This article was co-written by sport policy expert Richard Bouigue (Fondation Jean Jaurès) and Football Supporters Europe’s (FSE) Ronan Evain. It was originally published in French daily newspaper Le Monde on 2nd May 2021.
The Super League lasted all but 72 hours. Brought to life by a handful of wealthy club owners and executives, it succeeded only in provoking an unprecedented wave of protest from supporters, players, coaches, politicians, broadcasters, and sponsors.
How could its architects believe that they could impose a closed league without involving the stakeholders of Europe’s most popular sport? What blindness led them to believe that they could break with 150 years of European football history and threaten an established ecosystem of employment, voluntary associations, and solidarity networks?
Reform: But Reform for the Better
“Football is for the fans”, wrote the players of Leeds United on their shirts, as if to remind themselves that they are only temporary custodians of the club’s destiny—and, more to the point, to remind the rest of Europe that the attempted secession was indeed everybody’s business.
This crisis calls for a rethink of the governance of football in Europe, and a reconsideration of the place of supporters, elected representatives, and sponsors in dialogue and decision-making structures.
European football competitions must be reformed. But they must be reformed for the better. The new format of European competitions presented by UEFA raises more questions than it answers. And for good reason: it has evolved under pressure from the owners of the so-called ‘big’ clubs. A few days later, twelve of them decided to betray their word by creating a private Super League inspired by those across the Atlantic. They did so with one aim in mind: to secure their financial interests at the expense of sporting merit.
This project has been led by owners and executives who have saddled their clubs with debt and undermined the economics of football in Europe. Unable to rethink a business model they know is unsustainable, they are desperate to ensure its survival. This headlong rush for more money threatens European football with catastrophe, and the time has come to put an end to it. This crisis calls for the creation of an independent financial regulator—a sort of European version of the National Controlling Authority (DNCG), which oversees the French national game.
Regulation and Regulators
Faced with the insatiable appetites of certain club owners, UEFA has, after years of ceding more and more ground to the demands of ‘big’ clubs, regained its role as guarantor of the interests of football’s stakeholders. But can it play its intended role?
It will, of course, be judged on its ability to provide a sustainable response to the crisis. Still, it needs to take steps to show the world of football that it can be believed and trusted. By suggesting that it is open to changes to its post-2024 reforms, UEFA has acted in good faith. That is why we’re calling on UEFA to launch a broad consultation on the future of its club competitions, involving all stakeholders on an equal footing—including fans’ and players’ representatives.
To be sure, UEFA’s readiness to join the protest movement against the Super League does not exonerate it from its own failings in this area. It will have to remedy this and assert itself, guaranteeing the importance of domestic competitions and ensuring that the game’s wealth is more equitably distributed. And finally, it must play its role as a counterbalance to the power and influence of the big clubs. To be effective, national football associations and leagues must fully back more robust regulation of European football.
UEFA will also have to act within an appropriate legislative framework. To move forward, football must rid itself of the threat of secession that has paralysed it for the past twenty years. Football is not for sale; it is the common heritage of all Europeans. Quite rightly, Europe has defined culture as a special activity or sector. It must now do the same for football, recognising its social value and responsibilities. The issues at stake in football cannot be treated as though they were a simple commercial dispute.
A Unique Opportunity
The abandonment of Girondins de Bordeaux by their owner—an American hedge fund—a few days before the end of the Ligue 1 season illustrates the rampant greed of many who invest in football. We therefore urge MEPs and governments to create a protective law for European sport. Such a law should also be applied at the national level, with the aim of upholding the integrity of all leagues and competitions.
This regulatory authority would be powerless without the means to act. The fight against the Super League has reminded people that it is possible to build another kind of football—one that is more inclusive, communal, and European. The crisis provides an opportunity to reflect on how to better fund grassroots football, protect clubs as community assets, and improve the competitive balance at every level of the pyramid. This requires an appropriate budget.
So, we are calling for the introduction of a European tax on broadcast rights and transfer fees with a view to establishing a solidarity fund for lower leagues and grassroots football.
The Super League will have served no purpose if the powers that be are happy to go back to “business as usual.” The reactionary forces in football are already working to quash demands for meaningful reform. We have a unique opportunity to imagine and realise a different kind of football—one for the fans, the players, and our communities. Let us not let this hope slip away.