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Bigger than Greed: The European Super League Fiasco and Capitalism in Football

by Tom Williams
April 26, 2021

The European Super League has led many on the left to see an opportunity for socialist argument - there is indeed an opportunity but it lies in more serious exploration of capitalism and football. 6310 words / 25 min read

Capitalism is in football, and football is in capitalism. But there is more in football- there is joy, there is soul, and there is resistance. The intensely alienating experience of supporting our teams in Covid times has made us yearn for the community and commonality unique to football grounds.

The observation that capitalism is in football and vice-versa chimes with what Jason W. Moore is conceptualising in Capitalism in the Web of Life- a “double internality”- and an approach rooted in football’s double internality may get us further in understanding the fiasco of the European Super League than many of the other left interpretations that are circulating.1

Capitalism organises football, but not in conditions of its choosing. And football doesn’t simply allow itself to be organised- it resists. Contemporary football is constituted by struggle and contradiction. Louis Althusser argues in On The Reproduction of Capital, that any of the ideological state apparatuses is “grounded” in non-ideological practices, citing football as an example.2 Althusser’s theory was that these practices could potentially generate resistances to state ideology. Whilst “state ideology” is not directly equivalent to capital’s desires for football, the model of resistance emerging from practices in which the desire for profit is grounded might provide a model for how football resists. This resistance, moreover, following both Moore and Althusser, may be politically conscious or may well not be (in Moore, superweeds resist as much as political movements).3

The ESL debacle is, as many on the left have excitedly pointed out, an opportunity. but it should be understood as an opportunity to move beyond a woolly anti-capitalism - that ends with critiques of billionaires, bad apples and the 1% - and build consent for socialist values and popular self-confidence. This is an important part of the pedagogical story that we need to tell about football. It would clearly be wrong to insist that football and capitalism are mutually exclusive, but asserting that football has been completely colonised by capitalism is neither useful nor accurate.

The ESL debacle is an opportunity, but it should be understood as an opportunity to move beyond a woolly anti-capitalism - that ends with critiques of billionaires, bad apples and the 1% - and build popular self-confidence and consent for socialist values.

In the tale being told by legacy media, “greed” (almost never capitalism) is corrupting football, while long histories of struggle and capitalism’s efforts to organise football (and the dialectic of the two) are occluded. This approach, moreover, tends to be backwards looking, allying with some of the dreary revanchism of “against modern football”, harking back to a day when football was uncorrupted by capitalism. This account seeks to resist only this most recent, high profile attempt to remake football and intensify inequality, and does so in order to maintain the existing relations of football. Almost no one is proposing that we make it fair, or even less unfair. The demand is that we shouldn’t make football more unfair.

This tendency to treat capitalism and football as external to each other is hasty - opportunistic, even - in its analogies and pedagogies. If we are to use this as a ‘teachable moment’, we’ll need to examine the similarities and differences in how football exploits supporters, and how we are exploited in our working lives or through renting. However, to draw out these similarities we need a deeper and more local understanding of capitalism in football, or else our necessary analogies will become empty and unconvincing generalisations.

Who is exploited, and how?

Rather than asking what the ESL tells us about capitalism in general, we might be better off asking what the ESL- and the resistance to it- tell us about how capitalism organises football, and how football resists. Before drawing political conclusions- both about football and then more generally - the task would become to explore linked conceptual and historical questions: What prompted the 12 clubs to sign up for the ESL? How does this stand in the history of football in capitalism/capitalism in football? What contradictions does it aim to resolve in the interests of those clubs, and capitalism in football more generally? How do we think about the resistances it generates? Then, more broadly, how do we understand capitalism’s organising of football and football’s resistance conceptually? We need to clarify exactly who is exploited, and how.

