The ever-provacative Steve Wells, whose, cracked, dyspeptic and wildly entertaining dispatches to The Guardian from the alien dateline of Greater Philadelphia seldom fail to entertain, comes through yet again with a bit of sports punditry copped from the desk of Vladimir Lenin: a sustained argument for nationalizing the English Premier League. As Swells points out, thanks to players drafts, revenue sharing and franchising, the cozy rich-man’s communism of American sports ensures that the have-nots enjoy at least a fair chance to throw off the shackles of failure and remake themselves in the image of the haves. (This, of course, makes such long-term disasters as the Detroit Lions and the Los Angeles Clippers, newly minted winners of the NBA Lottery, even more remarkable, in their own perverse and depressing way, than their respective league’s dynasties.)
In English soccer, and world football in general, a much different system prevails. A generally unfettered market for talent and capital and the sport’s brutal, Darwinistic standard league structure—in which each season’s worst teams face exile to lower divisions—would seem to promise far more dynamic chaos than America’s closed sports cartels. In reality, however, soccer’s current arrangements produce fairly rigid oligarchies, none more so than the iron Group of Four that rules the Premier League, the world’s most popular sports league and soccer’s richest national circuit. The roster of Premiership champions reads like a list of Roman consuls before that lovable scamp Julius Caesar began smashing up the Republic’s crockery: the same names, over and over again, with Manchester United and Chelsea playing the roles of various scions of the gens Junia.
The Quartet’s dominance comes down to money, not necessarily quality. My team, Liverpool, remains part of the elite despite always failing to win the championship. The fact that this year’s fading, inconsistent Arsenal side will finish at least two games clear of the fifth-place club only demonstrates the size of the gap between the top four and the league’s 16 pretenders. And because the Premier League is such a global force, the Quartet tends to suck up money and talent from all over the world; three out of four ended up in the semifinals of the European Champions League this year, with only the Catalan superclub Barcelona able to challenge the English monopoly.
Given our current economic straits, it’s worth noting that all of the Premier League’s elite are involved in some form or another of massive debt (Man United and Liverpool), speculative real-estate development (Arsenal), wild deficit spending (Chelsea) and/or absurd inefficiency (Liverpool, which currently employs 62 professional players—enough to field five teams—and allows its most promising youth players to waste away in the minor leagues). Elsewhere in English football, meanwhile, lesser clubs are going bankrupt. Like a true Son of Marx, Wells takes a certain delight in all of this, because he sees an opportunity:
Right now, given the utter collapse and total failure of the Friedmanite free market model, the nationalisation of the Premier League (and the stupidly named leagues below it) would face almost no serious ideological opposition, and would probably prove massively popular with the vast majority of football fans, particularly those who are fans of clubs that — under the present system — have no realistic chance of ever again winning anything meaningful.
Wells then points to the forms of collective, fan-based ownership used in Spain, where even giants like Barca and Real Madrid hold regular elections for executive positions, and Germany, where Bundesliga rules require fans to retain at least 51-percent ownership of every club. How, exactly, this is going to happen within the Premier League absent a society-wide violent redistribution of the wealth, Swellsy doesn’t exactly say. And for Americans, the applications of his argument are inexact at best. But for sports fans in an economically rocked world, this sort of thinking could prove increasingly popular. After all, as Wells aptly says:
Football is integral to European culture. Easily as important as food or art. Leaving it in the hands of unregulated capital makes no more sense than letting entirely profit-motivated private companies run the environment, the arts, transport, broadcasting, banking, the mortgage industry or architecture. They will strip-mine it, pollute it, dilute it, debase it, rape its corpse and then sell its bones for cigar money. That’s what they do. Hell, that’s what they’re doing.