The latest plans for a European Super League have given the political leaders of the three countries concerned serious headaches. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on the other hand, is in excruciating pain.
The English Premier League is the richest football league in the world, with six of the current competition’s 12 teams hailing from England, three from Spain, and one each from Italy and Spain.
The Premier League is regarded as a great success story for the United Kingdom. The value of the league’s contribution to the UK economy is estimated to be more than $10 billion, with games broadcast in nearly 200 countries.
As a result, Johnson’s political stake is higher than that of his Spanish and Italian counterparts.
Johnson, like other European leaders, has spoken out against the Super League.
“How can it be right that you create a kind of cartel that stops clubs playing against each other without the hope and excitement of fans up and down the country?” On Tuesday, Johnson spoke at a Downing Street press conference.
He’s repeatedly said that the football authorities have his government’s “full backing to take whatever action necessary to put a stop to these plans.” On Tuesday, the Premier League said it was “considering all actions available” to prevent a Super League from progressing.
When pressed on the issue, Johnson’s official spokesperson said that even if officials, such as the Premier League, lose their cool and support the Super League, the government’s current tone indicates that it is unlikely to back down. Johnson’s Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, made it clear in a speech to Parliament on Monday that this meant looking at some drastic steps.
“We are examining every option, from governance reform to competition law, and the mechanisms that allow football to take place. Put simply, we will be reviewing everything the Government does to support these clubs to play,” he said.
You might be forgiven for asking why Johnson, a free-market liberal who has long opposed government intervention, is now contemplating legislation to “ensure these proposals are stopped.”
Theories have ranged from the PM’s conversion since his days as London Mayor, when he cautioned against an “orgy of stable door banging and unnecessary control” for financial services, to cynical politics and a bid to keep the poorer voters he gained in the general election in 2019.
The reality is probably less interesting. “In England, love of football is not confined to one part of the country or one set of seats, and I suspect this intervention will be near-universally popular,” says Opinium Research’s Chris Curtis.
“What is more interesting is the extent to which Johnson is willing to throw Conservative economic orthodoxy under the bus if he thinks it will help him win the next election.”
Many Conservative MPs, who have been alarmed by Johnson’s shift away from free-market economics since becoming Prime Minister, seem to be at ease with the latest noises coming from Downing Street.
Damian Collins, a Conservative MP and chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, told CNN that while his preference would be “an agreement between the governing bodies that forces the Super League to back down,” the government must explore what legal options it has to stop English clubs from joining w new a was If existing laws are found to be ineffective, which is possible, Collins added that the government would need to “introduce new legislation that will preserve the integrity of our sporting competition.”
So, with the public’s and his own party’s support, what exactly is causing Johnson so much trouble?
The Prime Minister has said unequivocally that he wants to end the Super League.
“I don’t think it right that they [clubs] should be somehow dislocated from their hometowns and home cities and turned into international brands and commodities without any reference to the fans who have loved them all their lives,” said Johnson on Tuesday’s Downing Street news briefing.
Anything less than banning Premier League teams from joining the Super League will be considered a political failure. Johnson has only two options for persuading the clubs to change their minds: discouragement or legal action.
As Collins previously said, the cleanest choice for Johnson is for football authorities to adequately sanction Super League clubs by prohibiting players from representing national teams or docking points in domestic leagues. If it works, Johnson gets a double win for making the right noises while still keeping his hands clean.
If this type of dissuasion isn’t feasible, Johnson will have to consider withdrawing state funding for these clubs’ hosting of matches. This may include everything from a lack of police presence at matches to the refusal of foreign players’ visas.
Taking legal action is unquestionably the most difficult path for Johnson to pursue. The government will likely attempt to enforce current competition laws, but few believe this will be effective. If all other options fail, Johnson will be forced to enact legislation that allows the government to interfere in the operations of extremely rich, privately held companies.
That’s politically risky. Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, a non-profit organization that uses the law to protect the public interest, says that the government could “introduce legislation saying that these clubs may not join this league and that their directors will go to prison if they do. It would pass through parliament and come into effect immediately.”
The hypothetical legislation may also state that, as in Germany, football clubs are majority-owned by their supporters. There will, however, be substantial repercussions.
There is no question that a majority in parliament authorizing major state interference in a key industry will have a significant impact on how international investors view the UK post-Brexit, which would become increasingly relevant to Johnson’s government.