The proposed European Super League exposes our idolatry

The news cycle moves on. What has knocked coronavirus and a royal death off of the headlines this week? That’s right, it’s football and proposals for a European Super League. The plan is for 12 of the richest and largest clubs in Europe to break away from their national leagues to form their own competition, this will include 6 English teams. Note that the basis for membership will not be on who finished in the top 3 or 4 places in the league this season or who won the cup, nor will there be promotion and relegation. You join on the basis of invitation and that is clearly based on history and wealth not on current ability.

The story is dominating newspaper headlines and social media conversations to such an extent that it prompted Ben Lindsay to ask this question.

Well, I want to suggest that the fact that it is dominating the headlines is actually helpful because it does the useful job of exposing where our idolatry is. It exposes what we worship. First of all it does so because Ben Lindsay is right. If you are more angry about your chosen team refusing to listen to the fans than you are about racial injustice then things are out of perspective. If you are more worried about the lower league team you support struggling than your local church closing down then, as important and precious as that team are in the community you have got your priorities wrong and if we can be so easily distracted from controversies about lobbying and NHS contracts by a story like this then there is something deeply unhealthy, rotten even about our democracy,  We need to recognise that our football teams can take the place of God as we look to them to provide joy, satisfaction, hope and comfort. Bradford City supporters of course can tell you that football can offer none of these things on a consistent long term basis!

However, there are other ways in which the ESS exposes our trust in and fear of idols. So that whilst from one perspective, Ben Lindsey is right to question our disproportionate passion for this subject, there are also reasons to be passionate and concerned. First of all, the decision by the clubs itself points to the problem of privilege and prejudice in so far as the UK not only has a race problem but also a class problem, we cannot separate this issue completely from questions about discrimination and justice. There is something wrong when wealth and power is used not to serve the good of others but becomes concentrated in a few hands and there is something wrong about a situation when wealth, status and attention as reward gets separated out from ability. 

Secondly, I think we see another example of idolatry in the way that politicians and government ministers have got involved in this. There is something a little bit nationalistic about it isn’t there? We have already seen one attempt to create an elite league with the birth of the Premier League and I wonder whether those politicians would have been so concerned about the formation of an elite British Super League with the same names involved plus Rangers and Celtic.  The ESS fits into a narrative where Europe are the bad guys in cahoots with other foreign oligarchs and bureaucrats whilst the rest of the Premier League and the lower league teams represent plucky Albion. 

But furthermore, thirdly we see our trust in the ability of governments to protect and deliver us. Indeed, it is fascinating to see people who would normally take a laissez faire approach to such things suddenly discover their interventionist zeal.  Whilst personally I don’t want to see the ESL happen, I am concerned about the cost at which it might be prevented. You see, if the Government can intervene to restrict the decision making of individuals and corporations when there is no serious danger/threat to life on the back of a populist outcry then they can and will in the future seek populist support for other measures designed to curtail freedoms.[1]  We may consider the actions of the clubs morally inexcusable but just because something is morally wrong does not mean necessarily that it should be legally restricted. Indeed as Christians we are only too aware of how the moral climate can change in a relativist age so that things once considered morally good such as the sanctity of marriage and the place of prayer can come under attack and the threat of legal sanctions.

So, in different ways, the Super League decision highlights our tendency to idolatry. As a football fan I don’t want the ESL to happen. As a believer in Christ I want to do two things in response. First, I want to see and to show how this highlights the false hope of our idols and point people towards the better hope we have in Christ. And I want to allow this decision to challenge me about the idols I hold onto.

[1] There are emergency situations where restrictions are needed such as we have seen over the past year but I would gently suggest that if you were lamenting the assault on our liberties by a draconian government in the face of a pandemic but are now calling for the government to intervene to restrict the liberties of the Manchester City and Liverpool owners then there’s something not quite right there.

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