The new influx of state money is maintaining a semblance of competition rather than destroying it. Football is stuck in a difficult position.
Football is too far gone. Protests against the European Super League in the spring were real, raw and heartfelt. They were also brilliant and seemingly timed perfectly. Fans everywhere turned their wrath for one another onto the decision makers and the faces behind the padded chairs in the directors box – and they won. The beautiful game, our beautiful game, was pulled back from the edge right at the death, reminded of its soul before it sunk into the anti-competitive mire.
At least it was framed that way.
How nice it would be to think that anger would be the final act; that the status quo could be maintained and things would carry on as normal. But everybody must know, deep down, that the proposals will return in a new form, with a new face and a different pretence about the wider benefit to the sport. The audacity of the clubs who attempted to break away and form the Super League was as nauseating as it was astounding, but scratch the surface and the reality becomes clear. It wasn’t just 12 out of touch billionaires hatching a selfish plan to take what they believe is rightfully theirs and not caring about anything else and doing so out of the blue, but rather a natural progression and the worst symptom of the disease which has slowly rotted football from within: greed.
Yet with the dust firmly settled and those behind the plans busy recalibrating, there is an uncomfortable truth which must be faced about the Super League and all other aspects of greed within the game.
It can be tolerated.
Would the planned breakaway, which clearly took inspiration from the Premier League’s formation in 1992, have been stopped or even so vehemently opposed if it included promotion and relegation, or some sort of process which rewarded members for their performances on merit? The ‘closed shop’ element seemed to be the biggest reason for the backlash.
By and large, the Super League was driven by the richest and most powerful clubs in the world, and the exclusivity of that cabal, perpetuated by the fact that teams needed to be invited to play in said league, painted a bleak picture for football. Takeovers have gone beyond the realm of supremely wealthy individuals and even surpassed conglomerates, finally reaching the point where countries are effectively the buyers. That started with Manchester City, backed by the Abu Dhabi United Group, then Paris Saint-Germain were bought out by the Qatari Sports Group. Most recently, the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund took an 80% stake in Newcastle United.
Moral outrage and the subsequent discussions are ongoing, weeks after the deal was completed. Very real concerns are front and centre, and they should stay that way. From a footballing perspective, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, who joined his supporters in voicing opposition to the Super League, alluded to a similar issue with Newcastle specifically, claiming they will become a ‘super club’, thus having the same impact on competition as if the league had gone ahead.
His point is valid: with such a disparity in wealth between clubs within the same divisions, the notion of merit and fairness is really just a mirage.
There was a quote attributed to one of the Big Six Premier League clubs, which suggested that they do not want to see any more stories like Leicester City becoming champions in 2016. Those clubs were accused of doing everything to block the Newcastle takeover and, with the exception of Manchester City, lobbied for a change to sponsorship rules which would deny any companies with links to owners from donning shirts or taking naming rights to stadiums, for fear that this was the way PIF would forgo Financial Fair Play rules. That is despite Newcastle’s former owner Mike Ashley getting free advertising for his primary company Sports Direct for years, and Manchester City and Leicester involving their owners’ other ventures, too.
The Foxes winning the Premier League, and their recent foray into Europe, give the impression that competition is alive. But anybody without money, old or new, is going to struggle to keep up with the pace. Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal are, like Bayern Munich in Germany or Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, viewed differently to the likes of Chelsea, City, PSG and now Newcastle, because history dictates their reputation. But rather than the latter being accused of distorting football – which is undoubtedly true to an extent – there needs to be an honest discussion. If money didn’t exist on the scale it does within football, it would be just as uncompetitive, but in a different way.
Manchester United won all but three league titles between 1992 and 2003, when Chelsea were bought by Roman Abramovich. They and Liverpool enjoyed dynasties in years gone by. For all the rightful love given to the 50+1 rule in Germany, which gives fans a voice and stops the influx of ‘new’ money, Bayern enjoy an absolute monopoly. That is not just on the pitch, winning every Bundesliga title since 2012, but in terms of the transfer market. They can afford to buy almost any top player from domestic rivals because their income dwarfs the rest in comparison.
Borussia Dortmund have rallied to be their greatest competition through marketing themselves as a development school for the best young players. RB Leipzig, part of energy drink Red Bull’s cohort of clubs, are disliked across Germany, but they’ve become more of a threat than most others. Just like in England, big clubs have fallen through the leagues; Hamburg, Schalke and Werner Bremen can only look back on better days.
‘New money’ has made football less competitive at the top level, widening the gulf between clubs, but the reality is without it, football would hardly be any better off in terms of levelling up. The most famous clubs have always had it their own way and many of them, including Manchester United, Bayern and Barcelona, have close ties to the same sources of wealth that are being heavily, and rightly, scrutinised.
There are so many ways in which football has gone over to the dark side over the past 20 years or so, almost all to do with rising investment. But the idea that it has become less fair as a result of that does not stand true; it is just the number of beneficiaries from its imbalance has grown. Football is now a battleground between the modern and the traditional, but nobody involved wants an open sport. With or without the Super League, competition has always been and will forever be skewed.
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