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The Local Club, Not a Super League

Club soccer is a reminder to us of the joy of community and games. But it is threatened by big business.

There’s an old picture that came to mind when I first read the news about the now, thankfully, dead European Super League. It’s from May 14, 2017, when Tottenham Hotspur defeated Manchester United 2-1 in the final game played at the club’s beloved home ground, White Hart Lane. The stadium, built in 1899, had been home to Spurs for 118 years and was being demolished at season’s end to make way for the club’s new arena, which would allow the team to spring into the European elite on the back of the considerable revenue the new pitch would generate.

The shot is from after the game. Fans were allowed out onto the field and were celebrating the win with the team. The club’s star player, striker Harry Kane, a lifelong Tottenham fan who had been with the club since he joined the team’s academy at age 11 and who grew up 15 minutes from the Lane, is mobbed by supporters. And he has this grin on his face like what you might see from a 5-year-old on Christmas morning. It’s sheer joy, elation, shock—the whole thing.

Club soccer at its best draws this sort of emotion out of people because European soccer clubs are uniquely thick communities; they are bonded together not by the coercive forces of state or market, but by the shared joy and beauty of a beloved game. That’s what makes a figure like Kane (or Steven Gerrard if you’re a Liverpool fan) so compelling: His existence is a reminder to us of the simple, childlike joy of games.

Further, it proves that even at its highest, most professionalized, commercialized levels, sport can still be a vessel for the virtues that are so necessary for common life, and which can’t really be imparted through purely coercive communities, such as marketplaces and governments. There is an austere simplicity to soccer, and it works on fans and players alike in surprising ways. For the players, the game’s simplicity and understated difficulty seems to blend modern values of creativity and individuation with an older deference to the collective. The beautiful game rewards intuitive geniuses, but there has not yet been an intuitive genius, save maybe Diego Maradona, who can carry a team to glory on his own.

Likewise, the very tedium of the game, as immortalized by the Simpsons, in fact explains much of the magic: There is no other sport in the world that can shift from tedium to mind-bending wonder as quickly as soccer. One moment the game is a 1-1 draw with both teams slouching toward the conclusion and then… it isn’t. A single game of soccer can, within 90 minutes, capture something of the meditative pacing of baseball, the breakneck speed of hockey, and the athletic wonder of basketball. This is why it is the world’s game. This is why, in much of the world, a person’s soccer club means so much to them. This is why it has, despite its aristocratic roots, become the people’s game nearly everywhere it has traveled.

The scenes on the pitch at White Hart Lane that final day—when, I kid you not, an actual rainbow came out after the rain and covered the Lane—tell that story. When the fans swarmed the field to pull tufts of grass and sing “Glory, Glory Tottenham Hotspur,” one last time at the Lane, they weren’t just celebrating a fine victory against a storied rival. They were celebrating 118 years of fellowship—across generations, across classes, across races. This is just humans doing what we naturally desire to do, of course. And yet in our day that simple gesture is, in itself, noteworthy precisely because of how rare it has become. That scene gives us a picture of belonging across diverse groups, of a wildly disparate group of people finding a common object of love on a grass field with a round ball.

It’s been noted, in a variety of places by a variety of people, that many of the West’s traditional social bodies and organizations have fallen into decline in recent years, often due to being replaced by government or swallowed by big business. The proposed and now deceased European Super League would have been an instance of the latter applied to European club soccer. Ownership (and seemingly no one else) at 12 of Europe’s biggest clubs, including Tottenham, formed plans to create their own league that were announced early last week. The new league would be a de facto replacement of the current continental club soccer competition, the Champions League, with several key differences that would have obvious appeal to Europe’s mega clubs:

  • 15 clubs would be guaranteed qualification in the league every year with five other clubs earning their place in the Super League via their performance in their domestic leagues. Teams must earn their place in the Champions League every season.
  • The 15 clubs would keep the vast majority of the TV and ticket revenue with the five qualifiers receiving a relative pittance. Champions League revenue is based on how far a team progresses in the competition.
  • The agreement to launch the Super League also stipulated that there would be a salary cap for players at the member clubs, thereby guaranteeing ownership an even larger slice of the pie. There is currently no such provision in European football.

