UK govt scores political goal in attacking Super League big six

London (AFP) –


Britain's government, exploiting a populist cause ahead of elections next month, is vowing no let-up in its pressure on England's biggest football clubs despite the implosion of a renegade European league.

The abortive plan involving the "big six" Premier League sides brought about a rare display of bipartisan opposition from political parties in Britain, mirroring the united hostility of fans who are normally sworn enemies.

After threatening to drop a "legislative bomb" on the billionaire and mostly foreign tycoons who run the English clubs, Prime Minister Boris Johnson commended them for abandoning the plan late Tuesday.

But culture and sports secretary Oliver Dowden on Wednesday said the government would press on with a long-delayed review to examine the future of Britain's national game.

He called the German model of majority-fan ownership at clubs a "good idea" in principle, but stressed he did not want to pre-empt the review's findings and still welcomed foreign investment.

"It would be a popular move -- and really symbolise a break with the recent, neoliberal past," Queen Mary University of London politics professor Tim Bale said.

"And they could still convincingly argue that this is a special case that wouldn't spell socialism for other sectors," he told AFP.

For Johnson's Conservatives, there is a particular imperative to safeguard the working-class "Red Wall" vote in northern English seats that were held for decades by the centre-left Labour party before flipping at the 2019 general election.

In the buildup to UK-wide local polls on May 6, that translated this week into some rather un-Conservative rhetoric about preserving community values against the interests of big business and the owners of the top six.

- Foxes in the coop -

There is a preponderance of smaller clubs in "Red Wall" seats, and Bale said the government could not ignore the mass outcry from millions of fans.

"They include those who live in marginal seats whose football teams play in lower divisions but dream one day of making it into the Premier League and maybe even Europe. No government could go against that," he said.

The government's resistance now contrasted with Johnson's relaxed approach last year, when he was in private contact via WhatsApp with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over a bid by Saudi Arabia to take over Newcastle United.

"The government were quite happy to usher the fox into the chicken coop then. Now they're getting irate that the foxes might kill the chickens with the European Super League," Nicholas McGeehan, an expert on the politics of football, told AFP.

"The test for Boris' commitment is, is he really going to open up a debate about governance and ownership? It would go against some of their core constituencies," he said.

McGeehan, whose group FairSquare has highlighted rights abuses in the run-up to next year's World Cup in Qatar, said the debate about the breakaway bid revealed broader issues in football governance globally, which the government had been silent on.

- Brexit and the beautiful game -

The near-universal antipathy to the planned European Super League crossed party lines and regional interests in much the same way that Britain's Brexit referendum did in 2016.

Johnson, the architect of the successful campaign to quit the European Union, seized the opportunity once again to argue the Conservatives have the common touch.

His government had threatened an array of measures against the six clubs, who are all in the Labour strongholds of London, Manchester and Liverpool.

The most far-reaching threat has been the possibility of overhauling football in England entirely, to emulate the structure in Germany where club members are guaranteed "50+1" ownership to prevent takeovers by outside investors.

That would mark a dramatic break for a centre-right government hungry for foreign investment now that Britain is out of the EU and battling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Football fans have been unhappy at the government's refusal to offer more help to smaller clubs during the pandemic.

Neither have successive governments intervened down the years to address fans' complaints about the biggest clubs getting grabbed by distant buyers from Russia, the Gulf and United States.

Johnson argued Tuesday that the clubs should not be "turned into international brands and commodities just circulating the planet", divorced from their homegrown fans -- but arguably that has long since happened.

"This episode is hopefully going to spark that debate, even if it's coming years too late," McGeehan said.