There are times when as a writer it is quite difficult to come up with abstract topics to discuss at length, while there are times when ideas come more naturally. And then, at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those subjects you know you must write about but find hard to do justice to or get views over coherently.
Nonetheless, this is one of those times where – after having bitten the bullet for a while – something needs to be said. The world of football has been shaken by the announcement of the European Super League, and we need to talk about the context and the repercussions.
Football is a hyper-sensitive vacuum full of extreme viewpoints and conflict at the best of times, which has only been deepened by the every-increasing popularity of social media, but it feels like we are on the verge of a ‘big bang’ moment here and on the cusp of something that could quite literally change the sport forever.
The premise is pretty simple: 12 ‘elite’ European clubs have decided they are no longer happy with how UEFA run things and have decided to break off and form their own version of the Champions League, and this is an idea that has been talked about for months.
First of all, as a general observation, why is anyone surprised? The owners of football clubs and the people within them, and in fact a lot of the figures connected to the sport such as presidents and agents, ultimately have financial interests at heart. To say they do not care about the sport itself is perhaps a bit too careless – they understand the game but simply want to extract as much money out of it as possible.
When you invite billionaires to sit around a table and have a say in how the game is run, do not be shocked when they try to take control. After all, that is how a lot of these people got their financial power; through ruthless business practice and always trying to get more for themselves. The Super League idea has been talked about in the media for months, UEFA chose to ignore it and swat the claims away, but are now forced to play the victim card.
Before taking a look at the response of European football’s governing body, it is important to address the Super League itself.
There is no doubt that a closed competition only involving elite clubs with founding members that are there on very debatable merit is not a good starting point. What is even worse is the fact that their supposed and self-proclaimed aims to improve the quality of football for the spectator comes with the trade-off of punishing the average working fan, with a higher quantity of games and unregulated ticket prices which are no doubt going to be more expensive than Champions League games.
The bottom line of it is indisputable: this is a competition organised and agreed upon by a set of owners who are so out of touch with the average football fan that it is actually quite frightening. So if doubts are emerging from their initial pitch – one that is meant to be well thought out and bulletproof – goodness knows what may pop up down the line.
There are some merits to what the ‘G12′ are proposing and there is also some sense coming from key figures within it. The finances of football have been ravaged by COVID, clubs are making huge losses with UEFA seemingly unwilling to act, and a huge investment bank like JP Morgan have come along as the knight in shining armour willing to put huge sums in to guarantee the solidarity of these clubs’ balance sheets for years to come. It quite frankly offers far more guarantees to those at the top.
As mentioned, football is not governed based on what is the best for the sport but rather slightly influenced by that; money and power are the real driving force between decisions at the top level. Owners of the clubs in question have decided their slice of the pie is not big enough, they can’t cut themselves a bigger one and have thrown several public tantrums about that, so why are people surprised that they have decided to make their own pie?
Florentino Perez talked about how the plans would ‘save football’, but then went on to remark how young fans are losing interest because they don’t want to watch low-profile games. He talked about audience share and capturing attention, as though Real Madrid and other clubs are a brand and not a team, and that their rivals are Netflix and Amazon Prime rather than Valencia and Sevilla.
The above is far from a defence of what the 12 founding clubs – Milan included of course – have chosen to do, but rather an attempt to get into their mindset and understand why so many teams have decided to try and essentially hit the reset button, taking a leap into the unknown.
Rossoneri supporters also should not be dumbfounded by the fact that Milan and CEO Ivan Gazidis are involved. The writing has been on the wall for the last two years since the club has been operating under very strict financial parameters that were imposed by UEFA in a Settlement Agreement.
The particular agreement – one essentially forced on the club by UEFA – included an exclusion from the Europa League, a route to generating more revenue that would have helped the accounts, something that UEFA claims is one of the sole purposes of Financial Fair Play. Seems backwards, right? Milan think so too, and that is why they want to ‘stick it’ to the authorities, for want of a better phrase.
