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European Super League taking over? An International (African) fan’s perspective.

For a couple of days, the footballing world erupted. It was not because of a new all-time high transfer price, or the World Cup or the death of a legend, rather it was the announcement of the proposed European Super League (ESL) that would bring the biggest, richest footballing clubs in Europe into one league. A huge outburst from fans, players, former and current brought the ESL plans to a halt. So many things have been said about the ESL, but one thing has been ignored is the ESL pitting international fans against local fans, the so-called legacy fans, the latest attempt by club owners to gain as much revenue from the global sport in the global arena. Confused? Let me explain.

One thing that has increasingly been taken for granted as football has globalized is that the base support of clubs has historically been the local support. By local support, I mean the communities that surround a stadium where the club resides and their supporters live a stone throw away. It was not by mistake that clubs such as Liverpool, Everton, Kaizer Chiefs, Dynamos FC, Dynamo Zagreb all grew out of working-class communities. As a result, the fans were the club, and the club were the fans. Growing up, I supported Harare based, Dynamos FC. Before my footballing idols were Steven Gerrard, Sami Hypia and Michael Owen, I spent my weekends watching Murape Murape, Ocean Mushure, Denver Mukamba and Desmond Maringwa.

The advent of broadcasting rights and the Premier League changed all that. Dynamos vs Black Rhinos matches were replaced with games between Liverpool and Fulham. Desmond Maringwa faded from my memory and was replaced by Steven Gerrard. The success of the Premier League on the international circuit, one year of closed stadiums due to Covid-19 made one thing very clear to the big club owners. They could survive without local fans. In the 2019/20 season, Liverpool’s matchday incomes (fans coming to the stadium) accounted for 15% at £82 million. Broadcasting accounted for 42%, while commercial accounted for 43%. Broadcasting revenue is a fancy way of accountants saying that Liverpool made nearly three times more money from me (and the other tens of millions of Liverpool fans and haters across the world) watching their games on subscribed DSTV channels than they did from local Liverpudlian supporters who braved the wind and rain every weekend singing You’ll Never Walk Alone.

By establishing the ESL, the European top clubs were recreating a profit-making recipe that they know works. Two examples are the National Football League (NFL) in USA and the Indian Premier League (IPL) in India. The NFL and IPL have a ‘closed league system’ which basically means that there is no relegation or promotion. That way, the owners of clubs do not have to stress about promotion or relegation and can focus on making profits through their broadcasting and commercial businesses. The success of these closed league systems come at the expense of local leagues. In cricket, the IPL concentrated power and revenue in India so much so that the Cricket World Cup format is now also a pseudo closed system and local leagues in West indies, South Africa, Zimbabwe Sri Lanka have suffered as the best talent have preferred to play in the IPL rather than playing for their country/local teams.

Bringing it back to football, the greatest irony is that as an African football supporter, I have made more noise about the European Super League than the proposed Africa Super League which the FIFA President, Gianni Infantino proposed last year. Using the same language and reasoning, Infantino and the new CAF president, the billionaire Patrice Motsepe are angling to create such a league. Dynamos FC is of course not a superclub in Africa and they will not be part of it If does happen.

The picture I have been portraying about the globalization of football and sports is with the aim of showing a contradictory place that African fans occupy. On one hand, we cry, complain and wonder why no African Nation or club team has never won the World Cup or Club world Cup respectively. On the other we spend outrageous amounts of time pining, fighting, betting on European teams. Our time and eye balls have been successfully commercialized to the benefit of European football. This is not to say we have no right in supporting European teams since we can identify with them in one way or the other. It is to show that our broadcasting money has played an important role in the stagnation of football on the continent, the growth of football in Europe, and yes, the audacity of Super League Club owners to know they can make more money from having more games amongst the teams we support.

Some will ask, is local support of clubs even important? Yes, it is. Throughout this Super League debacle, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich who were both prime candidates to join the Super League flat out refused. That is because both teams are 51% owned by fans, rather than by rich billionaires. They started the pushback against the creation of the Super League. They reminded us that football isn’t just a game. It is an identity for a community in which the club is an expression of what they hold dearest. Dynamos FC and Highlanders FC in the 1960s and 70s were the community’s resistance against white minority rule in Rhodesia as well as a form of ethnic identity. So were Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. Al Ahly supporters played a crucial role during the Arab Spring. Some of the fondest childhood memories most men have with their fathers revolve around going to watch football games. If anything, that is the greatest danger of the Super Leagues; transforming communities from being ardent fans into consumers who simply pay for a product. Football and all sports will be worse off.

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