It’s a funny old game

Don Flynn reflects on a remarkable victory against the forces of international capitalism

“You’ve won it once, now win it again,” as Alf Ramsey said to his England team before sending them out to 30 minutes of extra time in the 1966 World Cup Final.

The defeat of plans for a billionaire club ‘Super League’ in recent days might well go down in history as the moment when the British working class faced up to the true nature of the global capitalist system, and for once got it right.

Despite the mega-investments made in the world’s richest clubs by the planet’s most staggeringly cash-rich people, football has always had an element of risk that the elite managers of wealth work hard to eliminate. The plebeian origins of the game still loom large in its structure, with success ultimately secured by the endeavour of eleven players (plus the substitute bench) on the day of the match.

Worse than that, the tradition of the game dictates that a run of miserable results can put an entire club in jeopardy of being relegated to a lower division where the returns on investment will be much lower. Some of this risk can be mitigated by ramping up investment to secure the services of the best players available, making it less likely that an unfortunate run of results won’t slide into a relegation battle.

But bigger investment demands bigger returns. The risk switches to the top end of the table where the battle is about qualifying for another competition which will feature more glamorous fixtures and larger audiences. Failure to get into that group can be as big a blow for the really big clubs as dropping down to the dreaded Championship tier.

But what is being described here is the way the capitalist system operates on its most mundane and basic level. Markets are risky places and people investing mega-bucks get anxious if everything depends on the quality of the product they are trying to sell. It is not long before they start working to suppress the competitive element of market transactions by forming cartels with other big players who have a common interest in suppressing interlopers with challenging and innovative business strategies.

What’s to stop them from doing this? In the world outside football, not much it seems. The entire history of capitalism over the course of the last century has seen this tendency towards cartelisation and monopoly get an ever firmer grip on the system, to the point where we have got to the place we are in today: big companies doing whatever they need to protect their profits and crushing everyone else underfoot.

But football has never been able to eliminate the traditions established by its origins in the recreational activities of men (back in the day, always men) kicking a ball round in the park, and the peculiar forms of local pride that accumulated when ‘your’ team seemed to be quite good at it. Happy days!

The remarkable movement that conjured itself into existence within hours of the news that a Super League cartel was in the process of formation deserves to be celebrated for its swift success in bring the hopes of outfits like the Glazers (Manchester United), John W. Henry (Liverpool), Elliott Associates (AC Milan) and JPMorgan Chase to a crashing end. More than that, football fans seem to have built a base for themselves where they can now contemplate further victories, such as securing supporter majority ownership of clubs and a degree of democratic control over decision-making.

What is so special about football that is allowing us, in this age of vampire squid capitalism, to contemplate the expansion of ownership and democratic control at precisely the same moment when places of employment and vital public services are under the thrall of the most cynical and self-serving corporate enterprises? Why does a football club that bears the name of our town (or a even just a neighbourhood in that town) command more loyalty, and promote more militant action in defence of its interests, than the institutions that make up the local jobs market or which provide education to our kids and look after the health and well-being of all of us?

If the memorable achievement of the anti-Super League movement is to go forward and become something truly splendid it will be because it marks the moment when working class people once again came to remember what their parents and grandparents had taught them about capitalism. It is dangerous. It doesn’t care about you. We need to push back against it. We need to put it in a box and make sure it doesn’t escape.

The ghost of Sir Alf Ramsey is on the touchline and he’s shouting at us. “You’ve won it once, now win it again!”

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