I first visited Old Trafford at the age of seven, when my father took me to see Manchester United play a third round FA Cup tie. On the way there he told me the story of Duncan Edwards and the tragedy of the Munich Air Disaster, of manager Matt Busby battling for his life to then take his Busby Babes to domestic and European glory.
Despite a bitterly cold January afternoon, the atmosphere in the floodlit ground was unforgettable, and I was kept warm by the red white and black scarf my grandmother had knitted at record speed. Though I spent my entire adolescence forlornly hoping for a return to those glory days, I was smitten. From Steve Coppell to Bryan Robson I never wondered who actually owned Manchester United, or considered football a business. It was simply my club.
As the #7 shirt made its way to Eric Cantona then David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, the team continued to battle in the depth of winter with rivals across England mixed with glamorous mid-week nights of European football. Wages spiralled, transfer fees continued to break records, and sponsors were everywhere. In bars from San Francisco to Singapore I could follow every game thanks to billions of dollars in broadcasting deals.
So is a venture like the European Super League a taste of things to come, and what does it mean for the future of football? To better understand the dynamics in play, I reached out to Chris Moos, Lecturer in Organisational Studies at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. He researches how leaders deal with complexity, whether running a football club, a museum or a Fortune 500 multinational. With Saïd colleagues Professor Michael Smets, Kevin McSweeney and Professor Tim Morris they shared their thoughts on football, fans and finance.
The launch and faltering of the Super League (SL) have been a pivotal moment in European, and world football. For the first time UEFA, the world’s biggest and most powerful regional football association, has been challenged by a competitor. For many fans, the Super League proposal of elite clubs mingling in a closed competition without the risk of relegation amounted to a stab in the heart of the ‘beautiful game’.
For elite club owners, the SL presented a welcome opportunity to regulate the industry through a spending framework that limits players’ bargaining power as their biggest cost driver. Effectively, the Super League would have cemented the financial status of a small number of elite clubs. At the same time, it would have provided an alternative to UEFA’s toothless financial fair play rules, which have also entrenched the monetary disparities between elite and smaller clubs, as transfer sums, salaries, fees and commissions have spiralled out of control.
While this may be seen as one monopolist squaring off against another, UEFA’s president Aleksander Ceferin has successfully framed this as an endgame between two bigger principles. Domestic fans, fairness, and meritocracy on one side, an unfortunate alliance of American and European greed, privilege, and nepotism on the other.
The SL has tried to woo football fans and the wider public by presenting their proposals as a way of saving cash-strapped clubs battered by the Covid crisis, reaching young remote supporters, supporting women’s football, and expanding solidarity payments to smaller clubs. Yet, given its position as the outsider and newcomer without a track record, this narrative has failed to score in the court of public opinion.
At the same time, football grandees like Florentino Perez, the President of Real Madrid, and Juventus Chairman Andrea Agnelli have heavily underestimated UEFA’s capacity to garner support from important parts of the wider football community: high-profile politicians, from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron to former players and local football supporters.
The spectacular folding of the SL amounts to an unmitigated victory for UEFA’s Ceferin. His strategy of using the association’s position as a well-connected incumbent to mobilise stakeholders, skilfully mixing personal attacks and emotional appeals to tradition, has been highly effective in swaying public opinion.
Yet, the controversy about football, money and supporters is far from recent. What the SL and UEFA have been battling about so bitterly is the question that has been at the very heart of professional football for decades. Is football a sport, a ‘club’ community of fans, or a business? Or all three of them?
Ceferin’s approach in saving UEFA has been successful because he has focused on presenting compatible answers to the first two questions. He has presented football as a competitive sport with strong emotional significance for fans and the wider public. As opposed to that, the SL founding members, the Glazer, Henry and Agnelli clans, the respective owners of Manchester United, Liverpool FC and Juventus, have pitched their proposal primarily as a financial one. Given their track record, their appeal to the sport and fans has been cast as inauthentic lip service. This has brought the tension between the football business and the fan community to the fore.
In our research of leaders in the wider entertainment field, we see that leaders who are faced with three competing priorities are successful when they manage to make at least two – better still all three – of them work together. The failure of the SL is a testament to the need of modern football leaders to find solutions that smartly work with the tensions they experience, and address the multiple expectations they are exposed to without overemphasising any one of them – be it sport, fans, or money.
It also shows how leaders have to take into account how apparently less powerful groups may organise to support or oppose their actions. Perez, Agnelli and their American backers have clearly been blindsided by local football fans’ direct actions like blocking team buses, and displaying “created by the poor, stolen by the rich” banners. Ceferin has smartly managed to capitalise on that outrage as an unscripted expression of support of his position.
However, it is worth remembering that the fans and players who are now supporting UEFA have often been relentless in their opposition to the murky, and even corrupt world of football associations. Considering that financial fair play rules are rarely enforced for the wealthiest clubs, from Manchester City to Paris Saint Germain, Ceferin’s outrage at SL’s “greed” rings hollow. Rather, fans’ chants accusing them of turning their sport into an unfair money-making machine are a sound track that UEFA leaders are all too familiar with.
After all, Ceferin has himself largely failed to provide the solutions that sustainably bring together sport, fan communities, and business in European football. The difference between the leadership of the SL and UEFA is thus rather one of degree. Where monopolists wield power, fans get “spit in the face”, as Ceferin himself put it.
Fundamentally, both SL and UEFA leaders need to ask themselves how they will manage to find the complementary solutions that combine all three aspects of professional football at the same time: connect with the wider football community, create financially sustainable clubs, and show exciting football.
For now, Cefering will be able to capitalise on his victory by deflecting concerns about UEFA’s own shortcomings. Yet, in the long run, the failure of SL will not dissolve the need for UEFA and other sports associations to make football, fans, and money work together, rather than in opposition.
If anything, the SL has managed to unite all kinds of community groups behind a common banner. Football supporters will not forget their newly rediscovered power to act. Football leaders should be mindful that using fans as a pawn in the business of football may be a double-edged sword.