|With Manchester City being the first club to blink, the fragile walls of the European Super League (ESL), looks as though they are about to crumble. With the massive adverse reaction that came from “the football family” fully expected by the 12 clubs involved and with them willing to ride it out, it looks as though that will not be the case and all six English clubs have withdrawn from the venture.
The ethos behind the idea is to maintain a league without relegation for the core 15 clubs and with the other five spaces filled by the clubs whose place in the ESL will be on the achievements of the previous season would contest in three groups of five before entering into a knock-out phase. it is not only the original concept that confuses me but the thinking behind it and the reaction across the football world.
Undeniably, the main driving force behind the creation of this widely unpopular behemoth is money. There appears to be little evidence presented by the ESL that it will benefit European football as a whole and there cynicism and hypocrisy that has been spurted out by parties across the board has been a bit amazing.
The very basic problem with moving into the ESL would be that there is only going to be one thing to win each season and only one winner. With Tottenham having not won anything since 2008, being pitched in with some of the biggest clubs doesn’t really indicate that the silver polish will be on order very soon. How long will it take before the stifling environment loses it’s initial sparkle ? The money will ease the pain of not being able to celebrate a trophy and such a move to form this league is perhaps the logical extension of the Premier League (EPL). It was the creation of the EPL that was forced by teams threatening to leave and form their own breakaway (some of which are now kicking up because they are not involved in the SPL) … sound familiar ? The income that has flooded into the clubs involved in the top tier of English football has led to some incurring a lot of debt that has moved them towards this new league to balance the books. UEFA are dead set against the ESL and it is interesting that they and FIFA are not averse to creating or extending new or existing competitions to bring in some more money to their Swiss Headquarters. Additionally, there may be income that is lost when the top sides are not featuring in their competitions leading to a loss of TV revenue and advertising income. It wasn’t long ago that FIFA was viewed as one of the most corrupt organisations in sport, with many representatives of nations across the globe being charged with making money illicitly from the game.
The announcement of the ESL came after many discussions and just before the revealing of the new expanded Champions League. With more teams taking part and ten games guaranteed against “wider range of different teams” so that the mini-leagues are going to be exciting to the final matches. If the ESL was designed to eliminate games with little meaning, I cannot see how the new format for the Champions League will achieve the same effect. Putting minnows in against established European powerhouses will make them cannon fodder and while it may produce a few more meaningful matches, groups could still be settled long before the final couple of rounds. It might mean more TV coverage and more money in UEAF’s pockets, but attendances may well hit the clubs’ income. And let us not forget that it was another threatened spilt by top clubs that forced the change in the European Cup set-up morphing it into the Champions League, which featured more non-champions than champions. Step forward UEFA for that little triumph. It has become the premier European competition, but introducing the group format to ensure that there were a base number of games each team will play made it a little less exciting than the straight knock-out form, where teams had to be at their best against whichever opponent they faced. With the World Club Championship another money-spinning scheme from FIFA, these may be hit hard by the formation of the ESL, as the big clubs would be banned from taking part and with them goes a large amount of money in the organisation’s coffers.
It is the variation in opponent that will be missed if Spurs are in the ESL. That will also affect the traditional fan experience. Having been there when we have lost to Port Vale and Bradford City away in the FA Cup, while also experiencing the exhilaration of the point at Barcelona in the Champions League and the UEFA Cup final victory over Anderlecht, it was great to be able to say, “I Was There”. No more would there be away days except for the monied few (fitting with the ESL’s main theme) and no more Marine v Spurs matches. Entry to the ESL would also affect your season ticket. How many games would you get for it and at what price ? It would surely only be strengthening the philosophy of those able to afford to attend being welcomed in. Many Spurs fans were unable to meet the prices charged for seats at the new stadium, so many more might fall by the wayside.
Many of the arguments against the clubs going off to make up the ESL is that it is a betrayal of “The People’s Game”. I am not for the new league, but let us not be fooled, as it has not been “The People’s Game” for years now. Depending on how far you want to go back, the start of this can be laid at Jimmy Hill’s door, fighting for the abolition of the minimum wage in 1961. Yes club’s treated players like serfs, but the abolition of what was effectively a wage cap opened up new riches previously undreamed of. Sound familiar ? At this point the football authorities lost some of their grip on the game as the power shifted to the players which was a move that has swung wildly in that direction. A wage cap back then which was higher than the £20 a week might have helped clubs managed their finances better. So the FA and the Football League must take a look at themselves for their part in the end game we have found the game in at the moment. The Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t helped, with games played out in front of empty stadia, but if anything comes out of this, then the governance of the game must be radically shaken up to ensure that the power is shared a bit more equally. It will never be shared evenly, but control over those who think they are bigger than the game must be curbed. The influx of foreign money into English clubs has probably brought this to a head, with the criticism of American owners failing to grasp the English model, where teams can be relegated and matches can end in draws.
