As football fans rejoice at toppling the European Super League, they must remain on their guard against the unfettered avarice that infests the boardrooms of those who plotted the ill-fated project.
Protest turned to jubilation in west London on Tuesday night as Chelsea fans learned their club was pulling out of the European Super League. Not long afterwards, Manchester City confirmed they were walking away, sheepishly followed by the rest of England’s disgraced ‘Big Six’ as the rebels turned their backs and fled.
Over in Spain, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez – the beleaguered Super League chairman – sifted through the ruins of a project he had disingenuously proclaimed to be ‘the saviour of football’. Barely 48 hours after it had entered the world, Perez was left cradling his stillborn with little hope of breathing life back into the project.
This was a spectacularly brazen power-grab from Europe’s Dirty Dozen, brought crashing down by myriad forces: from the supporters on the streets to the keyboard warriors on social media; from the TV diatribes by Gary Neville to the misgivings by Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola; from the open recalcitrance of Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson to the more subtle swipe from Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford. All played a part, and it all proved too much to stomach for bosses at Manchester City and Chelsea as they precipitated the English exodus.
As fiercely tribal as football is, this was a rare moment of solidarity when fans of all stripes could rejoice and revel in the feeling that – so often scorned – they had actually made a difference.
The Super League was a project so incredibly ill-conceived that it begs the question: what were those behind it thinking? Why now, and why with such scant regard for the forces underpinning the game? Could they really have been so amateurish and out of touch as to fail to anticipate the fire and fury that would follow?
Rather than failing to read the room, they hadn’t even even bothered to enter it in the first place. Managers were hung out to dry while owners hunkered down, in keeping with how many of these distant billionaires have run their clubs since getting their hands on them.
The main motivation behind the Super League rebels was blindingly obvious: greed.
A superiority complex at the top of the game and the long-harboured feeling that the rich were not getting their fair share. The US influence was evident through the Glazers at Manchester United, Stan Kroenke at Arsenal and John W Henry at Liverpool. These are men used to operating in closed shops, where ‘equality’ exists but only among the established elite. The concepts of the footballing pyramid – promotion, relegation, the wild ebb and flow of fortunes – are alien to these men. They want franchises, and to hell with the rest.
The Super League plot planned to lock in their superiority in perpetuity. For all the talk of ‘solidarity payments’ for teams lower down the pyramid, this scheme would mean everyone outside the 15 permanent Super League clubs would be left feeding off scraps.
The malign American influence is not the only explanation for this malfeasance, however. Real Madrid’s Perez was a very public driving force, as was Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli. Both are businessmen but could also – in the loosest sense – be deemed ‘football men’. The Agnelli family have owned Juve since 1923; Perez has been Real Madrid president for the better part of two decades.
It is Perez who has been the bumbling face of the Super League, with his claims that youngsters no longer cared about football, that matches needed to be shorter, that the whole system needed overhauling. ‘I’ll bring you modernity’, was the message from the 74-year-old billionaire supposedly with his finger on football’s pulse.
In reality, Real Madrid and co-conspirators Barcelona are in financial dire straits, desperate for funds having spectacularly mismanaged their books. Their salvation was to be found in gorging themselves even more on the riches brought about by the Super League.
Some have pondered whether all this was just a big ruse to force UEFA into yet more reforms, handing the biggest teams more power and a bigger slice of the pie. The timing and nature of this whole shambles suggests that was not the case. The likes of Agnelli and now-departed Man Utd vice-chairman Ed Woodward were negotiating reforms to the Champions League with UEFA while simultaneously cooking up their Super League plans.
UEFA defiantly pressed ahead with its announcement on Monday that its flagship tournament would implement changes from the 2024-25 season, which will see the Champions League expanded from 32 teams to 36, based on a new ‘Swiss model’. That move was seen as a concession to the bigger teams as it would hand them more games against their fellow elite.
That clearly wasn’t enough, though. A breakaway Super League has been years in the making, but its initiators felt now was the time to finally strike. The financial ravages of Covid-19 have hastened their move, but it was a step they were nonetheless well on the way to taking. This time they also had the billion-dollar finances in place through JP Morgan, although in keeping with their amateur hour antics, were without a broadcaster lined up.
By most accounts, Chelsea and Man City were reluctant to get onboard, but ultimately feared missing the boat. It was telling that they were the first two teams to abandon the sinking ship.
All of the Dirty Dozen will likely now have to return, heads bowed, back to UEFA. For all its faults – and they are myriad – UEFA has emerged looking like the good guy in all of this. It will sting for the likes of Perez and Agnelli to have to grovel on their way back, as seems inevitable.
There is hypocrisy each way you turn in this whole fiasco. In the UK, Sky Sports and BT have trumpeted their opposition to the Super League, giving a platform to the likes of Neville to hold forth on its ills, and yet both broadcasters continue to charge extortionate fees for the average football fan.
Paris Saint-Germain were held up as paragons of loyalty for refusing to turn their backs on UEFA, yet many pointed out their motives were likely just as much tied up in the vested broadcasting interests that PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi has in the Champions League as head of Qatari TV behemoth beIN Sports.
In some sections of the media, Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour has been trumpeted for supposedly being the “unlikely saviour” of football. Given the reasons behind the Abu Dhabi takeover at the club, that is frankly laughable. City and Chelsea should both have a long, hard look at themselves for going along for the Super League ride in the first place.
Even the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson did not escape censure after criticizing the Super League plans, as it was swiftly pointed out that he had backed the Glazer family in their debt-laden takeover at Old Trafford.
There have been casualties. Ed Woodward is gone from Old Trafford, a move long overdue for most of the United faithful. Liverpool owner Henry issued a public apology on Wednesday, expressing his sadness for the “disruption” he has caused in recent days.
But as long as he feels the profits are there, Henry will stay on at Liverpool – just as Joel Glazer will at Manchester United, and Stan Kroenke will at Arsenal. Driven by their relentless pursuit of profits, these money men will come again with plans to restructure and reshape football, to the detriment of the fans and fellow teams who have helped build it into what it is.
Football will pat itself on the back for having staved off this crisis, but many more equalities and injustices remain. The threat of a European Super League still looms on the horizon, even if the current iteration has been vanquished.
“We shall reconsider the most appropriate steps to reshape the project,” read a statement from the league issued amid the rubble on Tuesday night.
Yes, they will have been burned by this experience, but football’s money men have not been defeated completely.
Football fans have won the battle, but the war against the game’s rapacious greed very much goes on.