THE cowardly dead-of-night announcement about the European Super League, buried on a Sunday evening when people were heading for their beds, confirmed a number of things and demonstrated how fans have been hoodwinked for so long. The clubs they claim as their belongings are anything but, they are the property of business people who want a return on their investment. Furthermore, the contribution made by supporters, either through matchday tickets or merchandise, is far less important than broadcasting rights. And lastly, owners accustomed to a US style of league format do not want the threat of relegation or reduced status to devalue their asset.
It might take some time for it to sink in, but the very culture that has created the elite club group is basically capitalism in action. As one radio broadcaster commented, “you live by the sword, you die by the sword”, and he is absolutely right. Modern football has become an industry sector with investors and financial services players – a sector of business that makes money. The very ethos that enables Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City to differentiate themselves and prosper does not always produce outcomes that suit masses of people whose emotional stake is far less pragmatic than any club owner aiming to secure the financial future of their club. Fan groups might claim they represent “the people” and promote a form of socialism, but those running clubs (with the exception of small entities like Forest Green and some non-leaguers) are very definitely capitalists with a capital C.
Football clubs have suffered in the past 12 months, but the predominant stress has been meeting the expense of huge wage bills. Most clubs made significant losses in 2019-20 and some, such as Arsenal, Tottenham and AC Milan, have not had the benefit of UEFA Champions League money. Performance on the field can never be guaranteed, but then unpredictability has always been one of football’s attractions and unique selling points. The problem is, the gulf between the haves and have nots is so substantial that it’s akin to a lottery winner scooping vast sums of money and the runner-up receiving next to nothing. Continual Champions League involvement can create an enormous war chest and if, heaven forbid, you budget for it, you’re in a rather murky creek if fourth place becomes fifth.
So what do you do when you find that you’re a big club and you’re not getting as much of the pie as you feel you deserve? You talk to your peers, remind them of their status and your collective entitlement. Clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Manchester United have such a huge profile they have become the de facto marketing arm of the Premier League, La Liga and Champions League. Therefore, occasional bouts of “persuasion” can allow these clubs to get their own way. You only need a few to create the critical mass needed to encourage a few more on the basis of FOMO (fear of missing out) and before you know it, you’re got enough leverage to make the governing bodies quake. Let’s not forget that modern football was created like this – the Premier League is your original cartel and every few years, they turn the screw. Likewise, the big clubs lay little parcels of explosives around Europe as a reminder to UEFA that they ARE the Champions League.
The strength of a football structure is not actually in having half a dozen big names who win everything, it is in genuine competition, keenly-fought and, ultimately, creating a deserving champion. By definition, the titans of the game will appear in the Champions League more often than not. If they don’t, they only have themselves to blame as the elite bracket has become so wealthy that you have to be clumsy or badly managed to miss out. Removing risk/reward from life makes it less interesting in so many ways and creating a virtually closed league will be the most damaging aspect of this mysterious super league.
The most amusing aspect of the initial constitution is that there will be winners and losers even in such celestial company. Fans from Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United may have to get used to their clubs being absolute losers. This will be a league of like-minded clubs who want to be champions. Therefore, from being perennial title-chasers, Barca may become the Celta Vigo or Eibar of the super league, Tottenham may have to wait even longer for silverware as they fulfil the role of Crystal Palace or Newcastle. But they will be rich. Very rich.
There’s no mistaking that football needs a shake-up, but it really isn’t like this. It needs rationalising, maybe consolidating but certainly remodelling from a business perspective. The current model adopted by so many clubs needs to adopt a realistic and sustainable approach. In short, they need to spend less, conserve more and make the game more affordable. Furthermore, clubs should not travel hundreds of miles to play in front of a few thousand people. A sober, more accessible business ideal is what is needed right across Europe and at all levels – the pandemic should surely have taught us that. Instead, what we have is a gilded Noah’s Ark situation where the high and mighty are shrugging their shoulders and muttering, “Estoy bien, Juan” as they wave from the bridge.
How should the fans react to this game of politics? Most are incensed, but the most outrageous thing about it is the way so-called “legacy fans” are being disregarded. In other words, old school fans who still have some sense of romance about the game. The big clubs want to build global empires, millions of virtual fans who will never set foot in Old Trafford or the Camp Nou. The legacy fans care about the history, the meaning and the culture of the game. It would seem that certain clubs see this ageing audience as disposable, arthritic supporters whose wallet is diminishing and the new technologies represent a challenge. This is, frankly, insulting.
Many fans have said their allegiance is over on the basis that their club is betraying them with the announcement of their involvement in the super league. The fact is, this is a knee-jerk reaction judging by past performances. They complain, it is part of the supporter experience, but the FOMO aspect prevents them from boycotting their club. Until this changes, they will stamp their feet and the clubs will wait for them to come round. Given that the six Premier clubs face the prospect of expulsion, there will be fewer opportunities to attend games and the likelihood is ticket prices will go up once more. To be frank, how can a domestic league allow these clubs to remain in membership when they have such a substantial manufactured financial advantage over their rivals?
On the other hand, this may just be a game of poker and nobody really expects the super league to emerge just yet. The low-end, clip-arted graphic design on the “official announcement” hints at something cobbled up on the cheap to make it look corporate, knowing it will probably flounder. UEFA and whoever will meet the clubs halfway with an enhanced cash deal and more defined seeding and we’ll go again until the next fiscal pistol is pointed at the rest of the world.
The owners of the clubs behind this charade clearly do not understand football, but they are also uninterested in heritage or how we got here. They want to turn a profit and create a business cartel that is self-protecting. In times of financial hardship, protectionism always comes to the fore. This just might be how 21st century football interprets that process. Screw the rest.