The European Super League: Crime & Punishment
Even the main protagonists of the Failed European Super League couldn’t debate the morality of their project, as there is none. But calls from UK football pundits for those protagonists’ sanction and punishment were dangerously ill-informed. These dangers were nutshelled at half-time in the BBC’s live coverage of Burnley’s English Premier League (EPL) evisceration of Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday, teams who would have been Super League contenders in days past. I’d love to quote presenter Gary Lineker and pundits Alex Scott and Danny Murphy directly. But the “Match of the Day Live” website page is full of “episodes not available.” Costs, apparently. Even for half-time discussions. Avarice isn’t a Failed Super League exclusive.
Anyway, like everyone else, the BBC three took punishment for the shameless six club owners who ‘joined’ the putative organisation as read. And their trialogue followed an affecting montage of fan opinion and Scott’s heart-warming memories of her days operating Arsenal turnstiles (solidarity, sister). Pics of the sorry six formed a menacing studio backdrop as Murphy echoed his Mail on Sunday newspaper column theory that “if they are fined £30-50m” they would “think twice about repeating their mistakes” (does Murphy know what billions are?).
They agreed that points deductions were unfair, as they would impact the fans who brought the Failed Super League down with their indignant placards. Indeed, Lineker was anti-points deductions entirely. Even when clubs go into administration, he specified. Search “Leicester City FC, 2002/03 season” for clues as to why he might think that…and others might not. Anyway…the shameful six. Guilty as charged, then. But guilty of what? Charged by whom? Fundamental questions which need to be but have yet to be answered.
Media reporting of the Failed Super League as a “breakaway” hasn’t helped. And it says plenty, little of it good, that EPL architect and ex-Arsenal big cheese David Dein had to emphasis this after a week’s misleading coverage…and after detailed proposals were first revealed by the Times newspaper’s Chief Sports Reporter Martyn Ziegler in…January. A conspiracy to break away might breach EPL rules. But the Failed Super Leaguers envisaged its teams “competing each weekend in (their) national leagues, as (they) always have.” Thus, Premier League Rule L.9 is widely regarded as the only option for EPL sanction.
This states that “except with the prior written approval of the Board, during the season, a club shall not enter or play its senior men’s first team in any competition other than: L.9.1. the Uefa Champions League; L.9.2. the Uefa Europa League; L.9.3. the FA Cup; L.9.4: the FA Community Shield; L.9.5. the Football League Cup; or L.9.6. competitions sanctioned by the County Association of which it is a member.”
So…Manchester Senior Cup. Yes. European Super League, no. Quite right, too. Football League Cup, yes, too, despite the fact that the stuck-up six haven’t been Football League (EFL) member clubs since their breakaway from it in 1992, in what Everton back then called a blatant attempt to “concentrate more wealth and power in the hands of elite clubs who were acting entirely in their own interests and betraying the majority of football supporters across our country.” Or was that Everton calling out the Failed Super League now? Hard to tell…
Ubiquitous Sky Sports football pundit Gary Neville (never has the phrase “I’m here all week” been so appropriate) suggested that for “the attempted murder of English football, any punishments” that could be “legally” handed “to those six in the short-term should be given to them.” Again, specifics came there none. But he had some ‘interesting’ further ‘thoughts.’
“The biggest punishment is that they cannot come back with any proposal which tries to swing the balance in their favour. We have to take their power away,” he said, unhelpfully failing to define “we.” But whoever “we” was, they had to “make them equal with the rest of English football so that there can be a fairer distribution of wealth.” The similarities between this structure and English club football before, to pick an instance purely at random (from 150 words ago), the PL’s Sky Sports-driven breakaway from the FL in 1992, were somehow missed by the Sky Sports pundit.
Yet Neville’s arguments were magnified during a BBC Radio Five Live discussion before Arsenal’s deliciously timely home defeat to Everton last Friday. Presenter Darren Fletcher asked the rhetorical question “should there be sanctions?” He and pundit Jermaine Jenas said the sanctions should be heavy and financial. And, after a quarter-hour of noble intentions and self-unaware cant, live from the University of Life-is-Simple, they had the fines levied and the money spent.
Yet Jenas was “legally not sure there will be any legislation in place” to allow “the powers-that-be…to provide those sanctions.” And Fletcher’s re-iteration of the semi-myth “that we managed to stop a Super League being formed,” begged the question as to what these already-spent fines would actually be for. Because if the Failed Super League wasn’t “formed,” how could a club “enter or play” in it? The question wasn’t even asked.
Fletcher pontificated extensively on “a financial sanction that can be used for the good of football in general in this country,” so as to “turn a gigantic negative into a positive.” So far, so noble. But he further argued for “a complete audit of football in this country from the grassroots to the Championship” to “work out what needed to be done” and “hit these six owners with the bill and say, ‘we’re going to put football right in this country and we’re going to do it with your money, because you should have been helping a little bit more anyway.’” That’s the scurrilous six’s lawyers you can hear laughing, BTW.
Fletcher’s basic premise has been a common theme of Failed Super League criticism: “If it had been allowed to go through, it would have obliterated large sections of football in this country. Clubs would have gone to the wall. Money would have stopped trickling down in the way that it does now and this would have had a massive effect on teams that would never have been able to recover.” But without details of the Failed Super League’s wealth redistribution proposals, his claim lacks evidence.
