The European Super League: After The Lord Mayor’s Show
In the end, the biggest surprise of all turned out to be just how incompetent they were. As the news broke that Europe’s biggest football clubs were lining up to walk off into the sunset, taking their jewel-encrusted ball with them, there was a huge, almost overwhelming feeling of powerlessness, as though this was the final act of a power play that had been unfolding for years and years. Practically no-one had taken any notice of us over the previous thirty years. Why on earth would they start doing so now?
Three days later, such fears feel a tiny bit ridiculous. The cack-handed way in which the ESL was handling just about everything gave supporters all the motivation they needed to mobilise, and for noisy demonstrations to begin. The wall of sound was so great that politicians and the mainstream media had to sit up and take serious notice. But when we reached the final boss fight, all we found was a bunch of rich but inexplicably angry old white men who’d been corrupted by their own hubris that they apparenty believed that we, the dumb, innocent public, would just swallow whatever crumbs fell from their table. Nobody expected it to be this easy.
The status quo that existed in football at the end of last week, however, remains in place today. One chairman has resigned his position, but the other greedy reptiles who considered this to have been A Good Idea all remain in place, and the feelings of distrust that quickly burst to life over the course of the last few days may take longer to clear than those who administer the game would like to admit. Anyone hoping for a swift return to the way things were, however, might be waiting for a long time. A lot of bad blood has been spilled over the last 72 hours, and although UEFA were quickly to welcome these clubs back into “the football family”, others might not be so quick as to want to forgive and forget.
Just as its arrival into the world was sudden – those first few hours felt like something of a Blitzkrieg – so its disappearance was equally abrupt. But, while it would be very convenient for those twelve clubs if we all did just forgive, forget and try to act as though nothing has happened, one thing that has become supremely evident over the last few days has been that certain genies have escaped from certain bottles. Things have been said that cannot simply be unsaid. It feels a little this morning as though this might even be the ‘new normal’, and it is surprisingly possible that the true legacy of this pandemic in professional football might yet turn out to be a future that cannot afford treat fans as disposable, which has had a stinging rebuke over the contempt with which fans have been treated for years.
It certainly feels this morning as though we need to keep the pressure on. Governance is not a sexy issue, but we have been reminded this week that it is an important one, and promises made this week by the government must not be forgotten. It’s been fifteen months since the current government sailed to a crushing victory in the general election with the promise of a “fan led review” front and central in their manifesto. Many believe that they had no intention of actually seeing this pledge through, with the official explanation for it not having started being the pandemic, but the promises made both in December 2019 and April 2021 are unlikely to be forgotten, and considering everything, there can be little question that the pressures that brought us to where we were this time yesterday have not evaporated because a few hundred Chelsea supporters gathered outside Stamford Bridge late yesterday afternoon.
This morning, there will be considerable conjecture about what punishments these clubs should face over their open mutiny. It’s a completely understandable reaction, and there are 14 other very angry Premier League clubs who may be more than happy to open a can of whoopass upon the other six. Fines, points deductions and European bans have already been suggested pour encourager les autres but, no matter how satisfying that might all sound (and yes, yes it does sound very satisfying), we should be wary of overreach. These clubs do still wield a considerable amount of control and influence, and annoying them for the sake of annoying them could well end up feel like catching a tiger by the tail.
Still, the current mood is such that the Premier League would certainly be justified in taking action against these clubs, and should the other clubs decide that punishment is warranted there will be little that the Greedy Six can do but suck it up. However, any bloodlust that we feel in this moment should probably be tempered. Points deductions, demotions or bans from European football all sound fair, considering everything that’s happened, but effectively sanctioning players and supporters, who were as much victims of their recklessness rather than anything else, doesn’t sit particularly comfortably. Sanctions need to be targeted at the owners themselves, so fines and bans for the owners themselves should definitely be on the table. Their ‘apologies’ last night are certainly not worth the paper upon which they’re written.
Immediate sanctions, however, pall in importance when compared with the fan-led review that we have been promised. We need to be absolutely clear that one of the primary reasons why German clubs weren’t involved in this nonsense in the first place was their 50+1 rule, which ensures that clubs are majority owned by their own supporters. If clubs are directly answerable to their fans in such a way, then perhaps we could get back to the business of football being a sport, rather than whatever the hell it is that Florentino Perez’s fever dreams are telling him the game should look like.
This review is an opportunity, and it may well be the best that we ever get. Above, I mentioned that sanctions over this should be levelled at the owners of clubs rather than the clubs themselves, and this should extend to the way we deal with many financial, governance and malfeasance within the game. For example, clubs have been catapulted down through divisions as a result of the effects of points deductions for entering into administration, for example. It’s time for a complete root and branch rewrite of these rules to find a way of acting as a true deterrent to putting clubs into financial peril in the first place without setting in motion chains of events which frequently result in clubs at a lower level of the game tumbling through the divisions and towards closure.
The Owners & Directors Test has to be meaningful. Club owners, who have time and again demonstrated that they do not understand that they are custodians of organisations of far greater cultural and societal importance than any mere business could ever be, need to be coerced into a complete rewrite of the rules which prioritise the best interests of the clubs as institutions and supporters over those of owners whose personal and business interests may – and often do – conflict with those of the clubs that they’re running. No more loading of huge debts onto clubs. Investment through loans – particularly those secured against the clubs themselves – should be banned. We really need an independent financial regulator for the game, ideally.
And this should just be the start. Ticket prices, kick-off times and everything else that come to make football such a job for so many people all need to be scrupulously examined. How we can influence the future direction of UEFA should be considered. For many years it felt as though it required a shift in the headspace of everybody with an interest in the game in this country for meaningful reform to happen, and this time last week that really felt as far from actually happening as ever.
Everybody, however, has a tipping point, and the rules of engagement have changed entirely in a very short space of time. Join your club’s supporters trust. Join the Football Supporters Association. There will likely be limits on what can be achieved and we don’t even know what those limits are yet, although there will likely be pushback from somewhere every last step of the way. But we also know that we achieved something very important over the last few days, and we also know that for many supporters, things cannot go back to the way they were before. There’s a chance that perhaps – just perhaps – we can actually make this frequently crazy, baffling and infuriating game something of which we can all be proud. We shouldn’t consider the events of the last couple of days to be the end of a story, when it can be a new beginning.