Lessons from the Super League
Of the many lessons imparted to us by the frenzied 48 hours last week in which the European Super League was founded, roundly condemned and then disbanded, one stood out: that supporters do not have to be in stadiums to have an impact on the game they love.
The protests outside grounds across the country were a precise and very public display of the power that fans can wield and the impact they can have, not only on the clubs they support but on football as a whole. Those demonstrations may not have been the only reason for the rapid climbdown of the British clubs involved in the breakaway league, but it was certainly a significant one.
It is no coincidence, for example, that Chelsea became the first Premier League club to fold, after remarkable scenes outside Stamford Bridge in which Petr Cech, the beloved former player who is now the club’s technical and performance adviser, personally pleaded with fans to give the club time to resolve the mess.
The irony is that for the past year the influence of fans has been felt in their absence; in the way football as a spectacle, watched from afar, has lost its immediacy, its soul, its vitality. Though in this case it has been an imposed exile, an accidental boycott, behind-closed-doors football has served as a vivid demonstration of the impact such a stance could have.
At the beginning of last season, for example, Newcastle United supporters had begun to melt away from St James’ Park, as disillusion grew over the ownership of Mike Ashley. Several thousand tickets were going unsold, leaving swathes of empty seats; in response, Ashley gave away 10,000 season tickets, in a bid to fill the stands again and prevent such an obvious display of disapproval.
This weekend English football will be taking a less visible but no less impactful stand through absence, as clubs go quiet on social media, in protest against the insidiousness of racist abuse on those platforms. It is an action championed by Thierry Henry, the former Arsenal striker, who last month announced that he was leaving social media “until the people in power are able to regulate their platforms with the same vigour and ferocity that they currently do when you infringe copyright”.
Clubs will not be posting anything on social media for three days, starting at 3pm on Friday and ending on 11.59pm on Monday night. It is deliberate that the boycott takes in a full round of weekend matches, when the clubs’ silence will be felt most keenly.
For fans who have become so reliant on social media over the past 12 months as a means of connecting to the community they have been forcibly separated from, it will be a strange and disjointed match-day experience without their team’s updates — for us especially, as a win today would secure us the title.
But the events of the past fortnight show that supporters have a role to play here too. If fans took to this protest with the same energy they applied to the campaign against the Super League, and deserted social media in their millions, it would be a hammer blow in the fight against online racist abuse.
It is clear now that despite all the well-meaning campaigns, despite greater awareness and attention, despite players taking a knee at the start of every game, speaking out has not worked. Players routinely call out the abuse they receive with public posts, but while this may shame the individuals involved it does not seem to act as a deterrent to others, or as a catalyst for action by the social media platforms.
Though it feels counterintuitive, silence can be more powerful than vocal dissent, just as an absence can prove a point as effectively as a presence. As its name implies, social media relies on mass participation; if we leave it, there will be nothing left.
And, as acts of protests go, switching off for a weekend could not be easier. I hope fans of the participating clubs, including Norwich, all join the boycott, however strange it will feel — if we do manage to secure the title — to have such isolated celebrations.
But in one way, at least, we, and football as a whole, will never have been more united. The Super League fiasco may have exposed the worst of the game, and the avarice and self-interest that threatens to engulf it, but it also reminded us of football’s great strength: its ability to cultivate community, to inspire collective feeling.
That the ill-fated league’s sole purpose was to serve the interests of the self-chosen few and not the game as a whole is exactly what doomed it to failure. By falling silent on social media this weekend, in support of those whose voices are not heard enough, we are upholding the same mantra that took down the Super League: if it’s not for everyone, it’s for no one.
This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Championship game against Reading on 1st May 2021.