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A European Super League would cut the umbilical cord to community sport

 

At the height of the Covid pandemic, in April 2021, 12 of the most high-profile football clubs in the world including Real Madrid, Manchester United and Juventus, announced that they would break away from the UEFA controlled and regulated Champions League, to start their own European Super League. The announcement was mostly responded to with disgust, disbelief and offence by fans, European football executives and (former) players. The Premier League, and European (UEFA) and World (FIFA) governing bodies of football were very quick to respond, threatening that players participating in the proposed breakaway competition would be banned from playing in UEFA and FIFA sanctioned competitions. Manchester United legend Gary Neville said he was ‘disgusted’ and argued that proposed League would not go ahead as ‘the fans will hate it’. Another high-profile former Man United player, Rio Ferdinand, said that he was embarrassed for his old club to be involved in this coup, that the proposal was a ‘disgrace’ and that it was a declaration of war on football. Announcing these plans during a global pandemic when people are looking out for anything positive to hang on to is not only ignorant and insensitive, it shows that the premier level of global football is no longer about the grassroots of sport, it is about hardcore business, monopolising resources, and maximising profits for the owners.

But wasn’t this always going to happen? Did we not see this coming? The reality is that the signs have been blatantly obvious for some time now. As early as 1998 did the then top clubs of Europe join in the so-called G-14 (and later G-18) in order to have a united voice in their negotiations with UEFA and also FIFA. At the time the 14 members had won 41 of 51 European Cups on offer until that time. The G-14 successfully negotiated players should be paid wages on international duties and be compensated if they were to be injured. In 2006 UEFA threatened to impose bans if the G-14 would form a breakaway league. Michal Listkiewicz, the then member of UEFA’s club competitions committee noted that he was going to propose that “players who will participate in any G-14 super league should get a life ban from all UEFA and FIFA competitions”. Clubs responded by arguing that the primary motivation for their proposal was to introduce “more reliable criteria for such competitions, allowing clubs to effectively plan their sporting and business activity”. The power of the G-14 was such that UEFA had to (re)design their club competition structures in a way that would (financially) benefit the most successful (bigger) clubs. The G-14 turned into the European Club Association (ECA) representing in excess of 200 clubs and all seemed reasonably well for more than two decades. But on the 19th of April 2021 the ECA Executive had to convene an emergency meeting following the resignation of 12 ECA members, the 12 that had announced the formation of the European Super League. This includes the resignation of the ECA Chairman Andrea Agnelli, who is also the President and his family company is the majority owner of Juventus. The next day, the six English clubs announced that they would withdraw from the new Super League, two days after its announcement. A major contributing factor to this was the overt condemnation by the British Prime Minister, who noted that the government would take action preventing the English clubs from participating… History, in a way started to repeat itself. However, the owners, governors and managers of the 12 teams involved had put all their cards on the table. What did the cards tell us?

Let us first briefly reflect on the whole of sport during a pandemic, and what the pandemic has alarmingly exposed – that community sport, not professional sport is suffering most. Professional sport has and continues to bear the loss of revenues, mainly through the fact that fans could not, and in many countries cannot come to the stadium. In the case of the top European football clubs however, the Deloitte Sport Business Group reports that the gate receipts represent (for most clubs) a relatively small proportion of the overall income that is generated. Community sport clubs all over the world, however, had to cope with the loss of their primary and often only source of revenue – membership registration fees. Community sport came to grinding halt when members could not play or train. Even in times when sport can be played again in Australia, at present, community sport clubs are struggling to bring back the volunteers. What the owners of football have openly admitted to is that they do not care about community and community sport, that all that counts is to monopolise their playing field, and maximise their profits, most of these going into the pockets of private owners. A European Super League would finalise the journey of European professional football away from community sport, into the realms of uncompromising sport capitalism, and in doing so cutting the umbilical cord to the roots of football. Football (as we know it) is dead, long live football…