Football Supporters: Surplus to Requirements

by | Apr 20, 2021

It was always going to end this way. The greatest lie that capitalism ever sold was that it loves competition. It doesn’t, and we’ve seen this time and time again. Capitalism loves private monopoly, and the closer it can nudge any institution towards becoming one, the harder it will push. We’ve been headed in this direction for at least forty years, some will argue longer. In England, there was a time when clubs had to share their gate receipts, when sponsors names were banned from shirts, and when television money was divided to some extent between the four divisions of the Football League.

The formation of the Premier League in 1992 should have smashed that illusion to pieces, but the fact that promotion and relegation continued and that the FA Cup and League Cup continued, allowed us to maintain the delusion that, short of some changes of the names of the competitions, nothing much had really changed. That moment, however, proved to be the game-changer. As Premier League television revenues in England went stratospheric, the biggest clubs from elsewhere in Europe looked on in envy. English clubs flexing their newly-found financial muscle were starting to dominate them in the transfer market, which had been tilted in a different direction when the phrase “English football” was largely synonymous with caged-in fans, hooliganism and declining attendances.

In UEFA, the pas de deux became so familiar that it did start to feel as though nothing would ever change. The biggest clubs would threaten their breakaway Super League, UEFA would shit the bed and offer them increasing concessions in the hope of keeping them quiet for a little longer, and everything would continue very much as before, except with the scales tiled a little further in favour of the biggest clubs. At times it was imperceptible. At others, such as when they launched a second group phase, a little less so. We became a little too used to this form of brinkmanship, and it seems to have caught most people off-guard that this time they’d actually decided to see it through.

And then it happened.

At this early stage in proceedings, it’s difficult to say with any degree of confidence what will happen next. Various leagues and governing bodies have already stated that clubs will be banned from playing in domestic or UEFA competitions, should they take their place in the Super League, but the biggest clubs seem extremely confident that they will buckle, and that they will get to have their cake and eat it. The clubs have already resigned their places in the European Club Association – clubs are not members of UEFA in and of themselves – so it’s difficult to see how even this year’s Champions League can continue, although rumours spreading last night that this year’s competition has been suspended were quickly proved to be overcooked, for now.

The combination of the amount of bad blood that this has already created – relations between these clubs and UEFA are surely now fundamentally and irreparably broken – and the suggestion this morning that furious clubs are now demanding their immediate expulsion from all UEFA-related competitions likely means that the Champions League as we currently recognise it is dead. Whether that extends to the Premier League is debatable. It would be foolish to claim that its six biggest clubs don’t bring substantial value to any competition that they play in, but if the anger levels are as high as are being reported, then it seems as likely as not that they will also be expelled from that competition.

This, in turn, also seems to have been predicted. The Super League has been reported this as having already sent a letter to FIFA and UEFA saying that it has already “filed a motion before the relevant courts” to ensure it can be established without “punitive measures”, which sounds very much as though they intend to sue in order to retain ownership of the cake that they’ve been eating for the last few years. But what would their grounds for this be? What loophole of contract law might they have found which allows them to jettison their contractual obligations while ensuring that others who may not want them in their organisations any more stick to theirs? We’re unlikely to find out immediately. What we know for certain is that the Premier League has a clause in its rules which allows it to expels clubs, “upon a special Resolution to that effect being passed by a majority being passed. This thread from Sean Jones QC on Twitter sets out a little more detail about both the Premier League and UEFA’s rules.

It seems unlikely that they’ll be able to make a particularly strong case over ‘financial detriment’, when they’re already underwritten by JP Morgan and have made their decisions deliberately and specifically for anti-competitive reasons, but who knows? The decision to go rushing into it from August of this year certainly seems tailor-made as an attempt to strongarm other bodies into letting them stay because they have no time to prepare for anything else. But the levels of anger being reported this morning are so extreme that UEFA (and in turn the Premier League) may well find themselves with little alternative. It certainly doesn’t reek of open, free competition and extreme confidence in their position that the Super League is leading with legal threats.

