European Club Football’s ‘New Normal’ – Let Them Go, Let Them Go
The harsh reality is that this fracture has been coming for some time, but let us be under no illusions. There was no “golden age” of football club ownership. For many years, though, there was oversight – a sense that sporting merit should decide matters so far as practicable, and that retaining a semblance of competitive balance was important, not only in the pragmatic sense of keeping people interested, but also as a matter of principle.
We all accept that is in the very nature of sport that there will be some degree of inequality. Perhaps it’s easier to do, though, when the stakes are lower, when only pride, a tin pot and a few thousand pounds are the rewards for winning. Nowadays, it’s hundreds of millions of pounds, and the eyes of the world upon you. It should come as little surprise that certain types businesspeople would eventually encircle the game (sorry, the industry), and that they would care little for history, community, or the pleasure of sport. They saw a gap in the market to buy up soft power, or make themselves handsome dividends. And they had little truck with such quaint, outdated notions as sentimentalism when deciding to ring-fence themselves in perpetuity as the ‘elite’ of European club football, whether we like it or not.
UEFA’s reaction is usually as much as they think they can do. They started contorting themselves in order to satisfy the increasingly rapacious nature of club owners a generation ago. Champions League group stages were introduced, and expanded, then retracted again because they didn’t work. The biggest clubs wanted more matches and more TV money, and they got it. In England, they wanted de facto control of the youth system, and they got it, through the EPPP. Now they’re demanding qualification places based on “historical record.” They want to bar themselves from selling players to each other (the legality of which seems shaky, as it’s difficult to see how this wouldn’t be a gross restraint of trade for the players themselves). It’s the end of structural integrity and meritocracy within the game of football on an epic scale. And once it’s done, it’s done.
This is not a relationship that the entire rest of the game should have allowed to happen, and it certainly isn’t a state of affairs that can continue. It’s debasing. For all this talk of negotiation, this feels like nothing of the sort. If UEFA accede to the demands of the likes of Juventus, whose Andrea Agnelli has chosen himself to be the spokesperson for the coup d’etat, they have sold the whole of European football down the river. The rest of club football around the world has little option, because any ideas of unity can surely only now be considered laughable. These clubs should be offered an ultimatum: either exist and play for the greater good of the world game rather than yourselves, or get the hell out.
The truth of the matter is that the biggest clubs are boils which have to be lanced. For all their talk of how much ‘value’ their existence brings to the game, the opposite is true. They are nothing without context, little more than a team version of pro wrestling. The thousands of football clubs, playing under the ideal that any one of them could get to the World Cup final or their regional confederations final, is what makes them such great champions in the first place. They’re not stupid, these club owners. They know this. It’s why they didn’t just walk years ago. They want to have their cake and eat it.
It’s time to call their bluff. Where there is a football pitch, people will play on it, and where there is a football match being played, people will turn out to watch it. The Football would not cease to exist if the biggest clubs were expelled from UEFA and their national federations and left to go it alone. In bloody space, if that’s what they want. The biggest clubs do not see a value in any other than themselves, other than as battery farms to bring through the players that they need in order to keep their carousel turning. So long as they are kept in the same ecosystem as the rest of our clubs, they will continue pillage them with one hand while telling them that they should be lucky they’re still about with the other. They’ve bullied their way to considerable power over the last thirty years, though, so we probably shouldn’t be surprised that this is the case.
So, let them go. If the nature of the game really is so restrictive that they have to be perpetually caterwauling for more money, let them go. They have the money to be able to build an infrastructure from the ground up, so let them do it. Let them paywall themselves off from television audiences and hermetically seal themselves off from the rest of the game. Let us put them to one side and forget about them. Let them take their VAR-blighted mess of glorified exhibition matches elsewhere. At that point, perhaps we can start treating football as a sport again.
It’s true to say that some people might not earn the vast amounts of money that they have been making, but it’s difficult, at a time when the vast majority of clubs live little more than hand-to-mouth existences, to justify a tiny number of people employed within the game continuing to earn tens of thousands of pounds per week. The rest of the game would need to recalibrate, after such a sustained period of financial inequality, but it would emerge transformed, perhaps even played for the benefit of those who ultimately – whether directly or indirectly – pay for it, rather than the motley collection of nation states and wild west capitalists who currently grow fat off it. The alternative is to continue as we have for the last few decades, waiting for crumbs to fall from the top table which never come, all the while working to the flawed assumption that everything will be okay, so long as our club can find a way of becoming part of its 1%. If there is going to be a “new normal”, let the the 99% be its beneficiaries instead.