In all of this, the European Super League resembled nothing so much as Matt Stoller’s concept of “counterfeit capitalism,” in which larger firms stack the deck in their favor prior to competing on the market and then hail their triumph as proof of their market success. Of course, counterfeit capitalism is a thing because most of the time it works. Too often when a beloved social institution is targeted by predatory big business, no one rises in protest. Or, perhaps more often, some rise but they lack the power to actually win. The social institution disappears, replaced by yet another Walmart, another chain restaurant, another self-storage warehouse. But this time that didn’t happen, not with European club soccer.

Icons of the 12 member clubs spoke up, to my knowledge unanimously, in protest of the move. Whether it was former Arsenal striker Ian Wright, former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, or former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher, everyone that mattered in European football aside from the club owners hated the Super League.

What this suggests is two-fold: First, in Europe, at least, there is still a deep commitment to these non-coerced communities that are bonded together purely by affection and love, rather than by material or legal necessity. It suggests, perhaps, that our political decay is not as complete as one might think, for it suggests that concepts such as solidarity, collective responsibility, and even the common good still have some purchase in European soil. For the past several seasons, the tiny Spanish club Eibar has competed in the Spanish top league alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona despite coming from a town of 27,000 with a stadium that seats 8,000. Last season the Italian club Atalanta, based in Bergamo (population 122,000) advanced all the way to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, nearly defeating French giants Paris Saint-German in the process. That is the magic of these domestic leagues. Despite all the money flowing through them, the door remains open for small clubs to achieve great things and give their supporters that thrill of transcendence that all soccer fans come to know.

Second, it suggests that the animating force able to maintain such communities in our day is joy. “The game is about glory,” said Tottenham legend Danny Blancheflower once. “It is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.” The glory and beauty of soccer and the joy that creates in the hearts of fans, players, and coaches is why the Super League is dead. That should suggest something to those of us concerned with defending the permanent things.

Simone Weil says that much of the modern West is defined by “force”—by which she means a tendency to reduce people and places to “things” and to then use them to advance our self-interest. She feared what you might call an ontological decompression of life in the West. If we view our neighbors and the earth herself as having a kind of ontological density about them which compels us toward certain actions, then embracing force punctures that density, causing it to leak out slowly. When that happens, common life is dead, regardless of who sits in Washington.

As we leave COVIDtide, we have an opportunity to leave behind as well a politics of force and replace it with something better. I want to suggest that we can learn a bit about what that “something better” ought to be from this fact: Last week a bunch of angry English men and women brought 12 of the world’s largest businesses to heel within 48 hours. How were they able to do that? It turns out when a large group of people unify around something they love—both the joy and the democratic nature of club soccer in this case—they are still strong, even in an era of big government and big business. The plain fact of shared loves, nurtured across many evenings in front of the TV or matchdays at the stadium, is what killed the Super League. And if our politics are to be revitalized, it will be thanks to finding similar shared loves in our own day.

There is, of course, some ambiguity in all this that is even suggested by the scene that opened this piece: On that perfect spring day in north London in 2017 when Harry Kane, boyhood supporter and club star, celebrates with the club’s fans on the field, something else is happening in the background of those photos. A crane looms, prepared to strike down the venerable pitch and raise up a larger, grander, less beloved but far more lucrative replacement, supposedly (and truly) necessary to keep Tottenham competitive in the brave new world of European soccer. The joy of that May day lives on even now. But White Hart Lane is no more.

It is good, of course, that the Super League is dead. It suggests that the forces of social conservatism are, in Europe at least, stronger than one might have thought. But that isn’t the whole story. The Super League is dead, but if we were counting on billionaires to honor the thick bonds forged by custom and loyalty, we would be fools. Joy struck down the Super League. But it will take more than joy to protect the common life of these free communities.

Jake Meador is the editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy, an online magazine covering the Christian faith in the public sphere.

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