This article originally appeared on VICE France.
On the 18th of April, 2021, the European football world was rocked by one of the wildest announcements in its history – 12 of Europe’s biggest clubs were going to break away from European football’s governing body, UEFA, and join a league of their own. This new Super League was meant to be an exclusive competition for selected guests only, to play against one another and rack up millions in advertisement deals and broadcast rights without having to share it with non-members. But the project in that form was short-lived – fans protested against the initiative en masse and within 48 hours, half of the founding-member teams had quit.
With expensive stadiums to maintain and a long list of multi-millionaires on their payrolls, many top football clubs in Europe are in debt, with their international owners struggling to find new revenue streams. In 2020, most of these clubs were hit hard by the pandemic, unable to cash in on live attendances. That’s why analysts think the idea of a Super League, which has been floating around since the late 60s, was put into action now.
As the controversy raged online, one picture became the symbol of fans’ outrage – a banner stretched across a stadium reading “CREATED BY THE POOR, STOLEN BY THE RICH”. The writing represents a concise summary of the history of football, born in its modern form in 19th-century Britain among the industrial working class. Later, the sport was taken up by fancy private schools and universities, and eventually, different clubs developed a set of common rules to play together. Football gained popularity both nationally and abroad, becoming the most-followed sport in the world in the late 20th century. And with big viewerships came big investments, especially since the 1990s.
Firas Kéfi, a Tunisian journalist, told me over the phone that the original banner was created by supporters of Club Africain, a Tunisian football club that played a friendly match against Paris-based but Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) in January 2017. PSG represents in some ways the rags to extreme riches arch that many football clubs across Europe have undergone in recent years – after not ranking terribly well in the French national league through the 2000s, it was skyrocketed to the top by big foreign investments from 2011 onwards.
The match itself wouldn’t have been possible without a business connection. “It only happened thanks to the clubs’ common denominator – Ooredoo, the first mobile phone operator in Qatar, which is state-owned,” Kéfi said. “The company has been sponsoring both PSG and Club Africain since 2012, when they stipulated a giant contract.”
Fethi Belaid, a Tunisian photojournalist and AFP collaborator, was there on that day. “To be honest, I’d forgotten I had taken that picture,” he told me over the phone. Belaid has been taking photos of Tunisia’s three main football clubs – Club Africain, Espérance Sportive de Tunis and Étoile Sportive du Sahel – for years. But most of his work focuses on political developments in Tunisia, from the 2011 protests which led to the downfall of former President Ben Ali and triggered the Arab Spring, to the latest clashes in January 2021 between the police and demonstrators against the country’s economic crisis.
“Working at a football match seems much easier, but you have to be able to see the context around it,” Belaid said. Although not particularly proud of the photo itself, he said the picture of the banner he took in 2017 is “a perfect snapshot of the relationship between Club Africain fans and of the club’s management at the time.”
Club Africain was born in 1919 under French colonial rule. Worried that the club could serve as fertile ground for anti-colonial sentiment, the French did not recognise its existence until 1920, which became its official founding year. Historically, Club Africain has been supported by working-class Tunisians. It won its first national championship title in 1947 and scored many national and international trophies during its golden age, from the 1960s to the 1980s. Since then, it has fallen on harder times, only winning titles more sporadically.
Between 2010 and 2012, the club entered a period of crisis, switching between multiple managers. Meanwhile, new political actors were emerging from the ashes of the 2011 revolution, trying to profit from the vacuum. “Nobody knew Slim Riahi in Tunisia when he became the head of the club,” Kéfi said. “We only knew he’d made his fortune in the Lybian oil sector before Ghaddafi’s fall.” Riahi was born in Tunisia in the 1970s but grew up in Libya. He returned to the country in 2011 with electoral aspirations and founded the Free Patriotic Union, a neoliberal anti-Islamist party.
“He brought in one of the best Algerian players of the time, Abdelmoumene Djabou, for a record fee,” Kéfi said. This strategy was quite the stretch for Club Africain, which usually draws its talent from a group of players formed within its ranks, but obtained some good results. Emboldened by this newfound popularity, Rihai managed to get 16 representatives of his party elected in Tunisia’s 2014 parliamentary elections.
Kéfi, who was also there the day of the match, said the message on the banner was directed both at Riahi and at the president of PSG, Nasser al-Khelaïfi. “The Curva Nord [the area of the stadium the banner was stretched across] is reserved to a few different fan clubs – the Winners, the Leaders, the Dodgers and the Vandals,” Kéfi said. “Even though they’re not political, the Vandals have become deeply hostile towards financial interest in modern football. And this type of match became the perfect stage to share their ideas.”
Sheva, a Club Africain supporter who’s very active on Twitter, agreed. “For us, it was a good opportunity to shout out loud that this sport is about enthusiasm, passion, competition, suspense – not money,” he said. According to Belaid, the banner also gave the middle finger to political interference in the sport. During the revolution, Tunisian hooligans became a key part of the resistance, often fighting against police repression in the streets and bearing the brunt of the offensive. “Club Africain paid a high price for that,” Belaid said.
By 2017, Riahi had been implicated in a few scandals. Months after the match, his assets were frozen on suspicion of money laundering. In the summer of 2017, Riahi left Club Africain and went on a self-imposed exile to the Emirates, leaving behind a trail of debt. The club only survived thanks to the generosity of its fans who raised between €2,5 and 3 million to save it. “An incredible sum given Tunisia’s socioeconomic standards,” as Kéfi said.
Despite this feat of solidarity, Belaid is not optimistic about the future of his club – nor that of his country. “The Tunisian people started the revolution because they were poor. Ten years later, they still are,” he said. “The situation of Club Africain reflects that of the country. We simply can’t seem to pull through.”