22 April 2021
More serious than life and death.
By Paul Branch
If there was one topic destined to knock many world-trembling events off the front pages, it was going to be football, or Fooxit* as it is now known. Never mind the perilously increasing possibility of World War 3 (Black Sea, China Sea, take your pick), or even the George Floyd trial verdict. With an even more money-focused perspective than recent events inspiring Labour accusations of the renaissance of Tory sleaze, the announced formation of a new European Super League evoked universal condemnation and opprobrium, causing even Boris and Keir to at last find something to agree on. And apparently rightly so. No one, but no one it seems has the right to mess with our football and its traditions.
Some of the details are still unclear, bar one: the ESL was projected to be worth a shedload of money to those few elite European clubs invited to join football’s new breakaway family, probably outstripping even Harry and Meghan’s plans for riches beyond compare. In Euros the venture was said to be worth 10 billion, one third of which was allegedly already underwritten by JP Morgan. Ultimately the group was planned to comprise 15 clubs of which twelve had broken cover with the announcement: six from England, and three each from Spain and Italy, mostly owned by private or public companies worth billions themselves and clearly greedy to make even more from their cash cow. Notable omissions were the Germans, who have rules about ownership which give the fans the right and the opportunity to influence decisions such as this, and the French who are obviously morally above such shenanigans.
And then, in a puff of smoke and mirrors, and with some very shame-faced tails tucked between very expensive legs, the horror went away. All the English clubs and two others backed off in the face of fans’ furore, leaving (at the last count) just two each from Spain and Italy. The briefly much-vaunted ESL is now dead in the water, at least for now.
It is all about money of course, where the breakaway “clubs” (such a quaintly outdated way of describing them now) contend that the returns on their investment are inadequate and unsustainable without a huge increase in their slice of the TV/sponsorship/advertising pie, rather than allow the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa) to continue spending the enormous revenues in mysterious and shrouded ways. The ESL claimed that it was all for the good of the game, but there was little in the way of credible altruism coming out of the mouths of their new spokespersons.
Sport has a bit of previous in such matters. The North American football, baseball, basketball and hockey leagues are exclusive money-making franchises where the winner makes a lot of money and receives suitably hysterical adulation, the losers still do pretty well financially, and no one gets relegated. Three of the owners of the ESL’s prospective English contingent know and clearly approve of this American formula: no business risk of another franchise taking your place at the trough, and the fans seem to go along with it so what’s not to like?
In cricket those with longish memories can think back to the late 1970s of Kerry Packer and his World Series Cricket, which attempted to establish a small number of elite teams free of the demands of the domestic game around the world, earning revenue from Packer’s own TV network in Australia and paying the world’s best players a goodly sum. Within two years, with only three teams competing (an Australian XI, a West Indies XI and a World XI) and after unbridled acrimony, it all came to nought, but it did change the game forever and seemingly for the good in many respects.
In football Uefa’s European Champions League has followed a similar trajectory from its European Cup origins in 1955, mirroring changing attitudes in the game as the bigger clubs’ owners evolved with few exceptions from wealthy private individuals (oh for the days of the northern wool mill owner shoving pound notes in the boots of semi-professional players) to well-endowed companies seeking better returns. The enlargement of the premier European competition started in 1992, along with our own Premier League, in order to appease those clubs’ owners wanting more money-making opportunities, and has continued to the point where another extension is planned for 2024. There’s little doubt this evolutionary process has improved standards in many respects: the quality of the football itself, the stadia, players’ remuneration, the spectator experience (not least being able to watch a greater abundance of gifted players) and the availability of and access to live TV coverage. So why wouldn’t the ESL have been just another step along the way of improvement?
It all seemed to come down to a question of power and control. Up until now the diehard football fan has felt pretty secure that the future of the game he (or she) loves is mostly under their control. They pay for their season tickets, rejoice when their team wins, worry about failure and relegation, and generally blame the owners when things go wrong … but they have no part of the financial risk involved in owning and managing a football club. It’s still their team and their game though. Justifiably they firmly believe in the adage “Football is nothing without the fans” (recently attributed to Sir Matt Busby but actually coined by Jock Stein, apparently). Added to which is Bill Shankly’s assertion that football is not just a matter of life and death, it’s much more serious than that.
Alternatively one could just shrug and admit that the raison d’etre for the ESL was merely a reflection of society’s changing values, rooted possibly in the finest traditions and excesses of Thatcherism: a race to be the biggest winner financially, at any cost to others who are left to fend for themselves, without a thought or nod to the traditions of the game or to the people who have made it the common international bond that holds a lot of the world together. It’s somewhat unclear why football-loving, pint-swilling Boris felt the urge to consider government legal action against the six English proponents of the ESL, a move that would undoubtedly have delighted the circling lawyers but could perhaps have impressed his northern Blue Wall. Ultimately of course it was the tsunami of demonstrations by football fans across the country wot won it, supported by players and managers of the clubs involved. Pity that other recent demonstrations against perceived injustice didn’t have such an immediate impact on our esteemed leaders, but it does demonstrate the power of sport to unite and persuade.
However, it may be that the ESL genie is now well and truly out of the bottle, that it will happen some day in some form, and that we shall just have to make the most of it. How to make sure though that West Ham and Leyton Orient eventually receive an invitation to the party is a remaining conundrum.
*Footnote: for those suggesting a better term than Fooxit, a ticket to Leyton Orient’s next away fixture is on offer… good news for those with relations in Southend, perhaps?
tile photo: Wesley Tingey