The U.K. government will put “everything on the table” to fight the European Super League plan — but is sitting on the sidelines for now.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told MPs the proposal for a number of elite football teams to form their own league and restrict entry to outside clubs was “tone deaf” and against the spirit of the game.
“Football is in our national DNA,” he told the House of Commons. “We invented it, we helped export it around the world and it’s been at the heart of British life for over a century.” He added: “We will not stand by and watch football be cravenly stripped of the things that made millions across the country love it.”
But Dowden said although the government will launch a fan-led review of the sport, it will hang back for now in the hope that existing football bodies will work out how to block the plan, with sanctions and other measures under discussion.
He insisted: “Be in no doubt. If they can’t act, we will. We will put everything on the table to stop this from happening.” Ministers will consider governance reform in football, he said, as well as tweaks to competition law, higher taxes and stripping clubs of their coronavirus support funds.
But the government could have a fight on its hands if it tries to step in and impose new rules on the sector. “I would quietly advise against the government getting sucked into this in a regulatory manner, because I think it’s a minefield,” said a senior Conservative MP who holds a season ticket for one of the clubs in question.
The super league would hand a guaranteed place every year to the same 15 “founder” teams, even if other sides outperform them, with only five additional places available on merit to outside teams each year. It would prevent rivals from accessing television and sponsorship cash. The move has already sparked the ire of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron.
But there are questions over what the government can do to prevent the plan going ahead. Jonathan Compton, a lawyer with expertise in competition law, said it could be the English Football Association that falls foul of the rules if it goes ahead with threats for a retaliatory ban on super league teams from taking part in other domestic competitions.
“If you’re a member of the super league and you’re being excluded, by virtue of the fact you’re setting this up, from all competitions regulated by the Football Association, that I think is a real problem,” he said. He added that when it comes to the government blocking the super league plan, “I’m not sure that there is a rule that the government can step in and use here”.
Former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch will lead the government review, which will consider financial sustainability in football as well as governance and whether an independent regulator could help. It will also look at implementing a German-style system whereby supporters hold a majority of voting rights over their clubs.
Club owners, Dowden said, “should remember that they are only temporary custodians of these clubs and that they forget fans at their peril”.
The opposition Labour Party was also supportive of the government’s stance. Shadow Culture Secretary Jo Stevens welcomed the review, but called for more details. “Labour stands ready to do whatever it takes to stop this plan,” she said.