Why it is time to nationalise the Premier League, writes Steven Wells

Dear Gordon Brown, it's time to stop the strip-mining of football. Please take it out of private hands immediately

It was odd being a foreign socialist living in America during the recent sports draft season. Every night the TV news produced more evidence that the Republicans have completely lost it, milling around in Fox News herded fake mobs, wearing Dick Turpin hats, waving tea bags and making insane claims that Obama has turned America into the Soviet Archipelago with strip malls.

And then you changed channels to watch, say, the NFL draft, where the crappest teams gets first pick of the best players — part of a system designed to make sure that all the assets don't end up in the hands of a greedy few. And you realise there's a name for such a system: socialism.

The fact is that teabaggers and the rest of the crazy (and getting ever crazier) right wing Obamaphobic freakshow are an isolated rump. Obama is more popular than cake. He could, if he wanted, introduce legislation to nationalise the NFL, and maybe even get that legislation passed. But then again, why would he want to? Given that, as Chuck Klosterman has pointed out, the NFL is the most socialist sports league in America, and the most successful. (And also the world's richest.)

Gordon Brown, on the other hand, isn't quite as popular as Mr Obama. But the crazy right-wing policies of the Thatcher-Reagan years — like letting jargon-gibbbering private spivbots run hospitals and railroads and regulate their own industries — are no more popular in the UK than they are in the US. And the Premier League is just screaming out to be nationalised.

Right now, given the utter collapse and total failure of the Friedmanite free market model, the nationalisation of the Premier League (and the stupidly named leagues below it) would face almost no serious ideological opposition, and would probably prove massively popular with the vast majority of football fans, particularly those who are fans of clubs that — under the present system — have no realistic chance of ever again winning anything meaningful. Even Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, admits it's time to reassess the Premier League's relationship with money.

Of course, realistically any such nationalisation would have to be Europe-wide, but given the EU's much vaunted cultural remit, would that really be a problem?

Football is integral to European culture. Easily as important as food or art. Leaving it in the hands of unregulated capital makes no more sense than letting entirely profit-motivated private companies run the environment, the arts, transport, broadcasting, banking, the mortgage industry or architecture. They will strip-mine it, pollute it, dilute it, debase it, rape its corpse and then sell its bones for cigar money. That's what they do. Hell, that's what they're doing.

Drawing on Europe's social democratic traditions (and German and Spanish football's experiences with collective ownership), we should seize the moment and nationalise all of Europe's top leagues, with or without shareholder and/or ownership compensation. By which, of course, I mean without.

What happens next is open to debate. The current model (the winner takes all forever and ever while everybody else hangs around in a short skirt, stockings and crotchless panties, trying to catch the eye of a passing billionaire) is unsustainable, culturally damaging, boring, futile and, in the long term, entirely poisonous. But the alternative American model is probably culturally unsuitable and non-transferable (are we really going to ditch promotion and relegation and make all our young footballers go to university?)

I would instead suggest turning the clubs over to trusts formed of local government, the local PFA, the local FA, local small business and supporters' associations. But then again I bored myself just typing that last sentence, while there are, of course, already fan-owned clubs in existence — Stockport County, Exeter City, Brentford, Notts County — and further non-league teams including Ebbsfleet (sort off). Perhaps FC United's 'pay what you like' season-ticket scheme is the answer.

The European experience of fan ownership (Real Madrid and Barcelona being the best known, while fans own at least 51% of all Bundesliga clubs) could perhaps be best described as messy, imperfect, unpredictable and occasionally chaotic. But isn't that what football should be like? At the moment the Premier League resembles a video game where four posh boys got their daddies to buy them the cheat code. (And yes I know the La Liga duopoly proves that the shareholder/super-spiv dilettante model isn't the only roadblock on the shining path to an anyone-can-win-it soccertopia).

Folk singer, punk poet and Brighton and Hove Albion fan-activist Attila the Stockbroker once told me that "football is a microcosm of capitalism". He was of course, correct (he isn't always, that same night he also said: "I hate Crystal Palace more than I hate the BNP," which is just daft.) But even a silly old unreconstructed Stalinist like Stockbroker would presumably agree that there are versions of capitalism that suck (like, say, the Swedish model) and versions that really, really suck. Like, say the USA in 1890 where all the toys ended up in the hands of just a few very greedy, ruthless and nasty chaps in top hats and opera capes. And of course the oligopoly currently sucking the life out of English football.

Even going back to the old collaboration between blazered FA bureaucrats and locally based, over-grown, fan-boy, small business spivs would be preferable to the current system. At least under the blazer/micro-spiv regime there was some control over the game that wasn't entirely profit motivated, and also a great deal more social mobility between clubs. Jesus, Manchester United got relegated. Twice.

But whatever model replaces the current one trick, four pony show, the benefits of nationalisation are manifold and obvious, including:

• The elimination and reversal of dumb-ass anti-fan cultural practices (generally but erroneously knows as Americanisation).

• The reintroduction of genuinely competitive leagues and a genuinely competitive league system.

• The regrassrootisation of football.

• The enforced and equitable sharing of TV moneys.

• The self-proclaimed socialist Sir Alex Ferguson no longer having to live under a perpetual cloud of self-loathing and embarrassment.

• The immediate execution by firing squad of anybody who refers to fans as customers.

The alternative of course, is an ever cheaper and tackier continuation of the current drearily predictable circus — the strip-malling of soccer. Every league in every country essentially the same, season after season after season, while the 'small' clubs gradually wither away and football, as a vibrant cultural institution, rots at the roots and dies.


Steven Wells

The GuardianTramp

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