NATURALLY, nobody is happy about the clandestine discussions that may or may not have taken place over the past few months involving certain clubs to create a closed football league comprising the wealthiest names across the top five nations. A “super league” is what they are calling it, but effectively, it is a cartel of the “super rich”, a group driven by greed and entitlement.
That’s what this particular project amounts to, but in some ways, the time may be right to introduce a better competitive balance to European football. This latest proposal, or seed of an idea, is most certainly not the way to achieve that.
It’s an embarrassment for the clubs that have been named as leading the dialogue, why else would the denials have started? “We know nothing about it,” is the message some clubs are releasing, but smoke rarely billows out of the chimney unless there is a fire of some sort.
At best, this is an attempt to squeeze more money out of UEFA and TV broadcasters. It isn’t the first time the big clubs have threatened mutiny unless they receive a bigger share of the pie, the English Premier League is the result of spoilt children stamping their feet, and this is arguably no different.
There’s an element of naïveté about the behaviour of these clubs, if only they realised it. Although the fans of this self-appointed elite group will support any new venture selling itself as the leading football competition in the world, deep down they will know that for the good of the game, it is destructive. It will also make these clubs extremely unpopular outside their loyal fan bases. It is being described as the death knell for domestic leagues across the continent but it could also force the game’s governance to implode, spelling the end for UEFA and FIFA as credible governing bodies.
Yet the concept of a Super League itself should not be the root cause of a tidal wave of destruction. But the introduction of a “closed league”, something which is almost alien to developed and sophisticated football nations, would remove one of the key elements of football as we have known it for over 100 years. Relegation is painful, especially in this age of inflated TV deals for premier divisions. The big clubs are, effectively, like J.R.R. Tolkein’s dragon, Smaug, laying on a bed of growing revenues. They jealously guard these riches and any structure that is “closed” will allow them to keep hold of their financial advantages.
But football is, if nothing else, a sport that thrives on the prospect of aspiration and “what might happen”, why else would the English structure have 92 clubs, most of which live for a time when they can achieve something remarkable? Take that away and football becomes meaningless, forlorn and sterile. The game has always been a distraction for the working man, an escape from a humdrum existence, perhaps, or simply an opportunity to let off steam. The local “United” may be hopeless, but they once belonged to the man in the shipyard, the Johnny at the coal face and the honest toiler seeking to escape from trouble at the mill. They all gathered on the terrace hoping that one day, the red and white striped local team just might win promotion. It is the very essence of the game, the big dream.
Take away the possibility of a team climbing the divisions, creating romantic stories like Wimbledon, Northampton, Watford and Bournemouth, and you hit at the heart of the game’s reason for being. Creating a closed shop – 20 years, yes 20 years without relegation for the chosen few – is selfish, arrogant and, ultimately self-serving. But it could be so different.
To a certain degree, we have a European Super League and it is called the UEFA Champions League. Just look at the final stages of each campaign and the same names appear with monotonous regularity. There are no romantic stories in the Champions League, it is an elitist competition that is compelling – but only when it reaches the final stages. Group matches merely remove the cannon fodder before the serious stuff takes place.
The main European leagues have become all too predictable and most clubs have no chance of any tangible success. As the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Paris Saint-German become richer and richer, buying players from each other and sending transfer fees higher and higher, the chasm in wealth becomes wider by the year. These clubs are, simply, far too wealthy to really be challenged any more. Fans complain about this new model and purists bemoan the evolution of corporate football, but it is not going to change and it will, if anything, accelerate. This means that in Spain, France, Italy and Germany, the prospects for 90% of clubs is to be cast in the role of a supporting act. While a visit from Real Madrid will bring valuable gate receipts to a smaller club, it is just one game a year (two if you include Barca in this equation). So, the question is, can these leagues expect to prosper long-term if they are, in all but name, already a closed shop or a private thiefdom.
A different way
Game of the People has advocated a change to the structure of European football, perhaps with the introduction of regional leagues to develop more competitiveness to geographies that are dominated by this handful of elite clubs. Take Real and Barca out of La Liga and what do you get? A more democratic league, for sure, perhaps financially poorer, but if clubs felt they could have a real stab at the title and perhaps gain promotion to the European Super League, would that not spark-off greater interest and, as a consequence, lucrative TV money?
But this idea, or any similar concept to recalibrate European football, would need to be the intellectual property of UEFA, not a hedge fund or a group of US or Middle Eastern business people. There have been rumblings and threats for some time and there was undoubtedly a warning when the audaciously-labelled International Champions Cup started to attract seriously big names. This, alone, should have been the catalyst for UEFA to start work on a sustainable plan to take the Champions League a stage further, but also to provision for aspiring clubs to gain entry, not to seal-off the competition for rich clubs wishing to preserve their regal status.
A UEFA-constructed Super League is the natural evolution for clubs accustomed to playing against teams that have become their peers. As we have said before, PSG and Manchester City are not building enormously expensive squads to win their domestic leagues, they are aiming for European domination. PSG do not need to spend as much as they have to win Ligue 1. If the feeling is that the domestic leagues cannot do without PSG or Real, they could easily field a team in both – such are the size of the clubs’ squads, but essentially, a Super League should be seen as an extension of the promotion and relegation system. Hence, it would not be a threat, but an additional element of success.
On no account should the idea revealed by a German magazine be allowed to flourish, but it cannot be ignored or the denials be a signal for the end of the matter – it will resurface. But this is a warning shot to UEFA and FIFA that the world’s most powerful clubs can threaten to take away their appeal, their drawing power and their financial clout from mainland football. It must be tempting to call their bluff, for there are many negatives for the clubs that are championing this cause. Let’s just say that it is in the best interests of the game that its structure is robust at all levels. And surely clubs like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich will sleep better if they know they are contributing to the health of the eco-system rather than being the instigators of its destruction? Another thing to consider – what DID happen to Smaug?