And the accusation of stopping money “trickling down (as) it does now” was also made against, yep, PL…breakaway…1992. The analogy between the leagues is inexact because of the “closed” nature of the Failed Super League. But much of what Fletcher wanted the sneaky six to bankroll would have been bankrolled if 1992’s elite hadn’t rejected the FL’s more equitable wealth redistribution model. Which made ex-EPL CEO Richard Scudamore’s intervention all-the-more unwelcome. He claimed he “had been telling them for years it was a crazy idea.” And he said he wouldn’t “get involved about whether there should be sanctions.” Best he didn’t “get involved” at all, some might say.
Fletcher’s speech, which included impassioned pleading for “fresh facilities for kids” and “new pitches to look after the next generation of footballers” would have got a standing ovation in the movies. Here, though, it met with brief silence, broken by Jenas: “All depends how big the bill is.”
A contrast to the above pipe-dreaming was the achievable idea that reps of the shocking six leave their roles within the EPL’s working group structure, or “be voted out,” as Dan Roan put it in a terrific BBC website piece on Saturday. pre-judging the results of any such election. The reps left on Thursday, partly because the assumption about being voted out is 100% safe to make just now. But in the future, this assumption may be less safe, as more people with no Failed Super League baggage emerge at the silly six. And the enforced resignations leave Tottenham Hotspur unpunished, as they had no-one on the “advisory groups,” on broadcasting and strategy and remuneration. Still, it’s a start.
However, Sky Sports went further in their Arsenal/Everton build-up. Presenter Dave Jones reported that “those involved with the ‘other’ 14 clubs want to see the removal of the chairmen, chief executives of the six.” And he asked pundit Graeme Souness “what do you make of that?”
“This thing wasn’t cobbled together in a fortnight,” Souness noted (against all available evidence). He suspected the 14 would “have been talking about what they are going to do” in future seasons and the supercilious six had “joined in these conversations knowing they were going to exit.” Removing chairs and chiefs “would be the only punishment you could mete out,” he added. “They’ve told barefaced lies. If I was one of the 14, I couldn’t sit in the same room as them.”
He recognised part of the problem: “What punishment could you dish out that wouldn’t impact on the supporters? Dock points? That would affect the fans. You fine the club. They would pass that on to the supporters. You can’t really damage them other than…heads must roll.” There had to be “some sacrificial lambs,” he concluded. But he overlooked the snobby six clubs’ status as companies. And rolling chairs’ and chiefs’ heads is down to company shareholders. Ovine sacrifices, too.
So, will the slimeball six get theirs? On Tuesday, an article by the Daily Mail newspaper’s Charlie Taylor quoted a series of sports law experts dampening such expectations. And a series of remarkable sub-headlines offered a series of versions of “it’s not that simple.” Most notably that “leaked excerpts of Super League contract,” published last Friday in German magazine Der Spiegel (ALWAYS Der Spiegel), “show legal position may be complex.”
These excerpts suggested clubs could body-swerve Rule L9. “The competition would only proceed if 70% of the founder members were still committed to the project on July 10th,” Taylor wrote. And, of course, some commitments struggled to reach three DAYS, let alone three months. The excerpts also said clubs planned to “participate“ in the Failed Super League “in a manner compatible with” participation in their domestic competitions. And lawyers for the staggering six would surely frame that as a desire to COMPLY with Rule L9, if their clients were ever charged with breaking it.
The article also discussed whether the catch-all charge of “bringing the game into disrepute” would catch the snide six. And Taylor suggested there had been “a clearer breach” of EPL Rule B16, re their obligations to “behave towards each other club and the league with the utmost good faith.” This could cover Souness’s Sky Sports stuff about “barefaced” liars. But lawyers might successfully argue that funding the entire refurbishment of English club football (a more expensive undertaking even than a Downing Street flat) would be excessive punishment.
The Mail article’s main headline said that the prospects of the EPL charging the sad six are “receding with every passing day.” And the likelier prospect now is football authority legislation against a repeat of the shambolic six’s actions. Italy’s football federation, the FIGC, has already legislated to bar any top-flight Serie A club if, as FIGC president Gabriele Gravina said, it “joins up to other private leagues.” So it can’t be long before England’s FA legislates against EPL clubs to…ah…never mind.
Realpolitik rules, then. A European Super League re-emergence has been widely declared ‘inevitable.’ So much more thought needs to be applied to future preventative action. It needs re-emphasising that a competently-organised Super League could succeed unless relevant football authorities wield that authority properly. Fan-campaigning needs focusing on forcing that proper action from the authorities. Magnificent as they were, fans did not, and will not, defeat a properly-constituted Super League alone.
Calls for sanctions must be on legal grounds. Declaring people guilty, and levying and spending the fines, BEFORE establishing law-breaking, is a dangerous precedent, open to future abuse. Not a power you’d want Home Secretary Priti Patel to have. And pundits remain unable (perhaps willfully in the case of EPL evangelists such as Jenas) to see parallels between the money/power-grabs by 2021’s Failed Super League and 1992’s Premier League. While these attitudes prevail, UK football punditry will remain off the pace off the pitch.