Periodically a story breaks in both the football-focused and news media alerting us to the desire of Europe’s elite clubs to break away from their own domestic leagues and to form a European Super League. This time it was German news magazine Der Spiegel that ran a story alleging that seven of Europe’s top clubs had formed a coalition back in 2016 with the intention of exploring the potential creation of such an elite continental league.
UEFA eventually managed to head off that initial threat thanks to some alterations to the qualification processes of the Champions League and some tweaking of the associated financial distributions to favour the bigger clubs. Now in 2018 Der Spiegel is suggesting that it has access to evidence that this illicit group has grown to comprise a total of eleven clubs who are ready to sign a document establishing a new league from 2021. The league will be enhanced to a total of sixteen teams through the invitation of a further five ‘initial guests’.
Whenever stories of this ilk emerge, it is rightly regarded as a contentious subject, one which strikes fear into the very hearts of true football fans that this could signal the end of football as we know it. I have had a number of heated debates about this very subject with similar football obsessives, not because I in any way want to see it happen, but because the greed that runs through the very core of modern elite football, as the rich unceasingly seek to become ever richer, imbues such a development with a sense of inevitability.
On the face of it, for clubs competing(sic) in leagues which are essentially perennial foregone conclusions, there is a degree of understanding for their motivation beyond the purely financial. A new league with a more equal standard of competition could in fact seem appealing. As would the chance to see your team, (assuming they have been invited to the party that is!), compete against the very best on a weekly basis.
Yet it seems that the underlying motivation behind a move such as this is less about creating a better competition for the fans and everything about a response from those clubs who dominate their domestic competitions to the ever-growing financial might and global appeal of the Premier League. If you can’t beat them, join them, as the old proverb goes.
However what we have learned since the formation of the Premier League in 1992 is it is never about the fans and is always about the big clubs and the seemingly ever-increasing revenues that they can reap. It is hard to imagine that club owners and administrators are thinking about anything other than the massive new markets that they would be able to sell the games to across emerging digital media platforms.
Presumably the money men at Europe’s self-appointed elite clubs feel that weekly rounds featuring the best playing the best, with potentially, at least in theory, any of the sixteen teams capable of winning the title, will carry an even greater global appeal to viewers and sponsors. In the very short term it probably would, but we only need to think about the current Champions League with its largely predictable group phase and increasingly familiar composition of the knockout phases to see how quickly such a novelty might wear off.
The tragic event in Leicester the weekend before last, for all its sadness, evoked beautiful memories of the incredible journey that Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha took the players and supporters of Leicester City on. Of that incredible title-winning season of 2015/16 and the truly thrilling Champions League campaign that followed. If the rich clubs are to have their way we would never ever see anything like it again, or Bournemouth’s rise from 91st in the league to the top half of the Premier League, or Huddersfield somehow staying up for a second season, or Burnley qualifying for Europe, the list goes on.
Novelty value alone would probably mean that tickets would sell even as part of over-priced corporate and leisure packages, but what happens when initial intrigue starts to fade? When the new and interesting becomes the routine?
The true strength of football comes from its ongoing, evolving narratives and histories. From the local derbies, the rivalries built over years of bitter competition, as well as the potential for the unexpected. In each country where the beautiful game is played the stories haven’t been manufactured they have evolved season after season, year after year.
The proposed European Super League would undoubtedly contain the biggest and most storied clubs on the continent, but they would be competing in a sterile vacuum, alien to what makes football what it really is, and what we all fell in love with in the first place. In essence they would be abandoning their histories in pursuit of even more wealth.
Promotion and relegation are the core ingredients that make football the vibrant and intriguing sport that it is. They are the factors that ensure that the majority of games throughout the course of a season carry interest and meaning. To remove them would be to dilute the core competitiveness of the game and to create a programme made up of nothing more than a series of glorified exhibition games. Will the money keep pouring in in those circumstances?
Already in England there is a growing sense that true football fans are becoming tired of the Premier League and its predictability, recognising that fairy tale stories akin to Leicester’s are less and less likely, as financial resource increasingly becomes the most important, or indeed the only factor in determining success. Instead more and more supporters are investing their money and interest into lower league and non-league football where they find the true spirit of the game alive and well. Plus they can actually afford to get in!
While it is becoming clearer that the big clubs don’t need the income from the match going fan: recent research showing that half of the Premier League clubs in 2016/17 would have turned a profit even if matchday ticket income was discounted (https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/premier-league-clubs-empty-stadiums-ticket-prices-fans-tv-broadcast-deal-a8491066.html). It is the perceived level of competitiveness of the Premier League (even if it isn’t actually that competitive outside of the so-called Big Six!) as well as the passion and colour brought by the match going fans, that make it such an attractive global televisual and media proposition. Take those away and what are you left with? Not something that any true football supporter would take to their heart!