How football can still come home


Michael Athey looks at how football reform could be more beneficial for the beautiful game than silverware.

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Image by Michael Athey

By Michael Athey

It’s been a few months since England nearly succeeded in immortalising David Baddiel and Frank Skinner’s lyric of “football’s coming home” at Euro 2020. But at the risk of sounding unpatriotic, there is something that would benefit the game more than England winning a trophy ever could. That something being football reform.

Only a few months ago, twelve of the biggest and wealthiest fatcat club owners in Europe effectively announced a coup d’état, and were ready to break away from all current leagues and form their own European Super League (ESL). It is not hyperbole to say this would have been the death of football. Thankfully, the ESL proposal spectacularly imploded within just over twenty-four hours of it being announced, but celebrations should be limited. The ESL was merely a formalisation of football’s death, the ringing of the death knell for the husk. Ultimately, football has been dying for decades already.

The game’s current vices are blatant and numerous. Season ticket prices have continuously increased. Success in competitions primarily correlates to wealth. Plus, this wealth is coming from increasingly morally bankrupt owners. The likes of Roman Abramovich shouldn’t be anywhere near ownership of a football club and its community, yet the system has evolved to a point for a club to progress they have to sell their soul to another morally bankrupt billionaire. Sadly, gambling is synonymous with football from sponsors on the shirts and advertising boards, to the onslaught of bookies’ television adverts. It is therefore unsurprising to hear that for many gambling addicts, football began their addiction. Also there are still questions over corruption within football’s institutions too - Qatar 2022 anyone?

There are plenty more I can’t cram into this article but it is evident ESL chief architect, Real Madrid’s president Florentino Pérez, was correct about one thing – football does indeed need saving.

Of course, emulating Titanic with only rich clubs escaping on a few lifeboats whilst all the other clubs scramble to survive on a floating door isn’t how we save football. Instrumental reform however could be the saving grace we need.

There are several practical reforms that could be integrated into the current UK football system. Taking inspiration from the German Bundesliga, an implementation of the ’50 + 1’ rule would allow club members to still have overriding control on their club’s direction. Clubs could also be protected from undesirable owners through introduction of an independent financial regulator. Such a regulator would additionally be able to ensure a more equitable flow of money throughout the leagues, creating a football pyramid closer to the meritocracy the FA claims it already has. Active punishments and deterrents, including lifetime bans, for those responsible for any racial/homophobic abuse rather than just a “we condemn” statement is also necessary to avoid incidents like those which occurred in the aftermath of the 2020 Euro Final.

It’s surprising the UK’s political parties haven’t jumped more at the prospect of football reform, considering how much the sport impacts everyone’s lives. As we know from his ardent brexiteering, Boris Johnson is a rampant populist and will eagerly pursue a policy if it gets him votes. It is therefore remarkable football reform hasn’t been a policy Johnson has pursued with more agency. Football is the nation’s sport and undoubtedly populist, and with many major clubs situated within northern working-class constituencies it wouldn’t just potentially open up another voter base but solidify the support the Tories gained there for the first time in 2019. Admittedly, pursuing such an agenda would mean having to put lobbyist interests aside. Which might be tough for the Tory party of sleaze. If the government fails to grasp the reins, Labour must pick them up instead. A clear policy such as football reform is exactly what Keir Starmer requires right now, because despite his claims that he’s got a direction in mind, recent losses like that of Hartlepool suggest he’s rather rudderless.

However, if politicians prove to be hesitant, the power is in the fan’s hands to exercise pressure for change. Historically, tribalism and fickleness amongst football fans has always halted a united reform movement. But the ESL’s capitulation in a matter of days to unilateral outrage and demonstration by the world’s footballing community has shown unity amongst protesters is achievable and effective. If we can align ourselves in a similar manner to the ESL protests, and sustain the pressure, there is hope for football reform.

This article’s cover photo from a Newcastle United home game I attended in 2018 harnesses some of that hope: “where there is unity, there is victory”. Of course, we cannot say for certain that we can collectively force change for football, but for the first time there is hope that we can move from reluctant acceptance to demand for change. Sport thrives on hope, it’s what motivates fans to attend games week in week out, in hope of a win, a goal or a last-ditch tackle. So, if hope is back, who’s to say football can’t come back home too.