…the development of capitalist production makes it necessary constantly to increase the amount of capital laid out in a given industrial undertaking, and competition subordinates every individual capitalist to the immanent laws of capitalist production, as external and coercive laws. It compels him to keep extending his capital, so as to preserve it, and he can only extend it by means of progressive accumulation.4

Football is characterised by its potentialities, and this is a huge part of what makes it appealing and compelling. Teams and players have the potential to be brilliant or wretched. The game itself has a potentiality as an economic asset, but also as a community asset. Football’s potentialities also suggest football as a site of contradictions, and always in process. This itself can be a source of melancholy or hope. Joe Kennedy’s wonderful book Games Without Frontiers draws the comparison with Baudelaire’s modernism; football’s eternity not as opposed to the fleeting and transient, but dependent on it,5 or the “team or player who is ‘only as good as [their] last game’”, or even the structures of competitions,

…the promotion that is followed by a humiliating relegation are hard facts of the sport with which most of are familiar....The moment at which victory is sealed is simultaneously the one at which it recedes into the past.6

What Kennedy helps us to grasp when he writes of ‘the anticipation of the memory of winning’ is that football, by creating these memories, contributes to the cultural architecture of not just institutions but of thousands of relationships, and even of whole societies. The tendency of football allegiances towards functions similar to those of Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined communities’ is problematic and disturbing, but football clubs’ capacity to act as generators of communal memory demonstrates the richness of the game and its cultures.7

As Kennedy notes, “the fear of not winning is predominantly a fear of not having a memory of winning”. Elements of the proposed ESL- particularly the absence of relegation- are explicit attempts to refuse the fear and constitutive melancholy emergent from the practices of football, without which the fleeting moments of elation and euphoria would, perhaps paradoxically, be even harder to attain. The ESL was, as such, an attack on joy. It might be useful for the left to emphasise this instead of being lured into the liberal trap of defending competition (and competition of a particular sort, understood on the terms of capital).

The absence of relegation in the ESL was an attempt to refuse the fear and melancholy emergent from the practices of football, without which the fleeting moments of elation and euphoria would be even harder to attain. The ESL was an attack on joy.

Limits, or ‘reducers’

For years, we have been told that “football is a big business now” (a contestable claim), and that the “game’s gone”. The narrative is that capitalism has won, and that football is another of its fields of victory. This line of argument is perhaps the other side of the sharp distinction between football and capitalism, from a pure football to a football totally corrupted by capitalism. Our double internality, by contrast, refuses both football as a pure object and the possibility that resistance to capital could ever be completely foreclosed.

The first limit suggested by our double internality is that capitalism is built on the conversion of surplus value into profit, and football clubs consistently fail to make value extracted work in the interests of their owners (or, indeed, fairly often fail, given particularly the drag on profitability caused by players’ wages, even to generate surplus value). The distribution of surplus value and its conversion into profit is always one of struggles. For example, the struggle between profit and rent. It’s a punch-up between members of the exploiting classes, branches of capital and class fractions that is as unseemly as one between rival fans in a tube station. Even the product, in which wages function as an additional aspect of what is distributed, there is a struggle. Parasitic agents, for example, are now a part of football’s furniture.8

There have been attempts to conceptualise the European Super League as a dispute between national capital and transnational financial capital. A reading like this may be amenable to an “against modern football” type reading, whereby the ESL is understood as a break with at least a locally rooted and more authentic capital. It might be more accurate to say that it isn’t so much different fractions of capital so much as different capitalists. It is probably best understood, though, as a response to a crisis of profitability among many of the super-clubs, or a perceived one at least. The ESL then was more a question of desperation and weakness than greed, or perhaps desperation assuming the form of greed.

The reported losses being made by Spanish giants Real Madrid and Catalan super club Barcelona are now a much bigger problem because of the Coronavirus crisis but this represents an intensification of a structural problem rather than the cause. Tottenham Hotspur and even Manchester United also have massive debts. The proposals for a lucrative new competition from which the core participants could not be relegated was a tacit acknowledgement of this, and of their frequent failures to convert the outrageous competitive advantages they enjoy through the discrepancy in finances into on-field dominance. There is a contradiction here between two kinds of competition; on the one hand, the competitiveness of football and the competitiveness of its practices. On the other, market competition. The two are not wholly distinct- riches in football confer a considerable competitive advantage, sometimes to the point of seeming to foreclose the competitiveness of football’s practices. This foreclosure can never be complete though. There has been a reading of the ESL- indebted to Fernand Braudel- that it represented capitalism not as the dominance of markets, but an anti-market move. This is suggestive but ultimately relies on collapsing the two kinds of competition; a football match is not competitive in the same way capitalist competition is. It is hard to escape the sense that this failed attempt to pull up the drawbridge was accelerated by Leicester City’s miraculous Premier League title win in 2016 and subsequent presence in the following season’s Champions League. This, and the travails of Premier League champions Liverpool during the Covid-compacted 2020/21 season may well have contributed to the bean counters of the elite clubs ‘losing their arses’, to use somewhat indelicate football parlance.

