gained momentum.

Government officials were quick to champion the popular mood and promised a “root and branch” review of the way football is managed. By Tuesday, the clubs that had initially agreed to join the venture backed down. The story was huge, it went straight to the top of the national news, knocking off the coronavirus pandemic, Prince Philip and a political lobbying scandal laying siege to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but just as quickly died down.

Was this just a storm in a teacup? Or did it reveal something about English society today? I happened to be watching the BBC’s centerpiece football program on Sunday night when the news came in, keeping track of the world famous English Premier League happenings and the fortunes of my own club Arsenal FC. I hadn’t heard about the Super League till then and was surprised at the strength of the pushback by the commentators.

Former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville was furious, fit to burst. He targetted the clubs involved, so famous readers in the Philippines have probably heard of them, despite not being a football playing nation: Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Liverpool, alongside European giants such as Real Madrid, Milan, Inter, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Juventus.

“I’m disgusted with Manchester United and Liverpool the most,” Neville said. “They’re breaking away to a competition they can’t be relegated from? It’s an absolute disgrace. We have to wrestle back power in this country from the clubs at the top of this league – and that includes my club.

“It’s pure greed, they’re impostors. The owners of Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Man City have nothing to do with football in this country. Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham aren’t even in the Champions League (the main European competition). Have they even got the right to be in there? They’re an absolute joke. Time has come now to have independent regulators to stop these clubs from having the power base. Enough is enough.”

He even wanted to punish the clubs for even suggesting it: “Deduct them all points, put them at the bottom of the league and take their money off them… Seriously, you have got to stamp on this. It’s a criminal act against football fans in this country. Punish them. They [club owners] will probably hide in a few weeks, and say it was nothing to do with them, they were only talking about it. Seriously, in the midst of a pandemic, an economic crisis and these lot are having Zoom calls about breaking away and basically creating more greed? Joke.”

You see the ill-fated European Super League would follow the US model that would cut out any of the uncertainty of possibly being relegated for poor performance. Right now, the competitions require clubs to beat other clubs to reach European competition; the new idea is that those six clubs would have been permanently included in the Super League. Club owners love the idea because it cuts out the uncertainty of their teams possibly not making it and therefore not making the money that comes with success.

To my chagrin, Arsenal quickly confirmed that it had signed up to the project. Like the former striker Ian Wright, I couldn’t believe it when I saw Arsenal’s name. “Is this how far we’ve fallen? That we are now getting into competitions we’re not good enough to get into? To the detriment of the English game, we’re getting a seat to the table we have no right to be at.”

Arsenal is quite definitely a mid-league team nowadays but Wright and most fans were clear that they’d rather compete and lose on their own merit than be a part of a self-selecting elite that doesn’t need to prove its actual performance but still make lots of money.

The government secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, Oliver Dowden, took up the cause on social media: “Football supporters are the heartbeat of our national sport and any major decisions made should have their backing. With many fans, we are concerned that this plan could create a closed shop at the very top of our national game.”

By Wednesday all six club owners backed down and had apologized to their fans. The debacle has highlighted spectacularly English football’s faultlines, and the essential nature of the game and its following in society. As Liverpool FC’s great manager Bill Shankly put it: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

“Football begins and ends with fans and we have seen that passionately displayed this week. It must be a watershed moment in our national game. We must capitalize on this momentum,” said sports minister Nigel Huddleston. The government has confirmed that a fan-led review into the governance of football will look into whether the current owners’ and directors’ test is fit for purpose and if there is a need to introduce an independent football regulator.

The review was part of the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 election in any case. “Football means so much to so many people in this country and my review will be firmly focused on the fans,” said Tracey Crouch, the former sports minister and MP who will lead the review. “It will look closely at the issues of governance, ownership and finance and take the necessary steps to retain the game’s integrity, competitiveness and, most importantly, the bond that clubs have with its supporters and the local community.”

Circumstances have provided a historic opportunity for real reform that would better balance power between the people and the money.

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