European Football’s Coup d’Etat?
Perhaps this, then, is how it ends. Farewell, football as we knew it. You grew almost as organically as might be possible in an imperfect world, but it was probably always inevitable that it would come to this. You’ve been becoming slowly distended with money for three decades now, increasingly alienated from supporters, to a point at which it frequently feels as though we’re somewhere between tolerated and a mild inconvenience. We’ve changed, of course we have, but not as much as you.
The very biggest and richest clubs taking their ball away and playing each other in perpetuity has taken what may be one of its great leap forward and perhaps, in an increasingly dystopian world, we shouldn’t be surprised by this. The tremors on this particular subject have been so regular over the years that it’s become impossible not to see the pattern emerging and, while we know how avaricious these people are, while we know the contempt in which they hold some of the guiding principles of the game into which they’ve bought their way, it remains galling to see it spelled out so clearly in black and white. So meticulously and persistently planned. So many lawyers checking so many loopholes. So much effort. So much work. And all to slice up European club football for the benefit of ELEVEN clubs, and maybe five more, if they play their cards right. It makes your skin crawl.
To look at the plans for the tournament is to gaze into the id of the modern football club owner. Eleven clubs given immunity from relegation for twenty years. Just imagine the level of vainglory that would have to pump through your veins in order to genuinely believe that to be an idea with merit. These clubs aren’t stupid, though. They know they have to have some element of promotion and relegation, if only to minimise the number of dead rubber matches throughout a season. They just consider they themselves to be above it. The hubris would be astonishing, if these people didn’t already frequently live down to the lowest of our expectations.
They also want to have their cake and eat in terms of league and knockout fixtures. The latter are high-risk. They carry the chance of elimination at the first hurdle, and that can be bad for the shareholders’ dividends. Leagues, however, can become lop-sided. Dead rubbers have to be minimised because The Brand has to consist of Event after Event after Event. And it needs a Final, because the Final is the biggest Event of all. It’s football as written by people who know little about the game and care even less. Traditions are a commodity, to be flogged for as long as they’re profitable. Loyalty is for suckers. Supporters are those morons who pay you to be extras in theatres that they own. Nothing else matters apart from that relentless slog towards Mammon.
But let’s not kid ourselves that these eleven clubs are uniquely evil. Okay, perhaps Bayern Munich are, and perhaps Real Madrid are. But that’s not really what I’m saying here. These eleven are the clubs who were invited. Had this offer have been made to, say, Spurs, Everton or Newcastle United, they’d have bitten their arms off. The same goes for just about any other club. In terms of the distortion that money has created within the game, the rot set in a long time ago and it has permeated its way right the way through. There are good people involved in the running of football clubs, people for whom the integrity and meritocracy of the game are important principles and who consider money to be a corrosive influence upon it, but those people are not winning the argument at the moment, and they haven’t been for a very long time.
If there is any chance of a fightback against this, supporters are probably the best chance, but whilst the reaction to it all on social media last night that I saw was overwhelmingly negative, that was only my particular echo chamber talking. Who knows what the majority of supporters think? It’s likely that we’ll find out once the clubs actually make a statement on the matter beyond “no comment.” It the protests are long and loud enough, if it actually starts to look as though damage is being done to the carefully cultivated reputation of The Brand, though, then there’s a chance that it could yet be rolled back.
But if these revelations have taught us anything, they’ve surely taught us that trying to appeal to the “better nature” of these clubs is a fools errand. One might as well shout at clouds. Right the way through, the biggest clubs have received bigger and bigger slices of the pie because they’ve banged their fists on the table the loudest. In the event that reconciliation might come about, this has to end. If this is to form the start of a fight between clashing visions of what football is and will be, then pandering to the other side cannot continue. The governing bodies will have to grow a backbone. Supporters have to decide whether we love our clubs more than the entire game. Dressing up a private oligarchy as a meritocratic sport to appease the richest is failing, and the sooner that the likes of UEFA and the Premier League realise that, the better.
The very worst option would be for B teams to continue to play in domestic leagues, with the cream being siphoned off for the self-appointed elite. It may sound utopian to believe that they should simply be cast off onto pay per view television and left to it, but complete control wouldn’t be complete control without the domestic leagues as well, and it would be surprising if they didn’t try to make a land grab for the whole lot, in time. Such would be the disparity in income that even their B teams would be likely to continue to dominate. They would, after all, have access to money that would be far beyond even what they have now, and the idea of limiting squad sizes would almost certainly become a thing of the past. The most likely schedules don’t really contain enough matches to spread out across an entire season, so we’d anticipate either a slew of exhibition matches played across the world or an attempt to maintain control of domestic leagues as well as their own European competition. It’s early days, though.
The leaks, made to Der Spiegel (as the recent reports regarding Cristiano Ronaldo were) aren’t something that can merely written off as fake, though Bayern Munich, who were alleged to have investigated ways of withdrawing their players from the Bundesliga and the German national team, have denied any involvement (despite reams of evidence suggesting otherwise), just as FIFA have already denied that, as the president of UEFA, Gianni Infantino helped PSG and Manchester City to navigate his own body’s Financial Fair Play rules. We shall see, whether they turn out to be goddam liars or not.
Der Spiegel promise many more revelations over the coming weeks, and each one will have to be measured entirely on its own merits. Such is the volume of information that they’ve received that we may all end up fatigued with it all. But as an introduction, even this apparent coup d’etat alone represents what would be one of the biggest changes to the very nature of football in decades, and as Spiegel themselves mention in their article on the subject, what’s striking about what has been issued is how little supporters are even mentioned. We may some thinking to do on the unpleasant subject of whether those clubs, this version of the game, this type of football, are things that we can continue to follow, in any conscience.