Pete Whitehead reflects on the need for football clubs to seek forgiveness following recent events. 06/05/2021
At the time of writing, Manchester United fans have, through protest, managed to get Liverpool vs Manchester United – the biggest fixture in English football – postponed. It’s not clear when the game will be replayed. Regardless of your views on the validity of the protest or their tactics, there is, it seems, a colossal rift in our national sport, and it isn’t going to go away without that most precious of things – forgiveness. Where do we go from here?
To begin, it’s worth understanding why the fans were protesting. Two weeks ago, for 72 long and infuriating hours, six of England’s biggest and most beloved football clubs turned on their heels and left their domestic leagues behind for the promise of football’s El Dorado: a Super League of the world’s richest and most successful clubs, a ‘closed shop’, designed to keep smaller clubs in their place. This promptly collapsed, and now there is anger and acrimony.
My colleague Hannah recently spoke about forgiveness of Liverpool’s owners on BBC Radio Merseyside, making the point that forgiveness takes time, and that one can forgive without forgetting. I’d stress a further point: forgiveness is many things, but one element – a key element – has to be the opportunity to hold to account. To have the opportunity to enact punishment, but electing not to do so. Without the ability to hold people to account meaningfully, forgiveness becomes cheapened. If it’s the only choice we have, it cannot be true forgiveness.
To grapple with the issues standing in the way of forgiveness post–Super League, and to understand why it is that fans are so angry, we need to understand a little of why fans of Liverpool, Man City, Arsenal, or any of the other clubs find it remarkably difficult to meaningfully hold their owners to account, how the material structure of club ownership in the UK is broken, and why the game has lost its way spiritually.
As the fallout from Sunday’s protest began to unfold, the Premier League put out a statement condemning the protesters, claiming that “fans have many channels by which to make their views known.”
Certainly, fans have all manner of ways to make their views known. They can sing on the terraces, discuss their views on talk radio, fan forums, or social media. The crux of the problem rears its head when the question of what happens after fans have ‘made themselves heard’ is raised, because the answer tends to be ‘very little’. I have no doubt that fans find it easy to make themselves heard. The issue is that no–one is listening.
Man City is owned by a nation–state. Liverpool, Man United, and Arsenal are owned by distant US–based billionaires, who rarely – almost never in the case of Arsenal’s Stan Kroenke – visit the clubs they own, Chelsea is owned by a Russian billionaire who legally cannot do business in the UK at the time of writing. Tottenham, meanwhile, is owned by Joe Lewis, a currency trader who made millions on Black Wednesday and is currently domiciled in the Bahamas.
The owners are far–flung and distant, and there’s little fans can do to change things. Indeed, the English system of club ownership leaves domestic fans almost uniquely badly placed in the world of elite European football to meaningfully hold their owners to account. Germany has the 50+1 model, where 50% plus one shares of a club have to be held by fans, and Spain has Real Madrid and Barcelona run by the ‘Socio’ system, where fans pay about 123 euros a year for the privilege of being members, with discounted tickets and the right of electing a chairperson. Granted, due to the financial rules of the Socio system, the chair more or less has to be a billionaire, but there is at least an election for them, and they can be dumped unceremoniously out of office should they anger the fans. Here in the UK, we have none of this. There is no meaningful way for local or domestic fans to get rid of, or even change the mind of, an owner. At least, local and domestic fans can’t even use their power as consumers to force a market correction – each of the wealthiest three English clubs have matchday revenue below 1/5th of their overall revenue. In short, even an entirely empty stadium almost certainly wouldn’t be enough to financially force owners out – the bet made by the Super League clubs was that there was enough market for merchandise and TV sales that they didn’t need local fans.
By removing the stake that fans have in the clubs that they love, UK owners leave fans with no sense that forgiveness matters, and so they are unlikely to forgive. There may be further protests, there may not. What will remain is a sour aftertaste, a simmering resentment, and a deepening of the sense that the only way to change things is to force out the owners – despite the fact that the only people with the money to buy these clubs are other billionaires. In other words, the kinds of people who will start the whole horrid process over again, only this time with a ‘proper’ billionaire fan who’ll do what people want, perfectly encapsulated in the current discussions about Spotify’s owner Daniel Ek bidding for ownership of Arsenal.
