Let The Great Schism Commence
Sometimes in life, the most difficult decision to take can be the decision itself. With the confirmation today that twelve clubs have signed up to a breakaway European Super League, the entirety of professional football across the whole of the continent of Europe has been pushed into that position, and the immediate response has been the one that a growing number of supporters had been hoping for, to tell these clubs that this time they’re not going to get exactly what they want, on exactly their terms. It’s probably thirty years late, but it’s better than nothing.
Five English clubs have signed up to this fool’s errand, and laughably those clubs are currently in second, fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth place in the Premier League. If you want an idea of just how “elite” some of these self-appointed eternal gods of the English game actually are, they have won the Premier League twice in the last five years between them. One of them hasn’t won the Premier League in eight years. One of them hasn’t been the champion of England in seventeen years. Another hasn’t won it in sixty. Another has won it precisely once in the last thirty-one years. None of them are going to win it this season. Steady on with all thy “eliteness”, lads. Any more and you might just blind us.
This morning it was reported that Manchester City were not one of those involved, though that seems to have changed this evening. Notably, PSG and Bayern Munich have confirmed that they will not be signing up to it, though that is, of course, subject to change.
Of course, there is something more than a little galling about seeing the very bodies that have rendered the concept of competition within European football caterwauling at the prospect of being sidelined themselves. The supporters of non-“elite” European club football – and there does remain quite a lot of them – might like to say, welcome to our club. Many football supporters are already very familiar with the feeling.
For the last 30 years, the whole of my adult life, the entire structure of European club football has been bending towards this point. The formation of the Premier League. The conversion of the European Cup into the Champions League, and its subsequent expansion into bloated, lopsided tournament we see today. The G14 and its effective rebranding the European Clubs Association. EPPP. Wage hyper-inflation and the increasing concentration of the very best players across the same very few clubs. VAR, despite its ruinous effect on the game itself, because it can no longer afford to get decisions wrong. The steady elimination of the human element from it all.
The poison of elite football and its ‘values’ have been so pernicious that they’ve filtered down through the divisions. The Championship is collectively gripped in some form of fever dream, in which all that can be seen is a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, and whatever means necessary must be thrown at a seat at this gilded table, even if a club clearly, obviously cannot afford it. Death or glory, where “glory” may be loosely defined as 15th place in the Premier League. Lower down the game, the greatest gift of this thirty years of trickledown economics has been hyper wage inflation. The National League, the 5th tier, is largely professional now. In the absence of principles of competitive balance from above, lower leagues are regularly distorted through one or two owners recklessly chasing a dream. Whole seasons are rendered effectively pointless by clubs burning through money in the pursuit of both glory and vainglory.
Fans have done little to counter much of this. There has been criticism of supporters of some clubs that are owned by (or want to be owned by) questionable owners, but the truth of the matter is that they’re merely replicating what the fans of any club would go through under the same circumstances. Manchester City supporters, for example, didn’t become different people when they were taken over. Newcastle United supporters didn’t, when they had that carrot dangled in front of them and then snatched away in a a rare act of regulation. When supporters protest against owners, it’s almost always because of something they’re doing to their club, rather than anything connected to their dealings in the wider world. We carried on forking out for season tickets, cable TV subscriptions and merchandise. In the only language they understand, money, we have been both fluent and complicit. We talk derisively of “farmer’s leagues” and “crying more”. It’s possible to make a case for saying that, in the era of the cry-emoji perhaps we collectively get the game we deserve.
But that doesn’t mean that change isn’t possible or desirable. With the obvious caveat that social media tends to be an echo chamber, it was difficult to find too many supportive voices for the breakaway on social media this afternoon. A large number of voices were wishing them well on their journey and saying that they should just be cast asunder to grow bloated in splendid isolation together, that the game might yet benefit from a reset that cuts them out altogether. Most derision towards the leagues and governing bodies stating that any clubs joining this league would be banned from any other competitions came from those pointing out the hypocrisy of organisations that have been a enthusiastic exponents of this eco-system – and in the case of the Premier League, created in order to jet-propelling it – issuing such a strong statement.
So perhaps this is a “choose a side” moment. It’s entirely possible that people do have a tipping point, after all. It has been noted for years that the average age of fans has been getting older and older, with younger fans increasingly being priced out of getting season tickets. It is entirely plausible that, for many millions of people, this could prove to be a tipping point. Rugby, darts, and even football itself, in its very early days, have had schisms before. Football isn’t magically immune to this, and players may end up having to decide whether they want to follow the money of the breakaway or the game they’ve grown up loving. The ambition “to play at the highest level” takes on a different meaning when you’re so high up that you’re floating alone in space.
Because this break has to be definite. These clubs – and yes, the Premier League club that I nominally support is amongst them, so I’d be severing a cord that stretches back 40 years – cannot and must not be allowed to have their cake and eat it. It is to be hoped that the governing bodies that have made their announcement this afternoon will stand by what they’ve said. This is not a negotiation technique on the part of the breakaway clubs. It never was. This was always the end game. They don’t intend to run football clubs. They intend to own football.
But the truth of the matter is that perhaps we all need this reset, to get back to being a sport again. When football was first codified, when it was first forming, people started to watch it. The principle remains. Where there is a pitch, people will play football on it, and where they play football in it, people will watch it. To concede over this would be the final capitulation of football to money, and cannot in any conscience be considered. Any clubs that join this breakaway must be completely and permanently expelled from the rest of the game’s infrastructure.