It has been enlightening to hear the arguments against the ESL from clubs and administrators. Many seemed to be coming out to protect their own position and back up their own agenda. The football authorities are probably against the idea as losing the best teams from their respective league would affect the amount of revenue derived from TV rights. With the big following for the top clubs in Europe mainly coming from Asia now, that is where the ESL might see their target audience. Removing them from their traditional heartlands would be the next step, with the “39th game” concept being one that might be extended across the ESL season, like the NFL being played at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium.
The FA and EFL coming out against the proposal was only to be expected, but where were these bodies when the likes of Maidstone United, Bury and Macclesfield Town have lost their clubs without much of a fight from the two governing powers in English football ? The furore that they are kicking up because they will lose six clubs at the top end seems to be way out of proportion to the lack of interest in those that slip away from the bottom end of the table and many more will go to the wall because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the inept and dithering handling of the non-leagues during 2020 and into 2021. The whole face of English football at all levels will be changed by the last year, but little is heard about addressing that issue from the men in blazers, who do not adequately reflect “the football family”. Further up the footballing tree, the Euros, African Cup of Nations, Copa America and Asian Cup will be drastically affected should UEFA ban players taking part in the ESL from playing for their national teams. It will be another diminishing of the quality of the tournaments which may be reflected in how much TV companies will be willing to pay to screen them.
One further interesting aspect of the whole suggestion of the formation of the ESL is that FIFA suspends nations whose ruling bodies are affected by political interference. The Prime Minister was very quick to jump into the fray, with County elections coming up in a few weeks time, stating that he would happily take any measure necessary to prevent the ESL going forward. Well, if his last venture into Europe is anything to go by, then it could be a long, messy process that will ned up with the UK getting the sticky end of the stick.
Infantino’s comment that “You’re either in or your out” seems only to shunt the clubs involved into the ESL rather than not join up. And what happens to these floating five teams, who each year are admitted into the gang of 20, only to be spat out at the end of one season’s taste of honey ? With UEFA and FIFA imposing bans on players and clubs, where do “The Five” go from there ? The formation of an ESL Division 2 would surely then be the only option … and so it would go on.
Clubs who are left behind – and there has been no hint that the six English clubs would leave the Premier League for good – are keen for “The Six” to be kicked out immediately, as it would allow them greater opportunity to claim the prizes that have been the preserve of the select few over the last twenty years. Wolves and Southampton are already claiming league titles from years back when they finished behind the six clubs who are scheduled to leave the Premier League ! Tongue in cheek, but no doubt there would be demands from some to re-write history.
One of my biggest fears is for the rising youth talent that comes through out club. Would Harry Kane have had a chance to develop into the world-class striker he is should Tottenham have been in an ESL when he was coming through. With increased riches and increased focus on clubs in the ESL, the pressure to build a squad of the best players will make sure that the AC Milan stock-piled squads of the 1980s will look like nothing compared to those that might be compiled in the ESL.
Another fear is that if this comes about at some time in the future, that we have failed to qualify for the Champions League last season and probably might not get a place in the Europa League from this season’s campaign, so how would Spurs fare against the other sides mentioned in the new tournament ? It was nice under Pochettino when you went to games knowing that there was a good chance that Spurs would win. That has ebbed away a bit recently, but in the ESL, the shine of a new league and the interest in the club could soon wear off if there was little chance of winning against the same sides season after season. Getting a thrashing every week might not be the dream that ENIC might have imagined by jumping on board with the likes of Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid. It might have been telling that Gary Neville’s impassioned rejection of the ESL idea included him going through the history of the six clubs and then saying “I’m not really concerned about Tottenham.” No Gary, the first club to do the Double in the 20th century and first British club to win a European competition. Maybe we haven’t been the most successful club over the last forty years, but we have a history that includes ground-breaking achievements, but then they were pre-history for him (i.e. before the formation of the Premier League).
The 48 hours since the announcement of it’s formation broke the ESL. Personally, I’m glad, as the relative highs of reaching the Champions League in the first place was something I never thought I would see Tottenham achieve in my lifetime. Getting to the final was not even a pipe dream that occurred to me, but for it to happen, even though it was too soon and the outcome was disappointing, it was still an achievement. Bill Nicholson once said “We must always consider our supporters, for without them there would be no professional football. It would be better to have more fans watching football the way they like it played, rather than have a few fans watching football the way we would like it played” and Danny Blanchflower’s comment about “The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.” Some ESL games might not be for the fans and may not be about glory, but more likely money. If those two were around today, there would be no doubt that they would oppose the moves being made by Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea.
And the Beatles once sang “Money can’t buy you love”.
Something that the owners of the clubs thinking of rushing to joining the gold rush of the ESL might wish to ruminate on.