In what proved to be the most explosive week in modern footballing history, the mask slipped once and for all. Fans, players and managers have seen the game for what it is for a long time but generally accepted it because, while football has become entrenched into the murky world of financial capitalism, it hasn’t altered the landscape of the sport enough to warrant too much fuss European Super League proposal, however, stepped over the line. 12 of Europe’s biggest clubs effectively staged a coup, not just on UEFA, but on the fabric of football itself.
Rumours of such an endeavour had been circling over 20 years or more and the concrete plans will have taken a long time to come to fruition. Contracts were signed, financial backers were found, a board was formed and a format was devised.
The likes of Florentino Perez, the prospective chairman and Real Madrid president, and his Juventus equivalent, Andrea Agnelli, have shown a complete misunderstanding and disregard for fans’ interests in order to service their own selfish pursuit of power by masquerading as the guardians of the modern game in a time of unprecedented crisis. But they were unable to defeat the traditionalists — everybody who loves football — who stood up and said no.
All those discussions, meetings and steps towards a more elitist, power-hungry and short-sighted era were rendered moot in a couple of days. On Sunday night, a collective statement was released by all the founding members purporting to be making a change for the better. By Tuesday, nine of the clubs had began a withdrawal process following almost universal condemnation.
Chelsea were first to go after a protest movement outside Stamford Bridge delayed the kick off ahead of their 0-0 draw with Brighton on Tuesday. Manchester City soon followed before Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Apologies from those responsible soon emerged and Red Devils’ CEO Ed Woodward resigned, though it was later claimed he did so to stand against the proposals, despite being photographed at a dinner with the other clubs’ chiefs and failing to make these feelings known before anything was signed.
Inter and AC Milan, as well as Atletico Madrid have pulled out but Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid are remaining stubbornly committed, sat in the living room of their burning house, insisting they will not be crushed by the impending rubble.
The statements and apologies, regardless of how genuine they may have been, have not been accepted. Authorities such as UEFA and the Premier League had threatened to enforce sanctions on these clubs were they to follow through on their plans, and there is widespread belief that these clubs should not go unpunished. But the ‘Angels vs Devils’ narrative which has developed over the week in certain quarters is far from a true representation of the state in which football finds itself, and both of those organisations have proved to be as complicit in the monetisation of football’s very soul as the clubs they are now looking to reprimand.
It is not lost on many that the latest rebranding of the Champions League, set to take effect from 2024, is cut from the very same cloth as the Super League itself. It gives preferential treatment to those very same clubs who threatened to walk away, ensuring they no longer have to qualify through their league position, but rather through their historical performances in the competition. Redistribution of wealth has been a burning issue at the height of a global health and financial crisis, and it seems that this route only distorts the overall picture at the top of European football in the same way. The Premier League, it should be remembered, was a breakaway league 1992; principally this has been done for the same reason.
At the height of the fight against The Super League, these points were being laid bare. Sky Sports, who along with BT Sport attempted to profit from fans’ inability to attend matches because of COVID-19 restrictions earlier in the season by charging £15 to watch matches which otherwise wouldn’t have been televised, were heavily criticised for promoting the supporter-led movement. Gary Neville, a Sky pundit, despite making a very impassioned stance against the clubs which included the one for whom he played for 20 years, was dismissed by some for his involvement in bankrolling Salford City while a number of neighbouring clubs — notably Bury — faced liquidation.
There are valid points to be made but timing was everything. By reducing arguments from everybody who could possibly be accused of hypocrisy, it could have undermined what ultimately led to the collapse of the idea, or at least its position as a legitimate threat: unity.
There are also different levels of greed which the Super League crossed by looking to completely rewrite football as a competitive spectacle, taking away promotion and relegation and giving more power to a small number of self-appointed big clubs than had ever been seen in 150 years of the sport, while even hinting at reducing the length of games. If the rules of matches were up for debate, there was no limit to what else could, and eventually would, change.
But for UEFA and the Premier League to rally against it shows how threatened their own competitions are. Money is still the main driving factor in their mindsets; the Champions League will be expanded to 36 teams, who will compete in more structured league, meaning yet more games for players to contend with. As Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan asked on Twitter: ‘Who will think of us?’
Such drastic changes to a tournament seem rather uncalled for considering the aim was more competitiveness; an oversaturated tournament is not the answer, even if the group stage has become stale and lacking the sort of action clearly being taken for granted at the knockout stages.
English football sold its soul a long time ago. High ticket prices, state-backed clubs and the prospect of a 39th game overseas once upon a time are just the tip of the iceberg. Even hailing Paris Saint-Germain as the good guys of football, having refused to join the Super League, didn’t quite fit the narrative; it was such a repugnant idea that it went against the notion of sportswashing. It wasn’t surprising to see either Chelsea or Manchester City withdraw first; the surprise was that they joined in the first place
Football fans have put up with a lot to support their clubs over the years, all while those in charge have ignored them in pursuit of profit. Their sport is no longer the socialist haven it perhaps once proclaimed to be but just because players, shirts, tickets and almost everything else has rocketed in price and the game is almost unrecognisable from the idealistic view many people hold onto, it doesn’t mean everyone should not band together to kill off the threat of something even greater, just as they did this week.
The reality everyone must face is that the game we love is a different beast these days and everything, including the 50+1 rule in Germany which is centred on partial fan ownership but has helped give Bayern Munich a domestic monopoly, has its issues. It’ll take a moral reset for things to become more palatable from here.
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