So, the UK system of club ownership is materially broken. But what of the spiritual nature of ownership? What does it mean to ‘own’ a club? To answer that, it’s worth considering what a football club is.
For those not familiar with the Ship of Theseus, it’s a thought experiment first proposed by the Greek philosopher Plutarch. He asks: if a ship has all of its old planks replaced over time, to the point where not a single plank from the original remains – is it the same ship? We might well ask a similarly metaphysical question about what makes a football team.
It isn’t the players. I grew up watching Michael Owen, who promptly left for Real Madrid. A brief and doomed flirtation with Milan Baroš after the 2004 Euros, the advent and heartbreak of Torres, the mercurial (then waning) Gerrard, my current adoration of Henderson’s leadership and fervent belief that Xherdan Shaqiri is under–utilised creatively. These infatuations will come and go, but my love for Liverpool FC remains. Managers, owners, stadium stands, sometimes even stadiums themselves. These will all come and go for many clubs, mine included. Fans love the institution regardless.
Yes, fans want to see top players playing big games, but they want the highs and lows, the sense of being part of something that supporting a football team brings. There is, at the centre of a football club, a kernel of ecstatic enjoyment. Remove that, and you’re left with all the makings of a team – 11 players, a coach, a stadium – all of which are nice assets to have, but you have lost the soul of the institution. All the planks are there, but Theseus has long since gone.
Liverpool and Man City, for instance, if you trace them back far enough, began as an offshoot of Everton FC (formerly St Domingo’s FC) and St. Mark’s Church FC respectively. Community groups that gathered to play the people’s sport, which over time grew to become Europe–bestriding colossuses of the game. Throughout that history, though, is an ineffable sense of what it is to ‘be’ Liverpool. It is a socially produced tradition and identity, less about points in history, like winning the European Cup in Rome in ‘77 and ‘84, and more about dialogue – fans between fans, club between club, generation between generation. Football clubs are valuable because of that ineffable sense of belonging.
Communitarian sociologist Amitai Etzioni wrote in ‘The Active Society’ that ‘‘A relationship, institution, or society is inauthentic if it provides the appearance of responsiveness, while the underlying condition is alienating. Objectively, both alienating and inauthentic conditions are excluding, but inauthentic structures devote a higher ratio of their efforts than the alienating ones to concealing their contours and to generating appearance of responsiveness… To be alienated is to experience a sense of not belonging and to feel that one’s efforts are without meaning. To be involved inauthentically is to feel cheated and manipulated.” A text over 50 years old, and yet utterly apt for how fans feel. Years of marketing to them with slogans emphasising their involvement, like Liverpool’s now painfully ironic ‘This Means More’, have simply served to mask their alienation. Football is becoming inauthentic, fans are feeling cheated and manipulated, and this has been occurring for some time, just with enough illusion and rough–and–tumble of league positions and cup games to mask the unresponsive nature of their clubs.
What are clubs for?
This brings us to the final question raised by the Super League: What are football clubs for? Right now, there is too great a disconnect between the purposes that owners have for clubs and the way that fans conceive of their team’s purpose.
Broadly speaking, the American owners want to make money. Liverpool, Man Utd, and Arsenal are all seen as investment vehicles by their owners – the Glazers have famously taken money out of the club in the case of Manchester United, and FSG, Liverpool’s owners, have seen the value of their asset skyrocket from the 330 million they paid for the club to its current valuation of over 2.2 billion. For these owners, the Super League, with its cap on wages and spending, was a way to ensure a level playing field with the clubs with unlimited wealth. More importantly, the ‘closed shop’ nature of the competition, where no matter what happened, clubs could not ‘drop out’ of the Super League due to bad performances, would have served as a bulwark against the downside risk of a bad season or two.
Chelsea and City, whose owners have near infinite wealth, aren’t bothered about profitability. Their priority is reputational, and their clubs simply have less historical success than other clubs. (City have now won more trophies since being bought by their current owners 13 years ago than they had in their previous 114 years as a club, for example.) It’s widely accepted that Sheikh Mansour, City’s owner, and half–brother of the UAE’s ruler Sheikh Khalifa, wanted to buy a Premier League club in order to establish a global positive presence for the UAE, where he serves as Deputy Prime Minister.
