It would be something of an understatement to suggest that those driving the plan to launch a European Super League (ESL) involving the game’s biggest clubs spectacularly misread the room before unveiling their self-styled “strategic vision” for the “benefit of the entire European football pyramid.”
Those around the table, led by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez (ESL chairman), Manchester United co-chairman Joel Glazer (ESL vice-chairman) and Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli (ESL vice-chairman), will have noticed the nodding heads of their fellow executives from nine other major clubs, but football exists beyond that exclusive boardroom cabal. The sentiments of everyone else with an emotional attachment to the game have been completely ignored and dismissed in the pursuit of financial gain.
Quite simply, the ESL is an idea that nobody wants, apart from the owners of football’s biggest and richest clubs, who just happen to want to become even bigger and richer, despite the sugar-coated claims of their leading members.
“We will help football at every level and take it to its rightful place in the world,” Perez said in a statement released by the ESL on Sunday. “Football is the only global sport in the world with more than four billion fans and our responsibility as big clubs is to respond to their desires.”
Agnelli, whose faltering Juventus team could miss out on Champions League qualification this season after sliding to fourth in Serie A, just two points ahead of Napoli, claimed that “our 12 Founder clubs represent billions of fans across the globe,” before adding: “We have come together at this critical moment, enabling European competition to be transformed, putting the game we love on a sustainable footing for the long-term future.”
So there you have it — rather than being a vehicle to make each ESL club richer to the tune of over £300 million a year, the Super League proposal is actually designed to be the saviour of football, and fans all over the world should be eternally grateful.
Unfortunately for the ESL leaders, the reaction from supporters has been universally hostile. Social media has been alight with condemnation from fans of all clubs, with angry statements issued by supporters’ groups attached to Manchester United (“These proposals are completely unacceptable”), Arsenal (“the death of what football should be about”), Chelsea (“We are appalled”) and Manchester City (“motivated by greed”), among others.
We already know that UEFA and FIFA are opposed to the plans and that each club involved has been warned they risk being kicked out of their domestic leagues, with their players banned from international football, if they go ahead. So with so much opposition from fans and football’s governing bodies alike, why are the owners of the 12 founding members (the ESL has confirmed this will grow to 15 in the weeks ahead) so determined to wreck the present model in order to press ahead with their plans?
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many things, in sport and as a society, over the past year. One element from a football perspective is the reality that broadcasting money, rather than fans paying at the turnstiles, now keeps clubs afloat. As a spectacle, supporters in stadiums have been missed greatly, but from a purely financial perspective, football at the top level has shown it can survive without fans paying to watch inside the ground.
Of course, fans will be back once the pandemic ends, but the owners of the ESL clubs know that even if the hostility continues and deepens, the majority will continue to pay to watch inside stadiums. If they don’t, the owners know that millions of fans worldwide will pay subscription fees to watch ESL games, with sponsors desperate to attach themselves to a competition involving the biggest clubs and best players.
It is a ruthless, and maybe even cynical, approach, but those in charge know how it works. And if it becomes a closed shop without fear of relegation, the NFL and NBA are hugely successful business models to follow. United, Arsenal and Liverpool — three founding members of the ESL — are all owned by Americans involved in US sport, so they are already well-versed in how to capitalise on owning a franchise in such an environment. It is also clear that, with a future secure from relegation, all member clubs of the ESL would become even more valuable to their owners.
But once again, what about the fans? What about the families who have supported their club through generations, seen them succeed and fail, bought the tickets and the shirts, turned up in the cold and rain? The owners have bought their clubs, often without previous attachment or association. In the case of the Glazers at United, their takeover in 2005 was funded by using the club’s own money. And the same owners are now using historic clubs, rooted in their local communities, as bargaining chips to create a ring-fenced money-making machine that only they want.
It is not the clubs that are threatening to rip up the fabric of football, it is their owners, and they have shown themselves to be oblivious to the wishes of the fans. But while they are pressing ahead without consulting the supporters, they are also doing so at a time when, because of the pandemic, stadiums remain closed to fans. It means that the opportunity to protest — loudly and visibly — has been lost to those passionate fans’ groups at all clubs. Just imagine the scenes at Anfield, Old Trafford or San Siro had fans been allowed into games this weekend, as in the past. But fans will find a way, whether through social media campaigns or other forms of protest, to ensure their voices are heard.
The owners might have misread the room. They might even have purposely put their fingers in their ears and kept their heads down, but they cannot be in any doubt now as to what the football world thinks of them and their plans.