Defending the European model of football to safeguard and promote the social value of sport
On 12 January 2023, we co-organised in Brussels the conference “Defending the European Football Ecosystem and Tradition” together with La Liga. Based, among other things, on sporting merit, promotion and relegation, as well as financial solidarity, the European sport model is being undermined by parallel projects of so-called “closed” leagues. In this context, it is necessary to denounce their harmful effects on the European football. It is crucial to put forward ways of improving the current European sport model and enhancing the social aspect of football in Europe.
On 18 April 2021, twelve European clubs announced the creation a closed European league competing with the leagues led by the UEFA, the Super League. This announcement caused outrage in the football world, from managers, coaches, players and fans.
Two years after this announcement, there is still a strong public outcry. This affair is a way of re-launching the debate on the need to protect the European sport model and defend the values of football. Opponents of the Super League often point at the dangers of the end of a fair distribution of income or the loss of the meritocratic model of European football. This topic also raises other issues that I would like to highlight.
Encourage interaction between clubs to learn from each other
In the same philosophy as the sport model promoted by the European Union, European football leagues are based on the possibility of promotion and relegation on the basis of sporting merit. These current leagues then promote interactions between clubs of different sizes from different countries. With the implementation of closed competitions where the same clubs would compete against each other all the time, the interactions between clubs of different levels and sizes will no longer exist. Yet these interactions are beneficial and bring a lot to the European football model. For Jaroslav Doležal, vice-president of FK Jablonec, this system allows everyone to learn from each other to constantly improve the current system. It is obvious that ‘medium-sized’ football clubs that do not have the same financial resources as others can offer a different management model. Smaller clubs tend to focus more on ‘passion and enthusiasm’, while larger clubs are more professional in their management. Each can and must learn from the other to offer a model that is efficient, economically sustainable and close to the supporters.
Promoting, supporting, and advocating for the social value of football
European football remains an extremely profitable business. The latest Money League report showed that the top revenue-generating clubs generated an average of €8.187 million in revenue in the 2020/21 season. Gross revenues from the UEFA competitions for the 2022/23 season are already estimated at around €3.5 billion. Parallel projects such as the Super League one would increase the concentration of wealth in a few clubs. Moreover, these parallel leagues say nothing about their social impact. Football is not and should not only be an economic activity. Football is, in a Maussian angle, a total social fact. It affects all spheres of our society: economic, social, political, diplomatic… As the researcher Tjalle van der Burg reminded us, economic issues do not only revolve around the distribution and allocation of income. The question is also and above all about the way in which this income can be used and invested in social projects.
Part of the wealth created by football should be reinvested in society. It is crucial to mobilise the football world to commit a part of the revenues they generate to social projects. For example, it is possible to impose that a percentage of the salaries received by professional footballers be donated to social projects. From this point of view, as the salaries of professionals are heterogeneous, it would be necessary to define a minimum salary level eligible for such a system.
Giving fans a greater say in the European football system
European, and particularly English fans have been at the heart of the clashes since the announcement of the Super League project. We remember, for example, the fans of the English club Chelsea gathering outside Stamford Bridge stadium with signs such as “Super Greed” or “Fans, not Customers”. The creation of a closed league such as Super League would lead to an even stricter concentration of wealth in certain big clubs, leaving the fans out. The central issues with the establishment of such a league are the following: How much would it cost to buy a ticket to see your favourite team? By which company, how, and at what prices would the matches be broadcast? All this would drive fans further away from their clubs.
Does European football really have a future without its fans? For the “defenders” of business football with a purely economic vision, maybe so. However, the social value of football mentioned above is created and brought to life by the fans. The football fans, not the football spectators, keep the European football alive, no matter what some may say.
Clubs and major football bodies must therefore give fans a paramount position in their governance bodies. As Stuart Dykes pointed out, many European institutions (Council of Europe, European Parliament) have already adopted resolutions regarding this issue. It is now urgent and crucial that real European directives in favour of a better inclusion of supporters in the decision-making process be issued.
 First division of the Spanish elite football league.
 Football club playing in the Czech first division.
 A report published by the consulting firm Deloitte analysing the financial performance profile of the top revenue-generating clubs in world football each season.