European Super League: Players and fans still hold the key in football's moment of reckoning

Oleh Dom Farrell 20 April 2021 104
European Super League: Players and fans still hold the key in football's moment of reckoning

As claim, counter-claim and another news bombshell thudded into one another regarding the purported launch of a European Super League on Sunday, many football supporters and those involved with the game expressed wishes for a simpler time.

One of those was Mark Pougatch, esteemed anchor of ITV's UK coverage of England matches, who was probably wondering what side Gareth Southgate might be able to put out given UEFA's threats to ban players from the 12 Super League clubs from representing their national teams.

Pougatch asked whether the chairmen of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham in the 1980s and 1990 – local figures rooted in their communities – would have let such tawdry antics occur on their watch.

A glance at his Twitter replies showed the consensus was, "Probably, yeah".

One claimed Peter Swales, the vainglorious and hubristic ex-Manchester City chairman, would have sold his kidneys to take part in a Super League. Martin Edwards, his Manchester United contemporary whose family ploughed their fortune from butchery into the club, would probably have bought Swales' kidneys and put them into sausages.

Gallows humour among supporters often speaks football's more enduring truths and this was no different. Sunday's cloth-eared land grab from England's 'big six', Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Milan, Juventus and Inter is shocking because of its scant regard for the sporting competition all of them pretend to crave. But it is entirely in line with the actions of those clubs over the past three decades, which have always spoken louder than their vapid platitudes.

Edwards, Swales and their contemporaries were around at the time super league talk first emerged, when gate sharing in English football was abolished in 1983 and the so-called Heathrow Agreement gave half of the television rights money available to the top division at the expense of the other three in 1985.

These were all precursors to the 1992 Premier League breakaway, which enshrined the basic principle that has driven all the developments of the past 24 hours: the more successful a team is, the greater share of the game's wealth it deserves at the expense of all others, widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

A shrinking privileged few see how cold it is outside of their exclusive set and have since taken every measure they can to ensure they do not fall out of that elite. What better way to lock that down than to come up with a closed shop drowning in hedge-fund billions? The Super League is as much a natural conclusion as it is a radical departure.

But what now?

Baddies and baddies

The multi-layered PR disaster of the Super League roll out, not to mention the threat of endless litigation, means understandably upset fans should still have confidence the vision of Florentino Perez and his allies will not prevail.

But picking good guys and bad guys in this scenario is a selection process as tricky as sending a Spain team to a European Championship without Barca, Madrid or Atleti players.

We've seen numerous examples over recent years of fans being played off against one another in sinister fashion. Take the framing of new-monied City and Chelsea, trying to unseat the deserving greats of English football – United, Arsenal and Liverpool (sorry, Tottenham) – with their ill-gotten gains. Oil money and plastic clubs versus institutions with values, doing things the "proper" way.

Turns out they are all the same side of an utterly fetid coin. They deserve complete contempt and suspicion at all times. They have proved they do not care about you or your club and you never owe them your obedience.

So who are the goodies? Absolutely not UEFA.

Aleksander Ceferin spoke with impressive passion, clarity and controlled anger when addressing the challenge to his organisation and its tournaments on Monday. But UEFA's new Champions League format is a horrible pile of bloated rubbish.

There will be more games, more dead rubbers, less jeopardy and more guarantees – in financial and sporting terms – for the elite. It's the closed shop of the Super League with a few of the windows and doors left open. Probably as well to let out the smell.

UEFA are the far lesser of two evils here but unquestioningly backing them as righteous saviours and guardians of football is a dead end.

The Premier League's lost generation

Similarly, concern proclaimed for "match-going fans" should not be allowed to pass by in England without action being taken once the dust settles.

High ticket prices have served to effectively leave a generation of fans behind in the Premier League. In the 2017 BBC Price of Football study, 82 per cent of 18-24 year olds said the cost of tickets was an obstacle to them attending matches.

Within that context, Monday's survey for BBC Sport by polling company Savanta ComRes that showed 48 per cent of 18-34-year-old fans were "happy" about the Super League plans – against an "unhappy" 18 per cent - should come as little surprise.

For all the understandable outrage among those with an emotional stake in the traditions of the game, there is an entire demographic who love and consume football but feel little connection to the "fabric" of its century-old culture that has failed to lend them so much as a stray thread.

The breakaway clubs are motivated primarily by vast financial gain, but a younger generation left to find their own way into the game by the establishment – in thrall to online clips, video games and viral superstars – will have come into their calculations.

German football's stronger connection to its fan culture, demonstrated both by more affordable ticket prices and the 50+1 rule enshrining member ownership, feels like a huge factor in Bayern Munich not being along for the joyride.

Much as they might feel taken for a ride by various stakeholders, supporters will still be influential over the direction of travel to come and those chastising the Super League must now do more than pay lip service. Slash admission prices and open up the people's game once more.

"We came from Cheltenham"

Those fan groups already engaged are starting to mobilise and it will be interesting to hear how the biggest names in the sport react, especially in light of UEFA's hardline threats that seemingly include immediate Champions League expulsion. Without them this cannot happen.

Speaking to Kicker in 2019, Jurgen Klopp said: "I hope there will never be this Super League. I also don't feel like my club has to be seeded [in the Champions League].

"Of course, it's economically important, but why should we create a system where Liverpool can play against Real Madrid for 10 years in a row? Who wants to see this every year?"

Pep Guardiola has also rubbished the idea to which his club has now committed to – although City are among those involved yet to issue a public statement on the matter – and spoke warmly of the value of football's pyramid structure before an FA Cup tie at Cheltenham Town this season, when his players had to get changed in the stadium bar at Whaddon Road.

"Everyone comes from the lower divisions or do you believe when we are under-16 or under-18 we fly in private jets?" he said. "We play in these stadiums all our careers, we don't play in big stadiums all the time, we came from [places like] Cheltenham. People cannot forget that and it is a pleasure to play there.

"We were there many times and we changed in bars as boys and we play football with incredible joy. We love this game and we change in these changing rooms for most of our careers most of the time."

Guardiola depicted a romance entirely absent from the Super League, UEFA's reforms and, in truth, most of his employers' operations. But for all the distance between the millionaire superstars of the modern game and the supporters shown such contempt by the hedge fund class, there lies a common bond.

Klopp stood by his previously stated position ahead of Liverpool's game with Leeds United amid fan protests outside Elland Road. He and Guardiola will speak again about this serious fracture in the sport over the coming hours and days and their words will carry considerable weight. The Super League owners have used the uncertainty of the global pandemic to push their agenda, but the tragedy and tumult of the past year has also shown how much power still lies with players and fans.

It can be seen before every single Premier League game, when players continue to take a knee in protest against police brutality. It was there when Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson led a fundraising effort for the NHS after he and his fellow professionals were goaded by a UK government that Marcus Rashford continues to hold to account over child poverty.

It was also felt by would-be Super League clubs, when City and United were persuaded to donate £100,000 to foodbanks in Greater Manchester amid rising demand due to the pandemic. Or when Liverpool and Tottenham U-turned on their risible decision to furlough non-playing staff.

Players and fans, still the heart and soul of the game we love, might have to shout a little louder this time, but they can definitely be heard. It feels like a moment to line up alongside one another as opposed to backing the least-bad option in a pin-striped suit stuffed with self-interest and empty promises.

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Dom Farrell

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