Unable to resist spiralling salaries and transfer fees, the dozen clubs who signed up for the ESL attempted to secure an injection of extra cash. The obscene money promised to the ESL clubs by JP Morgan would have made it impossible for those outside the new league to compete with them financially, and by removing the threat of relegation, this advantage would have been baked in.

The practices of competition within football and fan pressure emerging from these are having pernicious commercial effects on clubs (including those who were part of the ESL), with substantial inflation in player wages and transfer fees in order to compete on the pitch. Transfer fees also suggest an additional Baudelairean point, grounded in Kennedy’s work. When discussing in 2016 the then Leicester City winger Riyad Mahrez- who had been one of the stars of that miraculous Premier League title campaign- Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger made a comment that is simultaneously baffling and revealing, “today we live in a strange society. You give me that example but if I sign a player for £400,000, before he plays, people will say ‘what is that? That is not serious for Arsenal’. You have to accept it. If you say we signed a player for £40m, they will think he is really good.” In their letters exploring Baudelaire’s work and the Paris of the Second Empire, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno attempt to develop a theory of how “empathy with the commodity” and “empathy with exchange value” is taught to those unable to afford large-scale- and particularly luxury- consumption. Benjamin argues, “the consumer really worships the money which he has spent for a ticket to a Toscanini concert.” Is there something similar for the fans of the bigger clubs - a worship, through the teaching of empathy for exchange value, of the transfer fee their club has spent on a player? The transfer fee here functions as a sort of fetish, which, and this relates to Kennedy’s emphasis on the temporality of football; its transience, hope and disappointment. The number in the price is a promise of happiness, even if it’s a promise that might be broken. Should the signing disappoint, the size of the fee is constantly held over them, as if price had this objective, fetishistic meaning, the betrayal of its promise of happiness resented. Whereas with players who were recruited relatively cheaply, or simply developed through a club’s academy, fans have, as Wenger observed, been conditioned to feel that they’re unlikely to be any good. Moreover, it’s possible that the wider effects of this taught empathy with the commodity and with exchange value might explain how many fans of the “big six” with socialist opinions elsewhere, set them aside when it comes to football. Inegalitarian relations within football allow their clubs to outcompete others most of the time on the pitch (commercial power and winning football matches are related, but not identical) and give them greater access to these thrills of the commodity form. It seems that in some cases this outruns their putative political commitments.

The ESL was met with uproar from fans. But it also horrified UEFA, the Premier League and Sky television, all of whom wish to consolidate the existing patterns of commodification that favour them. UEFA, the PL and Sky will no doubt have their own plans to increase levels of commodification and extraction- their objection to the ESL was nothing to do with morality and everything to do with it not having been to their benefit.

Many have - correctly - pointed out the hypocrisy of Sky and the Premier League in this episode, citing the creation of the PL in 1992 as a prototype ESL, although the incremental removal of checks and balance in the interest of fairness predates that; for example, gate receipts used to be split with the away club until that levelling of the playing field was scrapped under pressure from the big clubs in 1983. Again, to posit the ESL as a fall from grace of a hitherto uncorrupted football into commercialisation is to overlook the ways in which football and capitalism have been intertwined.

Is Football without Fans Nothing?

There are specific aspects of football that impair profitability for club owners. Fan resistance, rooted in practices and a common sense of what football should be, is one. What this resistance is motivated by is open to interpretation, and is something we must investigate. We should also ask what the effects of the resistance might be. The directions of football in capitalism are shaped by resistance, but not always with the effects those resisting might wish for. The effect might be to broadly retain the existing relations of football, resisting this commercialisation and undermining of football competitiveness- but not the wider, much longer processes that form the situation the ESL was a response to. Moreover, if the ESL was grounded not in greed but in desperation, where will that desperation lead next?