There are, however, reasons to believe that this is not necessarily the decisive ‘victory’ for Europe’s greediest football businesses that they would like to paint it as having been this morning. Firstly (and yes, this is subject to change), German clubs have so far confirmed their commitment to UEFA and to the Champions League, and neither have PSG. Secondly, by leaping in with their studs in the air, there’s every chance that they’ve even managed to piss off just about everybody, when acting in a more taciturn way might have kept some key figures onside. Consider, for example, the broadcasters. In the UK, BT Sport are committed to the current scheme of things, while Sky Sports didn’t stop its pundits from venting their spleens last night. Unsurprising, when we consider the risk to the financial model – underpinned by the Premier League – that has served them very nicely for the last three decades.

The current Champions League television contracts run until 2024, and the decision on the part of the clubs to rip that up three and half years ahead of time doesn’t mean that broadcasters will be able to pay the enormous amounts of money that the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid seem to feel entitled to. The broadcasters are as committed to their contracts as anybody else. One alternative might be for the clubs to seek to broadcast the matches themselves, but this is far from a guaranteed win for the clubs. Recent media history is littered with the corpses of companies who tried to go large on live televised football rights and failed.

There doesn’t seem to be much likelihood of reconciliation, though, if the words of the UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin yesterday afternoon are anything to go by. He stated that players who take part in the new league will be “banned from the World Cup and Euros” (it’s not yet known whether they’ll be able to get this introduced before this summer’s delayed European Championships), described the plans as “a spit in the face of all football lovers” and, as if to emphasise how deep this schism is, took a moment or two to coat down Andrea Agnelli of Juventus, who is one of the architects of it all and, remarkably is the Godfather to Ceferin’s young daughter.

He’s probably one of the biggest disappointments, or the biggest disappointment of all. I don’t want to be too personal. But the fact is that I’ve never seen a person that would lie so many times, so persistently that he did was unbelievable.

I spoke with him also on Saturday afternoon. He said, ‘These are all only rumours. Don’t worry, nothing is going on’. And then he said, ‘I’ll call you in one hour’. And he turned off the phone.

On Ed Woodward, the chief executive of another group of splitters, Manchester United, Ceferin had this much to say:

I didn’t have much contact with him but he called me last Thursday in the evening saying that he’s very satisfied with the reforms, that he fully supports the reforms, and that the only thing he would like to speak about is about financial fair play.

There are questions over the legality of making threats against players in relation to their ability to play in future international tournaments – that’d be for the courts to decide – but there seems little question that those concerned have the ability to throw clubs out of their tournaments. This afternoon, for example, UEFA’s Danish executive committee member Jesper Moller said he expects Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester City to be kicked out of CL semi-finals this week: “The clubs must go, and I expect that to happen on Friday. Then we have to find out how to finish this season’s Champions League tournament”.

Furthermore, the events of the last 48 hours finally seem to have provoked the government into action. After having stalled for months on their much-vaunted “fan-led review” of governance of the game, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden late yesterday afternoon confirmed in a statement to parliament that this review has now been brought forward, and that, “we have thrown our full weight behind the football authorities and stand ready to do whatever is necessary to represent fans and protect their interests”. Well, we shall see, but it’s probably better than them standing by and doing absolutely nothing whatsoever.

There were protests last night. Before their Premier League match at Elland Road last night, Leeds United trolled Liverpool by wearing t-shirts with “EARN IT” printed across the back of them and “FOOTBALL IS FOR THE FANS” printed across the back. After the match, Patrick Bamford spoke eloquently on both this and another subject, Jurgen Klopp expressed his disappointment over it all, while Marcelo Bielsa was unsurprisingly forthright in his views on the matter. But the fightback has barely started yet though, though how widespread, still less how successful, this might be is very much open to question.

And the reason for this is that they don’t care. If you’re an already a season ticket holder at a “top six” Premier League club, you’re a “legacy fan” who they actively do not want there any more. The warning signs have been there for years. All those slow motion promotional films with soft piano music, talking about how important “community” was to them, were just designed to keep you emptying your wallets for as long as you were useful to them, and now your not any more. Your few hundred pounds a year on a season ticket doesn’t cut it any more. You’re not welcome. They came to take the game from us in the first place, and now they’re going to do exactly that. It was always going to end this way.