Opinion: Football lives on

Fans of Arsenal and Tottenham, Barcelona and Real Madrid, Manchester City and Manchester United don’t agree on much. Such is the nature of football’s greatest rivalries. But in recent days, a new solidarity has been forged in opposition to the European Super League. Richard Dawson explores four days that shook the world’s most popular sport to its foundations

The footballing world has been rocked in recent days by the prospect of Europe’s wealthiest clubs forming a European Super League (ESL).

The proposed competition would be governed by 15 founding clubs who would participate in it permanently, with another five qualifying based on their performance each season.

News first broke of the creation of the ESL on Sunday (April 18) when six English, three Spanish and three Italian clubs were announced as founding members.

What the management teams at Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Inter Milan, Juventus, A.C. Milan, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid didn’t realise is just how universal and virulent opposition to the new league would be.

No sooner had the conspirators revealed their plans than did an outpouring of condemnation from international and domestic footballing bodies, politicians, governments, broadcasters, players and of course football fans begin.

Perhaps that’s because everyone could see the ESL for what it is – a money making scheme cooked up by a set of greedy football owners who, not content with their immense power and resources already, want an even bigger slice of the pie.

Attempts to segregate association football so that elite clubs can realise better returns for their shareholders have been mooted since the 1990s, but this latest breakaway is easily the furthest the idea has been pushed.

It is reminiscent of a tension that has forever dogged the beautiful game, that between the gatekeepers of the sport and those who just want to play it.

When the FA Cup was first contested in the 1870s, English football was very much an elite game, played and governed almost exclusively by public school boys from Eton, Harrow, Winchester and other playgrounds of the ruling classes.

But across Britain’s industrial towns and cities, working-class teams like Blackburn Rovers, Aston Villa and Preston North End wanted to take part in the competition and open up the sport to the masses.

One of the key controversies at the time was whether to allow players to be paid to play as professionals or whether football should remain an amateur sport.

Once professionalism took hold, the Old Etonians and other public school teams faded into obscurity and football became the global spectacle it is today.

It might seem like a strange analogy, but are the oligarchs and billionaires behind the ESL plot really so different to the Etonians and Harrovians who controlled football in the Victorian era?

It comes down to who you think the sport belongs to – the fans or the superich owners?

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly presented financial challenges for big football clubs.

For more than 12 months now, clubs have had to make do without the revenues normally generated from gate receipts, as supporters have been kept from watching matches in their stadiums.

A sold out home game at Old Trafford, for example, can bring in almost £4 million for Manchester United.

Impressive though that is, it pales in comparison to the amount of money football clubs now make from broadcasting rights and commercial income.

If COVID-19 has achieved anything, it has underlined this fact and reassured some football executives that they are not as financially reliant on their fanbases as they once thought.

Still, the 12 clubs involved in the ESL endured a calamitous 2019/20 financial year by their own standards, with total revenues down by 13 per cent year-on-year to £5.5 billion.

Barcelona and Real Madrid remained the top earning clubs in world football, with revenues of £627 million and £607 million respectively.

Ironically, it is these same two clubs who find themselves in the most perilous financial situations coming out of the pandemic, amassing debts of €488 million and €354 million between them.

English clubs are facing similar debt piles, and this is clearly the motivation behind pushing so brazenly for the formation of the ESL.

The new competition could generate billions for the clubs involved, and with no prospect of relegation, would represent guaranteed income for the founders.

But it is precisely this lack of competitiveness and flagrant elitism that has been the source of so much outrage.

As it stands, plans for the ESL lie in tatters as all six of the English clubs involved, along with A.C. Milan, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid, withdrew their participation following the unprecedented backlash.

The competition’s architect and Juventus chairman, Andrea Agnelli, admitted that it was practically dead in the water this morning (April 21), with an official capitulation expected shortly.

What’s been encouraging about the whole saga is the way that the footballing world has come together.

Football fans rarely agree on anything, but they are resolutely united in their belief that the ESL does not have the best interests of the beautiful game at heart.