Charles Stillitano: Lone Wolf or Representative of the New Breed?
Ho hum. Over the course of the last couple of months or so, the fact that we’re about to enter a period of reform in European club football has been slowly percolated out to us great unwashed, softening us up for the land grab ahead. Bearing this in mind, if anything it’s useful that the id of the biggest clubs has outed itself in the form of useful idiot Charles Stillitano, the businessmen who has either set himself up or been set up as the fall guy for entering the idea of Breakaway Super Leagues Unless We Get What We Want into the public consciousness. A meeting between five reasonably recognisable executives exclusively revealed by a News Corp paper who just happened to have been in contact with a photographer who just happened to have been at The Dorchester hotel? If we were conspiracy theorists, we could almost believe that the whole thing was a set up.
All of which brings us back to the subject of Charlie Stillitano. In an age of relentless PR, astroturfing and media trickery on the part of corporations the world over, it seems completely implausible that anybody involved with a company with much serious interest in earning themselves a slice of delicious European football pie could possibly have been unaware that comments of this nature would prove to be as combustible as they have. But there he is, Chuck Stillitano, blabbing away to the national media as if the sluice-gate has been opened on a previously untapped river of raw, untreated, football sewage. His comments on the future of European club football range from the non-sensical – “When you see the teams we have this summer in the ICC [the International Champions Cup – the pre-season busman’s holiday that he is responsible for] you are going to shake your heads and say, ‘isn’t that the Champions League'” to the absurd – “What would Manchester United argue? Did we create soccer or did Leicester create… the money pot created by soccer and fandom?”, but let’s treat him with some degree of intelligence and answer these two questions first.
Firstly, apart from the shameless ripping off of UEFA’s competition title – which gives his tournament the impression of being the sporting equivalent of one of those cheap brands sold that stick an “i” at the start of their names in the apparent hope that some people will mistake them for those made by Apple – there is no chance of anybody with any knowledge of football whatsoever mistaking the two. For one thing, the UEFA Champions League is played in Europe rather than whichever world city offers its services. For another, it’s played during those months that constitute the domestic football season for the vast majority of European clubs, rather than during the couple of weeks prior to the start of our domestic league seasons. And so on. And so forth.
In response to the second of the above questions, we can only reply by noting that it’s impossible to believe that the owners of Manchester United, rapacious and reptilian though they undoubtedly are, believe for a second that their club “created” football. There are all manner of – frequently very pedantic – arguments about where the true origin of association football rests. We could trace it back to the formation of the Football Association and the first formal codification of the laws of the game in 1863. We might consider the formation of FIFA in 1904 to be the birth of football as a global sport. If we were going to assign responsibility for impregnating our leisure time with the calendar that we all know today to one particular club, then step forward Aston Villa, whose William McGregor oversaw the formation of the Football League – none of whose twelve founding members were Manchester United or, as that club was known at the time, Newton Heath – in 1888. We might even consider Gabriel Hanot, then the editor of the French sports newspaper L’Equipe, for agitating for a properly pan-continental European football competition. Manchester United no more “created” any of this than George Lucas “created” cinema by producing Star Wars.
But here’s the thing: we know this. We all know it. Not even the most swivel-eyed of Manchester United supporters would seek to argue that Manchester United “created” anything in this respect, and if Chuckles Stillitano’s comments have touched a nerve amongst supporters – and the fact that the Guardian’s report on them was the most read article across the whole of their website would seem to indicate that it did – this is probably because we all implicitly understand that sport isn’t, in spite of the best efforts of some to prove otherwise, just another industry with a means of production that any individual can in a strict sense “own.” The clubs have owners, yes, but even this boils down to the ownership of some licenses and a right to perform or trade under a certain name. If football clubs have anything approaching a soul, that exists quite resolutely in the stands and on the terraces. And pitching up in London to meet up with a small band of plutocrat arrivistes doesn’t change that one iota.
Tempting though it is to dismiss them as the ill-thought-out ramblings of a Johnny-come-lately who doesn’t understand his core audience anything like as well as he thinks he does, however, it’s well worth dwelling upon the thoughts of Chairman Chas. Preposterous though he may sound, Stilliano has the ear of five very big Premier League football clubs, and such influence is usually heavily controlled in terms of what is and isn’t mentioned publicly. So the questions remain – were these aural dribblings okayed by the powers behind the thrones? Are the clubs that met with him going to distance themselves from them? Do the owners of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United agree with his comments and, if so, are any of them brave enough to own up to this in public? Because if the completion of top end professional football’s metamorphosis into an industry that solely exists in order to benefit the interests of a tiny number of already wealthy men is afoot, all concerned should come clean about their motives.
To this end, that Stilliano should have opened his mouth so openly about all of this is quite helpful. Stilliano is, perhaps, best regarded as the id of the modern generation of football club owners, channeling their basest instincts, a conduit through which the very worst of the very worst opinions get a platform. And we’ve been here before, of course. Every time that it gets around to renegotiation time, these outlandish ideas mysteriously make their way into public discourse, and when a “compromise” that squeezes a little more from the pockets of smaller clubs and into the coffers of those that are already richer than Croesus it can almost be mistaken for a good deal, that it actually represents a deal for UEFA, when all it actually represents is further watering down of the principles of the spectacle as a genuinely sporting contest. His arguments, such as they are, should be resisted and fought off. This pack of wretches do not “own” football unless we let them.
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