The government says it will do ‘all in its power’ to stop a breakaway football “Superleague”. What power, and why? All the power of the state falls upon cartels and monopolies, but for football a monopoly cartel must be enforced.
I am waiting for FIFA to claim a breakaway league is ‘unethical’, as would be the most hilarious hypocrisy. Tonight though the ‘Superleague’ seems to be falling apart, to great rejoicing from fans: it has been a strange couple of days.
Of all the subjects to address, football is not a natural one for me: I do not follow the game and could not even name any players. I can see the grip it has on real fans though, deeply, emotionally bound up with their teams, and for a great portion of the population them a rumpus about the organisation of football competitions is of real importance. To an outsider, it look weird: these teams are multi-billion pound public limited companies: I might as well wear a team shirt for British American Tobacco or wave a rattle (do they still have football rattles?) yelling ‘Rio Tinto forever!’ It’s not my thing.
It is different though: football is big business, but it is the entertainment business: just like the film industry, it is all about mass emotional engagement. Football is a game which can exploit that better than any other: it is man against man without equipment apart from the ball, constant, unpredictable movement (unlike the regulated positions of cricket), and sudden bursts of activity and charges towards goal-scoring, will-he, won’t-he, that mirror the natural rhythms of the emotional drive. It is worth the millions poured in by fans and sponsors.
In all this, it has nothing to do with government. The PM does not turn up to intervene if a film studio decides to pull out of the BAFTAs and set up their own awards ceremony, or if the producers of Bake-Off move the show to Channel 4. (I hope he does not, anyway.)
Laws have intruded on occasion: when we were within the European Union it was ruled that rules could not keep teams all of one nationality, and MEPs keep trying to interfere with football player transfers – selling a player’s contract has been described as a modern day form of slavery, which is not just insensitive to those actually kept in slavery today and throughout history, but is profoundly stupid: what slave earns a millionaire salary and can behave like a libertine brat with impunity?
What the Superleague thing was about is not entirely clear, but the fans did not like it, or some of them did, but I do not know if they knew what they were protesting against either.
Then in stepped Boris. Currying favour maybe with football fans in the northern towns, he was going to give the new League ‘the red card’. Why? On what basis?
The greatest thing about football is that it can be played by a dozen friends in the park with jackets for goalposts, or by players employed by a billion pound corporation, and whichever it is they do so on their own, not licenced by bureaucrats. It is so profoundly unrelated to government concerns that in an over-politicised world it is liberating. If government starts interfering, it is ruined.
There is a place for law in terms of the commercial structure. Monopolies are restrained to ensure open competition on prices and quality. If teams meet together to raise ticket prices or to suppress salaries, there can be intervention. A rule that the teams must play in a particular competition or be barred from all professional competition would be a terrible restraint of trade, but that looks very like the FIFA rules our PM is trying to keep imposed. A breakaway league would be fair competition, and could improve the game overall, as competition does. Yet instead of cheering this competition, it has to be given the red card, acting not as a government, but as FIFA’s hired boot-boys. There is no sense in this. It is embarrassing.
Tonight, the clubs that were forming the breakaway league away are withdrawing. The fans demanded it, and that is a proper reason. Pressure from impotent ministers though: that should have been laughed to scorn.