The difficulty faced by those who desire to further commodify football is similar to that of capitalists seeking to further financialisation of Britain’s other national quasi-religion, the National Health Service. As well as obstacles in the form of demands from workers and consumers, there is a peculiar cultural-moral economy around the NHS. This moral economy is not given- it is the result of pressure from below, with a national ideology that maintains it. The same is true of football, and as with the NHS, capital will attempt to keep eroding or evading the defences erected around the game by its cultural significance. This will happen surreptitiously, because club owners now know that a direct attack that violates the moral economy will be resisted. Again, here the double internality and the resistances it produces can be seen shaping the tactics of capital. Capital has tried to remove the NHS from its social relations, but hasn’t entirely succeeded because of the quasi-spiritual relationship the public have with it, similar to the relationship football fans have with their clubs.

Of course, the ESL is hardly the first instance of a crisis of profitability leading to a power grab. In society as a whole, the ruling class response to the crisis of Keynesianism was to insulate decision-making from democratic oversight, and making clubs more distant from their local fanbases- or ‘legacy fans’, as they were nauseatingly called in correspondence around the ESL- may have been a secondary motivation for the aspirant separatists. The neoliberal settlement that resolved the profitability crisis of the 1970s- a crisis constituted in part by worker power and consequent wage increases eating into surplus value and profits- involved the smashing of organised labour in order that the crisis could be resolved in the ruling class’s favour.

Football’s place in neoliberalism, however, is less clear. Here the value of our double internality- and the specificities of football that it highlights- should be clear. Footballers are well-paid not because of collective bargaining and worker militancy, and the footballers of the Keynesian era of society at large were by comparison with today very poorly paid. The Bosman ruling- the revolutionary change to football’s labour market- came not through organising but through a court case. What the football elite’s next best idea is remains to be seen, but it will inevitably have to reckon with the contradiction of its relationship with football supporters. On the one hand they are a group that can be milked due to their often irrational loyalty, but on the other, they are encumbrance; acting as they do as a bulwark against the levels of commodification football capitalists desire through their demands for clubs to be competitive on the pitch and in the transfer market, and at times to uphold certain traditions or moral standards (the restrictions placed on the recruitment of Athletic Bilbao is not unproblematic, but it is nonetheless remarkable that it has endured).

How then should we conceptualise the way fans, particularly “legacy fans” are treated and viewed? Many people who work in football are exploited in a relatively orthodox way through the wage relation, and probably exploited harder due to the cultural significance of the game and the glamour and allure it now enjoys. Several people I met through playing and coaching in the early 2010s went on to be coaches in Southampton’s academy, but have all now stopped working in football because the pay was so poor that they couldn’t afford to move out of their parents’ houses.

If the exploiting class of football (club owners, institutions like UEFA or FIFA, media companies) are struggling and bickering over “their” share of the surplus value generated then what’s happening with fans? The “milking” suggests exploitation of fans as consumers, something Marx does explore in his work on secondary forms of exploitation. Even here though there are the processes which run against “milking”. These processes do not begin in the ESL concept but do form it, and the ESL aimed to develop them further. Further attempts to extend markets in TV and merchandising beyond Europe are of course exploitation of identity, but they are also attempts to loosen fans’ identifications with their clubs, especially fans of clubs outside the “Big Six”. The stickiness and local identification of football fans has allowed “milking”, but has also imposed a restriction on competition for fans within England. The ESL here may be seen as standing in a history that also includes the link between the Premier League and the “glory hunter” or “plastic” fan, a condition that may or may not have become more commonplace as a result of neoliberal subjectification. If we are expected to see life as a competition, or series of competitions, why wouldn’t we choose to support the team that we think is likely to win most often?

The other side of what capitalism does to fans is external to direct commercial exploitation. Here it is a case of fans as part of the spectacle or “product”, as bearers of club identities, as the source of atmosphere at grounds, as the basis for “passion” as a part of the commodity. This is often, though not always, a question of a loyalty nurtured over generations. The connection of supporters to clubs has been simultaneously exploited and undermined, as attempts to maximise market shares have led to attempts to decouple fandom from what is local; to scoop up the identities- imagined or otherwise- seal them, and sell them in expanded markets. Borrowing again from Moore, it may be better to think of the commodification of identities as a capitalist “appropriation” of something formed and nurtured in certain ways outside of capitalism, often over very long periods of time; necessary for the generation and exploitation of surplus value, but also a potential challenge to it.9

The agency of fans has been weakened over the last three decades by injections of capital and the increased importance of broadcast revenue, which have had major consequences for football fandom, ranging from inconvenient and inconsiderate kick off times to the loss of clubs to insolvency or forced accommodation with the interests of capital.