It’s perhaps for this reason that City and Chelsea have come out comparatively well from the Super League – framing themselves as the two clubs that broke the league by pulling out, and more clear acceptance that their club’s identity has been forever changed by their new billionaire owners. Liverpool, Man Utd, Spurs, and Arsenal all attempt to trade on their history and relationship with their fans, making their presence in the league all the more galling.
My colleague Paul Bickley, who wrote the Theos reports ‘Give Us Our Ball Back‘ and ‘State of Play‘, pointed out to me that there’s an analogy to be drawn between a football club and a local church – many of which are constituted as charities. Such a church has the legal form of a charity, exists for charitable purposes, and has to file accounts with charity commission. But a church is not a charity. It is a spiritual reality that exists when people gather for worship. A sport club isn’t a business – that is merely its current legal form, and there could be a different legal form; one that recognises the specific role that sport, and football clubs in particular, have in our society. A church could very well incorporate as a company or a corporation, but that wouldn’t reflect the ‘spirit’ behind it. We appear to have reached the hard limit of the current form of football ownership.
Too often in contemporary society, we allow inequality to widen, oligarchies to develop, and bad practices to set in. Often, as long as things seem to be nominally working, we pay little attention to the moral structure of the institutions around us. We only sit up and take notice when we’re no longer distracted, when a moment of crisis or an exogenous shock occurs, when it is made abruptly clear that the rules do not apply equally, that some people are too big to fail and the rules do not apply to them. The virulent backlash to the Super League was what you get when the music stops.
What we saw last week in football mirrors what we have seen for decades across various sectors of our economy – the tension between the market economy and social or community goods. It’s this tension that underpins the entire debate, this tension that is the source of the relational breakdown between fans and owners.
The Christian response has three key elements which offer us – perhaps – a way out of the quagmire. The first is an understanding of the true joy of sport; a renewed appreciation of the element of play. For Karl Barth, elite sport had a form of ‘cthonic power’: “Today what is called sport seems to have become the playground of a particular earth–spirit… What is behind the enthusiasm of millions of sporting fans who watch the players with such passionate and often frenzied excitement?” In short – sport was being elevated to a Godlike status, but a false God can only ever provide hollow succour to the human soul. The historian Christopher Lasch would agree, but from a more secular perspective, focused on the purity of the social concept of sport – in his view, we have asked sport to do too much culturally, and perversely this action has devalued it: “What began as an attempt to invest sport with religious significance, indeed to make it into a surrogate religion in its own right, ends with the demystificiation of sport, the assimilation of sport to show business.”
The second thing Christianity offers is the religious ethic, which is uniquely well–equipped to consider the issues at hand. Religion recognises the power that belief and meaning have to people’s lives, and possess a profound understanding of a sense of value outside of what the market will bear.
Finally, people of faith spend – or at least I do – a lot of time thinking about forgiveness and salvation, how it is that we, as fallen and broken creatures who will hurt and be hurt in turn, can muddle through towards a more just world; how we can forgive and be forgiven. The US–based Catholic writer Liz Bruenig, for instance, has commented on the need for forgiveness to address matters of identity – that “forgiveness is the opportunity to give someone an identity that is not based on the way in which they fail.”
Maybe it is. But an inauthentic, alienated relationship cannot breed a culture of forgiveness. The healing process will be long and not necessarily without bumps in the road, but what is clear is that for forgiveness to occur, clubs must seek a true relationship with their fans. A new relationship, one where fans have a stake, and a meaningful say in an institution fundamentally rooted in their community, their city, and built by previous generations of their family.
As Breunig sees it, forgiveness is an opportunity to give someone a new identity – and thus begin anew. My hope is that owners of football clubs seek this forgiveness, and work with fans on a new identity for ownership in British football. To do this, owners need to bridge a crucial and hugely difficult gap, seeing clubs not through their own eyes, which is to say, as mere investments, but rather with a fan’s eyes, and with a fan’s sense of the sacred. Only time will tell if such an arrangement is possible.
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