james debate
james debate

Wednesday 21 April 2021

There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen. Now we know that this dictum can apply to just 48 hours as well. On Monday morning, the world of football was dealt a seismic shock incomparable to anything seen in the past half century. Described by one insider as less a declaration of civil war than nuclear war. A situation so fraught that the Government has had to step in and get involved. It has been drama at an absolutely unprecedented level for organised sport. Yet just as quickly as it ignited, the entire furore appears to have exhausted itself and collapsed. The greedy bastards couldn't even give me enough time to write a blog post on the subject!

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It was a two-day spell where the very future of the game appeared to be in genuine doubt. A declaration of independence by the world's elite football clubs. Battle-lines drawn between the establishment forces of FIFA, UEFA, the FA and the upstart armies of marketeers and lawyers powering world's most successful teams. What has been remarkable about this story is the breadth and passion of the backlash. I can't recall anything ever unifying so many people in single purpose. Fans of all stripes, neutrals, political oppositions, everyone has seemingly come together on this issue and vociferously condemned the involved parties. It has been as oddly inspiring as surprising. But what has caused this massive outcry and what does it mean?

The proposal itself was nothing new. There have been discussions of forming a potential European Super League since at least the 1990s, when live television revolutionised the sport both in terms of global popularity as well as financially. Yet when the twelve 'founder' clubs unilaterally declared their intentions this week, it still came as a shock. Most previous proposals for such a competition had been envisaged as a natural extension of the existing Champions League or, at it's most extreme, a new Premier League style division sat atop a newly unified European league pyramid. Yet this proposal was no mere evolution, but an entirely clean break from the game that billions around the world know and love. A completely independent competition governed by the clubs.

Why did they do this? Well, at the risk of sounding glib: money. Everyone wants to watch the big clubs, the Real Madrids, the AC Milans, the Manchester Uniteds of football. Not just the hardcore or local fans, but the casual fans. Crucially, the newer overseas fans in the American and Asian markets, who command such vast amounts of untapped revenue. European football is watched all over the world. It's a testament to the incredible power of branding. By creating a league with just the biggest brands in football, where every single match is Barcelona, Juventus, Liverpool, they leverage that branding power in a way that no other sporting competition possibly could. So far it doesn't sound so bad. Who doesn't want to watch the best teams on the planet play each other? Unfortunately, it is no hyperbole to say that the Super League proposal would completely de-legitimise the integrity of the sport, reducing it to little more than WWE superficiality. 

Football has a lot of problems: corruption, financial bias. But despite those problems, it still remains a competition of merit. No matter how much money you have or how famous you are, you still need to win on the pitch, and the team that wins on the pitch is the best team. Ultimately there is no other metric than winning. But under this new Super League proposal, this would no longer be the case. Instead, clubs have been invited based on brand-power and granted semi-permanent 'elite' status. It has nothing to do with how good the team actually is, it is not earned. Currently in order to qualify for the elite Champions League, you need to win games and earn your place. But the Super League, as an example, will invite mid-table Arsenal ahead of literally half the Premier League that is currently ranked higher than them. It is laughable.

Even worse, the Super League does not feature a neutral system of relegation and promotion. The founding members of the Super League would not be relegated from this division, no matter how poorly they played, nor would other teams from around the world be able to challenge and surpass them unless specifically invited. 

There are many other reasons why this is a terrible idea: the abolition of local rivalries and traditions, the damage to the grassroots and youth game, the lack of representation for countries that aren't England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Not to mention making attending away games prohibitively difficult and expensive for fans. But at its core, this is what the proposal is about. The big clubs want to create a competition with no real risk, where they can't lose no matter what. They don't care about the sport itself or the competitive aspect, so long as they can leverage their marketing power and make money. This is no longer a legitimate sport, but a circus.

But somewhere along the way, someone miscalculated badly. The elite clubs were certain that they held all the power, all the leverage. They felt the powers that be would never do anything to antagonise their main money-makers, and that any outrage among the local 'legacy' fans would be more than offset by the expanded television revenue. They were not prepared for the backlash that ensued.

First, UEFA and FIFA made clear that they would not take this lying down, threatening to expel all clubs involved from their competitions, and to ban all the players at those clubs from partaking in the World Cup. This step can't be overstated, and I suspect that ultimately this would have been the downfall of the Super League proposal had events been allowed to play out for longer. Ultimately, players still want to play in the World Cup. That means something to them. And if the players are not on board, the clubs will suddenly lose all that leverage. No amount of marketing can make people give a shit about watching a Barcelona team without its star players, especially once all those players jump ship to whichever nearby club was smart enough to remain in La Liga.

But at the end of it all, it came down to the fans. The massive, unprecedented outpouring of anger from football fans all over the world did not go unnoticed, and when more than one thousand Chelsea fans took to the street, in the midst of a global pandemic no less, to declare their views on the matter, the clubs listened. Chelsea FC became the first of the twelve founders to take a stand, followed by Manchester City. Now all six English clubs involved and followed suit, and without them the rest of the Super League will surely follow. The Super League is dead, football is saved. The fans saved it. Now everyone grab some popcorn to watch the unimaginable fallout that will rain down upon these people.

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