This loss of agency brings us to the aforementioned ‘glory hunter’. It is not the intention of this article to shame fans who follow a club for reasons other than proximity or family connections, although it is worth stating that the impulse to adopt a club that is successful so that you might lord it over peers who support lesser teams is a rather unedifying one. A focus on capitalism in football/football in capitalism, perhaps also allows us to ask to what extent socialist football fans live their socialism in football. There are many reasons to support a team, and many reasons why- in particular- fans from marginalised groups might not wish to identify with a local team that is favoured by people and groups they feel othered and excluded by. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with supporting a team purely because they play entertaining football, although I would suggest that this is purely fandom, a relationship perhaps more transitory than those traditionally formed with football clubs. And it is probably worth being cognisant of the fact that there are fans whose ties with a club may be stronger, and that those fans are consequently exploited harder than more casual fans (Dan Frost’s idea of people being ‘locked out’ of or ‘locked in’ to their communities might be useful in understanding this). Some fans have less agency in who they support than others, thanks to, for example, overbearing parents. For this reason, dismissals of football fandom as mere escapism have always bothered me slightly. We often hear people who don’t like the game complain that it is inescapable, but it can feel that way to people who love and live it. As a child I was never forced to support my local club, or even to take an interest in football, but as a football-obsessed child from a low-income, single parent family in Southampton in the 1980s, I wasn’t going to be taken to Anfield or Old Trafford, and there weren’t many televised games at this point due to fears of it leading to diminished gate receipts (another example of fans being organised by capital). So my most viable option for watching live football was to go to The Dell. for my mum it was a cheap way of keeping me occupied- as recently as the mid 90s a juniors ticket to the old Milton Road end cost around £3- much cheaper than a pay TV subscription, which my mum couldn’t afford. And although she dutifully took me to games at first, this was a different time; by the time I was 9 I was going to games with my friends and didn’t need to be accompanied by an adult.

Though we might sneer at the ‘glory hunter’, and might in some ways be justified in doing so, it is not ultimately the glory hunter that causes the exploitation of the fan, the glory hunter is formed in the same processes that seek simultaneously to appropriate fan identities and to loosen these for the sake of expanded marketisation. but being formed by these processes does not make it wholly their fault.

Glory hunters only really damage local fans of the more successful and glamorous clubs because access to the stadium and the precious communal memories generated therein are sold in a market. The commodification and marketisation of football fandom means that only some people can have nice things. Markets have created and maintained a situation in which only a few clubs are likely to be able to buy the best players and win major trophies. Supporting those clubs seems to offer the most fulfilling experience of fandom. So supporting those clubs in a meaningful way, i.e. regular attendance of games, is expensive, because more people want to do it. This is different from, say, the effect on the housing market of gentrification, but not so different as to make comparisons redundant. And this kind of comparison might help to persuade fans that there is a better way of doing things- perhaps even fans who had made their peace with this state of affairs because it benefits their clubs. If you can persuade them of that, maybe you can persuade them that a society organised around the meeting of needs would be better than a society organised around the creation of private profit.

Glory hunters only damage local fans because access to the stadium where communal memories are generated are sold. Markets have created a situation in which only a few clubs are likely to win major trophies. Supporting those clubs seems to offer the most fulfilling experience.

The ESL would have been a major test of whether football could continue to be a vehicle for the communal and for market expansion, for the commodity form and the cultural form. This tension between capital and community within football isn’t new. ‘Sportswashing’ isn’t new- there have always been attempts by entrepreneurs to exploit the game’s popularity. The ESL was the latest attempt to shift the clubs involved closer to being more typical capitalist entities, largely freed from the influence of ordinary people.

Counterpressing

As is generally the case when high profile capitalists run into difficulty, there has been much excitement on the left, as socialists sense an opportunity for the left to propose a solution or use the moment to radicalise those affected. Already there have been many calls for organising, for strikes, for boycotts, and yes- all of this is necessary. What is also necessary, though, is careful thought about what demands to make, and about how the ingrained problem of divisions along the lines of club loyalty can be overcome. Football is no stranger to ‘doing capital’s work for it’ in undermining class solidarity. Perhaps what we should most immediately and usefully take from the ESL farce, and the sheer glee of many in response, is not a directly left politics, but the general sense that capitalism does not always get what it wants, that its control is not total, that there is resistance, and capitalists suffer hilarious pratfalls.

