8th May 2021


Football's 'Super League' - an own-goal for EU soft power

  • Football as a soft power tool is a double-edged sword: the greater its commercial influence becomes, the less it resembles the image which Europe wants to project (Photo: Craig Sunter)

Last year, 380 million people worldwide tuned in to watch FC Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain play in the final of the UEFA Champions League, the premier European club championship.

And global audience has now connected with European teams.

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  • One thing remains certain: to protect European soft power, football needs to change (Photo: EUobserver)

Fans throughout the world regularly watch and argue over the El Clásico match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, and the transfer of South Korean player Son Heung-min to Tottenham Hotspur added 11 million South Koreans to the club's fanbase overnight; all with an intense interest in regional phenomena such as the 'north London derby'.

The global dominance of European football is a cultural asset contributing to Europe's 'soft power' by cultivating an international fanbase for top clubs.

A positive association with major European cities, be it Madrid or Barcelona or Turin or Munich, contributes to European foreign policy goals and amplifies the global influence of European ideas and products.

The growing international popularity of the European mega-clubs led to this week's (now likely dead-on-arrival) proposal for a Super League - where the richest teams from the UK, Spain, and Italy would abandon national competitions in favour of an exclusive European League to deliver higher quality matches more regularly.

Such proposals prioritise larger fanbases in China and Indonesia over those in Bristol and Seville - a by-product of globalisation.

But with a pivot to a growth model reliant on international consumers, especially in China, clubs have had to adhere to a strictly apolitical stance on issues including slave labour and human rights abuses.

Situations can arise where remaining silent is itself a political statement, such as when Arsenal FC players such as Özil were censored for speaking out on internment camps in Xinjiang.

Those proposals for a Super League threatened to reinforce the self-censorship effect, as an increasing amount of revenue comes from overseas markets.

Football as a soft power tool is a double-edged sword: the greater its commercialised influence becomes, the less it resembles the image which Europe wants to project. The European values of free speech are getting lost in the pursuit of pleasing autocratic regimes gatekeeping their markets.

An insightful parallel can be found in another soft power behemoth: Hollywood.

Hollywood vs China

The US has traditionally dominated the film industry. Indeed, during the Cold War, people in East Germany gathered around TVs to watch Little House on the Prairie, and apparently Stalin adored cowboy films with John Wayne and commissioned Soviet versions of his films.

The positive perception of US values portrayed in its films demonstrates effective soft power, contributing to American success in the systemic rivalry with the Soviet Union.

While the propaganda efforts of the Cold War era are long past, the allure of American cultural products continues to be a crucial tool of Western soft power.

Yet, much like with football, an increasing reliance on foreign markets has forced Hollywood to relinquish control over scripts and give in to censorship by the Chinese government.

American values are increasingly malleable at the behest of the West's current systemic rival, substantially weakening the US' image as China flexes its muscles abroad.

But the reason the US is unable to stop the decline of Hollywood's soft power is the very same reason for which Hollywood is so successful: lack of government intervention. Short of nationalising the entire industry, Washington can't force studios to act in a certain way - there is no propaganda ministry.

Is football equally doomed? Fortunately, unlike in the media industry, there is a corporate governance structure which would shift the focus of clubs away from purely commercial goals towards a more fan-based approach.

Germany's football model

In Germany, club governance is structured in a fairly unique way as club members or fans are guaranteed a majority of the voting rights (50 percent + 1 share).

The system prevents foreign investors from taking over the majority of the club and steering it towards the kind of commercialisation the European Super League represents.

Of course, football in Germany is still commercial - clubs like FC Bayern Munich travel to China on exhibition matches whilst Borussia Dortmund is listed on the stock market.

However, it does mean that there is democratic, fan-based consultations over the type of self-censorship that will be tolerated in the pursuit of commercial goals.

For example, Bayern Munich's internal debate over the inclusion of a human rights clause in its constitution, pushed for by fans, shows that the accountability goes far beyond that experienced at clubs like Arsenal or Chelsea.

It also showcases another value inherent to Europe's soft power: democracy.

Instituting the "50+1" rule in the UK, as talked about by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, would ground clubs to their grassroots fanbases, democratise club governance, and prevent harmful self-censorship.

Whilst the extent of reform will become clearer in the coming weeks, one thing remains certain: to protect European soft power, football needs to change.

Author bio

Jonas Fleega is a German graduate of the London School of Economics, with an MSc in the political economy of Europe.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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