Football’s super league fiasco underlines the need for levelling up everywhere

The bid by top clubs to break away was globalisation at its worst – and emblematic of the UK’s problems beyond sport

Four weeks on from what is turning out to be one of the biggest self-inflicted errors by any members of the business elite, the owners of the supposedly top six English football clubs must be wondering how on earth they got themselves into this mess. They are also probably, wishfully, thinking: “Head down, this will all blow over.”

Among the numerous fascinating aspects of the European Super League debacle, designed to ram through non-competitive staged events for Europe’s top teams, is that it arrived in the UK – England, specifically – at a time when the government is trying to resurrect its domestic mantra of “levelling up” after 14 months of challenges over Covid-19.

As a sign of perhaps growing confidence that, at least in the UK, the pandemic is starting to become endemic, No 10 announced the appointment of the MP Neil O’Brien as an adviser on levelling up. From my own deep involvement with the “northern powerhouse”, the related theme of devolution, and much else in this space, it is highly welcome.

I doubt that O’Brien would immediately think of the European Super League as something that fell into his territory, but it completely symbolises why the rough edges of globalisation need to be shaved. The idea of an oligopolistic entity being imposed on the top of European football, resulting in even less money cascading down the so-called pyramid of domestic football, is right up there with the worst attempted rigs of any market in the world of business.

Of course, in this instance, it was laughable: some of the declared “top” 12 clubs had never won the European Cup or the Champions League, simply serving to underline the stupidity of it.

I am not sure I can recall anything quite as blatant as this since I was studying for my PhD and commentators talked at length about the Opec cartel supposedly controlling crude oil supplies. That view never had any legs, due to the emergence of other oil and other energy producers, as well as the behaviour of Saudi Arabia, but the establishment of the organisation in the early 1970s had the same audacity about it.

What is so beautiful about this latest colossal error of judgment is that it shines a strong light on the instincts that exist in parts of the business world, despite the staggering pandemic we have gone through, and the catastrophic personal challenges it has created for so many people. As a result, it has induced all sorts of reactions, some of which are not going to be put back in their boxes any time soon.

Last weekend saw the enforced postponement of the biggest annual football match in the English calendar: Manchester United v Liverpool. Of course, the violence that occurred in Manchester should not be condoned, but the role of the club’s current owners in the failed Super League has unleashed 16 years of pent-up anger. As Roy Keane, the club’s former captain, said that day, this could be just the beginning.

Within three days, the Premier League had issued what for it seemed like a surprisingly tough statement, indicating that an owner’s charter, incorporating a code of conduct and commitment to key principles, would now need to be signed, with significant penalties for failure to comply.

Cynics – not surprisingly, given the history of football governance – dismiss this as a crude attempt to pacify the masses and government. But I doubt the other 14 Premier League clubs that had to sit uncomfortably in on that Zoom call would agree; nor do I suspect would the government, given its efforts three weeks ago to hurry through a football governance review.

Hopefully that will lead to much-needed reforms, and call for two basic requirements in particular: one, an independent regulator that sets the rules within which each of the English organisations conduct themselves, Premier League included; and two, some kind of legislated move to enforce proper representation of fans’ needs and desires.

It certainly would be difficult to introduce the much-discussed German “50+1” common ownership model, and that might not translate to the English game. But the enforcement of proper boards with true independent directors would be an extremely easy step, and a beginning.

Whether some of the current owners of the failed breakaway group still see any purpose in owning these precious assets remains to be seen, but unless they have drunk the Kool-Aid of ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) and profit with a purpose, I rather doubt it.

Lord O’Neill is a former commercial secretary to the Treasury and the current chair of Chatham House. Phillip Inman is away

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Jim O'Neill

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