Except as capital personified, the capitalist has no historical value, and no right to that historical existence which, to use Lichnowsky’s amusing expression, ‘ain’t got no date’.* It is only to this extent that the necessity of the capitalist’s own transitory existence is implied in the transitory necessity of the capitalist mode of production. But, in so far as he is capital personified, his motivating force is not the acquisition and enjoyment of use-values, but the acquisition and augmentation of exchange-values. He is fanatically intent on the valorization of value; consequently he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake.10

The capitalist described by Marx above is almost pitiful, and is visible in the desperate grasping and flailing of the ESL wannabes and their cronies. Capitalism oppresses everyone, even the capitalist. It doesn’t have to be this way. Would failure to qualify for the Champions League be so bad if it didn’t carry with it the threat of oblivion?

Just as there have long been attempts from capitalists to further commodify the game, there have long been attempts to co-opt fan activism with (generally ineffectual) top-down campaigns, typically around social inclusion. We shouldn’t be surprised if there are similarly tepid attempts to head off supporter radicalism before long. Adopting our double internality, there is a potentially interesting parallel here with football and Black Lives Matter. As Jude Wanga has argued, the approach of the governing bodies has been “a necessary sop to [football’s] workers not a principled stand”. Resistance produces a response, but that response is shaped by the needs of capitali in football, in this case accounting for the “slick” and “superficial” character of the Premier League’s actions. As with BLM and football, there may of course be limited but meaningful gains in these responses, but it will be necessary to understand firstly their integrative function and secondly that they were won through resistance.

There will be parallels, too, with the notionally social democratic parties on both sides of the Atlantic; parties who- spooked by the near misses of Corbyn and Sanders- are now colluding in the disenfranchisement of the left. While we should of course demand that fans be allowed to participate in the governance of their clubs, there’s a question as to how. Even in the unlikely event of fans being given the opportunity to simply vote for what they want, there’s a potential problem in that the wealthiest and most popular clubs could persuade their millions of fans to vote in ways that are deleterious to the game as a whole. The interests of the supporters of the “Big Six” are, at best, contradictory here; they may well want a less commercialised, fairer football but they and their clubs benefit from the current order of things and even outside the “Big Six”, there are considerable benefits for clubs in the Premier League and their fans. A “1%”of football model becomes misleading, letting mid-level Premier League clubs and their fans off the hook. Southampton have been bullied in the transfer market by richer clubs for as long as I can remember, but have done the same to clubs like Bristol City, Plymouth Argyle and Leyton Orient, often in discomfitingly predatory fashion, pouncing when clubs were financially vulnerable.

A large part of the response to the ESL scandal on the left and beyond has been to call for fan ownership. Ownership matters, but shifts in ownership may not have the effects we would hope for. Whilst Bayern Munich’s and Borussia Dortmund’s shunning of the ESL does suggest the positive effects of ownership structures meaning greater responsiveness to fans, top-level German football is hardly competitive, Bayern Munich have won the last eight Bundesliga titles and are on course to win again this season, and their disproportionate financial muscle is a major aspect of this. As New Socialist’s editors argued in our analysis of Labour’s 2017 “Alternative Models of Ownership” report, co-operatives are still subject to capital’s law of value and this has effects throughout football (as does fan pressure for on-field success). Equally, a framing of the problem that fan ownership solves as one of “greed” or a lack of rootedness (a common part of the affective register of calls for co-ops) risks placing players in opposition to the idea of the club as community asset. This risks, firstly, a ‘negative solidarity’ present in demands for players to be as exploited and poorly-paid as the rest of us. Secondly, it risks doing capitalism-in-football’s work for it, if player wages are a major cause of the profitability crisis. Finally, it has pernicious ideological effects. As Sanaa Qureshi argued, footballers who are “mostly from working class backgrounds, disproportionately Black…should not need to carry the weight of our society’s inequality.” The development of a “Lucas Plan” for football would need to go beyond mere questions of ownership to, as the Lucas Plan did, consider the demands and conditions of football’s workers (not only players) and the wider purposes of football.

