Beautiful game, dirty money

Jonathan Liu 21 April 2021
Image credit: Creative Commons

As far back as I can remember, I have always been a Liverpool fan. Watching Liverpool win on that night in Istanbul is among my earliest memories. I grew up idolising Gerrard, and so much of my identity is tied up with this football club. But the past few days almost ended my support for Liverpool Football Club.

On 18 April, twelve clubs, Liverpool among them, announced their plans to form their own breakaway Super League, a tournament that would guarantee places for its 15 founding members. In 1992, the top English clubs of the First Division unilaterally split off to form their own breakaway Premier League. Alex Ferguson at the time described it as:

“A piece of nonsense…has done the reputation of clubs no good, and has in fact alienated a great many supporters…sells them right down the river….you can’t disregard your fans and customers.”

However, in spite of both having underlying motivation in greed, what happened in 1992 pales in comparison to the potential consequences of any such Super League. Where 1992 saw big clubs seize greater power in order to enrich themselves further, fundamentally the structure of the football league system was left untouched. Even though Premier League clubs now earned more money, if they were run badly, they would still be at risk of relegation. In the last year of the First Division, Leeds United won the title. In just over 10 years they’d find themselves relegated to the Championship. That’s part of what makes football exciting: the unpredictability.

Since they cannot just rest on their laurels, the constant competition drives clubs to constantly improve. Even this season, though Man City look to be wrapping up the title easily, it’s the incredibly tight battle for top four and Champions League qualification which is generating excitement. Though West Ham, Leicester and Everton could finish above Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal, in a world of The Super League, none of that would matter because the latter four would be guaranteed qualification year in, year out. What’s the point of trying in the league if there’s nothing to play for?

Instead, it is because of these new ‘upstarts’ like Leicester City in England or Atalanta in Italy that the Super League is coming about. Clubs such as Juventus and Arsenal have been run poorly over the past few years and in the competitive arena, they are dropping further and further behind. Even traditional ‘super clubs’ like Barcelona and Real Madrid have accumulated mammoth debts while trying, and inevitably failing, to financially compete against the billions of oligarchs and nation-states. With UEFA refusing to enforce financial fair play, in a bid for self-preservation, they’ve turned to The Super League as their only hope. Instead of playing the game better, they’ve decided to rewrite the rules and create what amounts to a cartel, a system where they cannot lose. Unfortunately for us, such a system sees everybody else lose out.

However, I am not so naïve as to believe that this is a sign of greed taking over football. Greed won out decades ago. We are simply living in the inevitable progression that was put into motion when the money in football began to get big. It’s a progression that UEFA, FIFA and the other governing bodies could’ve tried to stave off; instead, they stood back and did nothing. For decades, the biggest clubs have forced UEFA to give concession after concession to them. When big clubs were getting knocked out too early in the European Cup, they added a group stage. When big clubs struggled to qualify by winning their domestic league, they opened up the tournament to “top fours”.

Slightly overshadowed by the news about the Super League, on Monday 19 April, UEFA unanimously passed a new format for the Champions League. A new ‘Swiss Model’ tournament, the new format would be made up of an extended group stage system and include three extra Champions League places to go to clubs based on past performance in Europe. In other words, its aim is to make it harder for ‘big clubs’ to suffer group stage upsets and it will make it easier for ‘big teams’ to qualify for the champions league even if they perform poorly domestically. Frankly, it does not sound dissimilar to the proposals being mooted by the Super League. Both systems have been created for the sole purpose of helping support the ‘big clubs’ at the cost of everybody else. Just like UEFA’s posturing about the new Super League being anti-competitive and against the meritocratic ideals of football, it reeks of hypocrisy.

In an interview, Brighton manager Graham Potter stated:

“95 per cent of the top leagues are determined by finances… But that’s the beauty of football, you have to use what you have, to try to be competitive and do your best to find a way to beat the system – which is the financial power.”

That 95% of football may be gone for good, but the remaining 5% still matters and it is that 5% which makes football great. It is that 5% that is the hope that your team can compete and win at the highest level; it’s that 5% that stops football from becoming dry and stale. Naïve as it is, I still want to believe in the club I support, that it isn’t just a sporting brand, that it means something more. Liverpool was once a club defined by its history and its storied tradition. Now, it’s merely a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder, its community recast as ‘stakeholders’.

There is something rotten at the heart of European football. Juventus won nine titles in a row, the Spanish Supercopa was held in Jeddah, Manchester City have a wage budget nine times that of Sheffield United and PSG is bankrolled by a nation-state hoping to sports-wash itself of human-rights abuses. If you want to attract more fans to the game, the answer should not be to break away and create a perpetual two tier system where fifteen arbitrarily decided ‘founding members’ perpetually hoover up all the money at the expense of the thousands of other football clubs. The answer should instead be to provide more redistribution and regulation. Regulatory bodies opened up Pandora’s Box when they began to tolerate and even relish the presence of billionaire oligarchs and trillionaire nation-states in the game.

Things have gone too far to close that box. Even if the Super League continues its implosion and fails, we should not hail UEFA and FIFA as our saviours. UEFA and FIFA should not have our trust and even if they did, the past few days have shown they have no power beyond conciliatory bribes. Instead, it is time for this never-before-seen alliance between fans, journalists, managers, players and politicians to continue fighting on for a better football world. In a world where the potential owners are either cynical American investors, corrupt oligarchs or Gulf despotisms, I cannot see anything other than a 50+1 ownership model and better financial redistribution as sufficient to protect the sport and the fans.

What has happened across the past few days has shaken football because it has forced us to recognise what it is about football that makes it so important to us. Contrary to what Florentino Perez thinks, it’s not about watching famous players from big-name teams play each other. It’s about the tradition and history; it’s about competitiveness and unpredictability; it’s about the fans and community. For decades big money has been eroding away at everything great about football. The Super League was a step too far. The hubris and arrogance of those involved in its implementation has handed us with a golden opportunity to stave off the rot. We now know what is at stake. Don’t forget or forgive what these owners have done. Now let’s go and stop anything like this from ever happening again.