Neo-liberalism has encountered a rare set-back in the attempts of owners of premiere football clubs to set up the European Super League. Even the most ardent proponents of greed have found it politically expedient to distance themselves from this proposal. 

That the owners of these clubs should be forced into retreating from their plans is testimony to the persistence, in football, of other values than those of the market. It’s striking that those other values still persist in football, because in many respects the sport has become a vehicle for promulgating neoliberal values more widely.

The values that predominate culturally are a reflection, in part, of the values that are modelled and normalised through our social institutions. Intuitively adept politicians recognise this and grasp the ways in which they can help to shape these institutions such that these can deepen public commitment to their worldview.

Margaret Thatcher once famously commented that:

“…it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” (The Sunday Times, 3 May 1981)

Thatcher was clearly very alive to the opportunity to use her political power to shape our collective experience, and to do so in ways that would propel forward the worldviews upon which public support for her political project ultimately relied (and continue to rely). 

But she seemed to capitulate on football – perhaps seeing it as unreachable and irrevocably associated with the left. Despite her diffidence, football’s huge cultural reach has since helped to promulgate the neoliberal worldview she championed. 

Research shows that football clubs today disproportionately engage values associated with interpersonal competition, wealth and status, relative to the importance that is accorded these values in society at large. Prominent footballers’ income and lifestyles are an issue of intense public fascination, fuelled by mainstream media stories that will strengthen social norms around values of wealth and competition, and harden the misperception that these values matter deeply to our fellow citizens. And this is a culture which is often traceable to what happens on the pitch. James Vaughan, Head of Football and Coaching Psychology at AIK Fotboll, sees training culture as a litmus test for a club’s commitment to foregrounding care for its players, staff, and the wider community in which it is embedded. But training culture is also of critical importance in setting the ethos of the club, the values that it reflects through its other activities, and the contribution that it makes to shaping wider culture. 

Of course, there are two sides to this. The values of football are contested. In the UK, for example, disputes have arisen about clubs furloughing non-playing staff (at public expense) while retaining players on full pay. Many club executives have defended this policy. But this has led supporters’ clubs to ask what values these clubs are upholding, particularly at a time when many people are facing financial hardship, and some executives have accepted very significant cuts to their own salaries.

These debates matter. They matter deeply for football. Perhaps without them, opposition to the European Super League would have been resistible. But, because football exerts such important cultural influence, these debates also matter deeply for our lives outside football. 

Working with AIK Fotboll, Common Cause Foundation is helping to foster discussion on the cultural impact of football, as exerted through the values it promulgates, and the effects of this both on the pitch, and in wider society. We have recently published a short background paper which develops these ideas further. You can read it here. And as a next step, we will be jointly hosting an online discussion on 1100UTC (1200 BST, 1300CET) on Wednesday 9 June. Please drop us a line (info@commoncausefoundation.org) if you would like details about how to join that discussion.