The ESL fiasco is an opportunity, but it’s an opportunity to have conversations starting with how capitalism organises football (and the resistance this generates) and perhaps expanding these more widely. It is not likely to suddenly awaken a dormant working class and turn every acca-obsessed fantasy football league participant into Yakov Sverdlov (or every player into Agustín Gómez Pagóla come to that), but it could and should lead to a better networked left within football than can be grown (on a recent podcast for The World Transformed I called for socialist societies to be set up around all major clubs). The sudden optimism of the last few days should be tempered, but equally it should remind us that football has been a site of struggle for a long time. Often, it has been a war with only one side fighting with any real organisation or ferocity, as those whose interests align with labour became increasingly atomised, disorganised and divided by identitarianism. Yet there is surely much to be learned from those who have been active in struggle, for example Callum Bell and other comrades who took part in the now-defunct Labour Community Organising Unit’s campaign against Mike Ashely’s ownership of Newcastle United.

We should be galvanised by football’s landlord class having shown itself to be weak, and reliant on a minimally active consent derived from the football public’s sense of helplessness; that is to say, they get away with it because we can’t imagine anything better, or because when our team is crap we blame managers and players who are almost always trying their hardest. As Ralph Milband put it, “hegemony depends not so much on consent as resignation”11, and regardless of the specific political content of fans’ resistance and the Massimo Taibi moments of football’s landlord class, what has happened should at least help us argue against defeatism.

As Milband put it, “hegemony depends not so much on consent as resignation”, and regardless of the specific political content of fans’ resistance and the Massimo Taibi moments of football’s landlord class, what has happened should at least help us argue against defeatism.

The very least we should take from this debacle is that football remains a site of struggle and a means of resisting capitalism, long after many other sites and institutions have been lost. It will not, by itself, bring about socialism, and it is lazy and ridiculous to suggest as much. Our challenge should be to find ways of using it to prefigure better ways of living, and make them seem attainable.

The hollow irony in the attempts of capitalists to enrich themselves via football is that the game has been the source of many of the most spiritually enriching experiences, memories, friendships of my life. The practices and ideology that seek to limit access to this sublime sphere of cultural life have always been confronted within football, and they always will be.


  1. Jason W. Moore. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso. p. 1. 

  2. Louis Althusser. [1971]. 2014. On the Reproduction of Capitalism. translated by Ben Brewster and G. M. Goshgarian. London: Verso. p. 77. 

  3. Moore, Capitalism in the Web o:f Life. pp. 271-6. 

  4. Karl Marx. [1867]. 1990. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One. translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Classics. p. 739. 

  5. Joe Kennedy. 2016. Games without Frontiers. London: Repeater Books. p. 31, 

  6. Kennedy. Games without Frontiers. pp. 34-5. 

  7. Benedict Anderson. [1983]. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. There may well be a productive reading of Anderson, particularly the centrality he gives to the development of the press and particular forms of modernity, particular in terms of national standardisation, and the development of the imagined nation, with Kennedy on the modernist and modern origins of codified football. Anderson tells us something else important about football, in his analysis of “Cacique Democracy” in the Philippines, he emphasises the useful ideological effects of very fierce competition for votes between a restricted number of political fractions that basically represent (or are) longstanding elite families by comparison to football - “precisely because the competition is violently real, it is easy to be persuaded to cheer for, as it were, Arsenal or Chelsea, without reflecting too hard on the fact that both are in the First Division, and that one is watching the match from the outer stands, not playing in it.” Tellingly for those who would want to posit the ESL (or even come to the league the Premier League) as a fall, this analogy is from 1988. 

  8. These questions run throughout the third volume of Capital. Karl Marx. [1894]. 1991. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume Three: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole. translated by David Fernbach. London: Penguin Classics. 

  9. Moore. Capitalism in the Web of Life. p. 17. 

  10. Marx. Capital, Volume One. p. 739. 

  11. Ralph Miliband. 1994. Socialism for a Sceptical Age Cambridge: Polity, p. 11. 


Author:

Tom Williams (@shirleymush)

Tom Williams is co-organiser of Southampton Transformed, a festival of ideas, art, and music working to build power, solidarity and joy in Southampton. He has lived in Southampton all his life. Tom worked as a primary school teacher for ten years, and currently works as a tutor in trade union studies. He is political education officer for Southampton and Romsey CLP.