Gazidis sent out a letter to Milan’s sponsors and partners which uses buzz words such as ‘value’ and ‘support to the entire football pyramid’ plus ‘more financial resources’ – it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realise that this is very much money-driven. That should worry fans, but at the same time it bears the question whether many of them are blind to exactly what is happening right now under the current guise of football as we know it.
This is where the moral question comes into the situation, as a lot of supporters from Milan and other clubs feel that their team has sold out, that they have never been so detached from their fan base and that owners are showing their true colours. All this may be true, but the general narrative is stained with hypocrisy.
And it is here that we cast our eyes back to UEFA, who are being painted by many as the ‘good guys’ in this and the guardian angels of pure football as we know it. It simply could not be further from the truth, and they have a duty to look in the mirror to try and understand the conditions that were created to cause a rebellion. Greed is one of them, that is true, but a scary level of inadequacy and inefficiency are also a big influence.
For starters, clubs like Milan – but not exclusively – feel unfairly treated by the Financial Fair Play system when they see teams like Paris Saint-Germain get away with spending what they do, even other teams such as Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
Seriously, who is Aleksander Ceferin to talk about ‘greed’, about ‘selfishness’, about ‘damaging the game’ and being ‘snakes’? UEFA on Monday voted through a new Champions League format which will see the number of teams increase, the number of games increase and clubs qualify via coefficient – how is that much different from the competition he is publicly lambasting?
Why does he want to make the Champions League bigger? Why do FIFA want the number of teams and games at the World Cup to be expanded? It’s not in the interests of fans, that’s for sure, but they will certainly be laughing to the bank.
The media response has been incredibly hit and miss too. There have been some fantastic and passionate responses about how such a system could damage the game, and that supporters are once again the ones to suffer, all of which is correct.
Then there are people like Gary Neville – who is rightly well respected for his punditry and analysis – talking as a spokesperson what fans want and how money in football has gone ‘too far’ while he and his friends are trying to bankroll Salford City – previously a non-league club – to the second tier or beyond.
Then there are players such as Mesut Ozil and Ander Herrera speaking out against the idea. The former collected £350,000-a-week during a pandemic while Arsenal had to fire staff, while the latter plays for PSG who, as we know, have Qatari owners with very questionable practices and are pretty much the club you think of when the phrase ‘money ruining football’ gets talked about.
Clubs like Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig have spoken out against the principles of the Super League, and where do we even begin?
Bayern Munich effectively monopolise the Bundesliga by constantly buying out competition and leveraging the fact they are significantly richer than everyone else. People who praise Leipzig have absolutely zero contextual knowledge about how the club came to be, how they got to the top flight, and indeed about how the Red Bull football empire operate in general. It is ludicrously hypocritical.
The sport is f**ked. It is generally evil and money-driven, and so are the billionaires that run it. Until now we’ve put up with it, yet this is apparently a step too far. It could be that it is a step too far in all honesty, but let’s not act like we weren’t already on the precipice.
Ceferin said it himself: “For some, supporters have become consumers. Fans have become customers and competitions have become products.” How did it get this way? Have a look in the mirror.
The point is this, and most people are not going to like it: football was already beyond the point of not return. It has been for years, supporters have not mattered for a long time, owners are inherently out of touch with the average fan and those levels of disenfranchisement are only going to increase.
The gut feeling is that the longer this goes on without any of the Premier League clubs willing to publicly come out and sell the project, the more it feels like one giant negotiating tactic to try and get UEFA to listen to them and cede to their requests. To launch an idea with very little positive PR – aside from Florentino Perez rambling as he does – seems counter-intuitive and strange.
The one hope we can all cling onto is that it is the kind of revolutionary event that could change football forever and that positive reform emerges from this via constructive dialogue and progressive changes that alter the way the game is governed and the principles it is both founded upon and wishes to protect.
Until then, clubs will continue to be playthings for the world of the mega-rich, and supporters will just be strung along for the ride while lining their pockets.