Lockdown football has taught us a lot about what is important within the sport. From a fan perspective, the last year has laid bare just how little a role the action on the pitch plays in a routine matchday. The cliches are true, football is about community and as much about the train to away games and beers in the pub beforehand than the actual football. When all is left is the 90 minutes, its cold, cynical nature is left exposed.
While nobody will ever question the necessity of full stadia and the atmospheres they generate again, it feels as though a dark secret has been let out over recent months. One that was hidden in plain sight. There are genuine concerns about how the very elite football clubs are conducting themselves and it has been a recurring theme over the past year, while the game has been in this incredibly alien, unfamiliar state.
So far, attempts to alter the fabric of football have been resisted because of suitable transparency enabling people to see the full picture but there have been two or three recent bids to ambush football from the top down.
After Project Big Picture — a far from subtle power grab wrapped up as a rescue package at the Football League’s moment of need — and audacious plans for a new European Super League were both consigned to the shadows, fresh changes to the Champions League were suggested. Among the more outlandish proposals as part of a new 36-team tournament were those in the competition being unable to sign each other’s players, thus cementing themselves as the core group of qualifiers and making life much more difficult for any potential challengers, whose players would become prime targets. More teams would see more European nights but the group phase would be scrapped and replaced with a league system, with teams playing opposition of “varying strength”, to be decided by a UEFA ranking.
Disturbing the establishment has become extremely apt in social commentary over recent years but it is never a surprise to see the establishment want to keep the status quo, even under the guise of radical reform.
At its very core, football is about hope; hope that the community, those fans on the trains or in the pubs, can inspire their team to push on and reach the next level, whatever that may be. There has to be aspiration, because without it, this sport will become soulless forever. Lockdown football will eventually end and normality will be restored one day but will fans want to return if the game has been fundamentally changed in a way that stops their club from progressing?
These proposals would put an end to any talk of a Super League but only because those set to benefit from that will instead reap the rewards of the newly proposed changes. European Club Association chairman, Andrea Agnelli, whose belief in this new approach will undoubtedly have been strengthened after the club he chairs, Juventus, were knocked out of the Champions League by FC Porto last week, said he’s confident about the 36-team draft being pushed through. Given that history, rather than current form or quality, would take precedence in success due to the UEFA ranking, it is another example of a difficult moral issue football must ask itself.
Is the notion of ‘new money’ coming into the game and attempting to shake things up any worse than the existing, traditional clubs potentially bypassing poor form on the basis of their history? The harsh reality is that football must find a way forward in terms of allowing clubs to compete without the need for state-funded victories shrouded in “sportswashing”, or accept it as a necessary evil if the long-standing powers are to be challenged.
The new Champions League format may still benefit the new superpowers like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, who will doubtless score well in terms of UEFA’s ranking system, but only because there is a cut-off point and they have already built up enough recent history; their route, and if Agnelli gets his way, any route, into the elite is effectively set to be closed down.
The fact that the clubs who have pushed hard on their own self interest are already enjoying a monopoly on the game is difficult to stomach. They have the biggest piece of the pie, but they want to make it bigger, and as has been shown by the desperation felt in the English lower leagues when ‘Project Restart’ was brought forward, they can get it should they convince others there is something in it for them.
Football is the world’s game and it has been on an enforced soul-searching journey as it gets played out in hollow, haunting arenas with little sense of what is truly at stake. Life will be breathed back into it when supporters return but what they find when they take their seats again could be a world away from the game they were shut out of.
Fans are absolutely crucial to football but so is fair competition. It would be hypocritical and factually wrong to suggest that truly exists now but the authorities and clubs need to make a concerted effort to improve that side of football. These blatant power-grabs, driven by selfishness and neglect, will only make a bad situation worse.
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