Any thought that the war in European football might simply blow over, that the 12 rebels, seeing the scale of the opposition to their plans, may be persuaded to back down, seems to have disappeared. On Monday night, Florentino Pérez, the president of Real Madrid and chairman of the Super League, was digging in, insisting the agreement on establishing a Super League was “binding"—and that after a day in which politicians, fans, official and even players had lined up to condemn the proposals.
Aleksander Čeferin, the president of UEFA, was clearly disgusted and for him at least the days of appeasement are over. He reiterated UEFA's (appalling) plan to reform the Champions League from 2024, and then turned his attack on the rebels, calling the proposed Super League a “disgraceful and self-serving proposal from clubs motivated by greed” and threatening severe sanctions.
“The players who will play in teams that might play in the closed league will be banned from playing in the World Cup and Euros, so they will not be able to represent their national teams at any matches,” he said. “These cynical plans are completely against what football should be. This idea is a spit in the face of all football lovers and society as well.”
Čeferin reserved particular condemnation for Andrea Agnelli, chairman of Juventus and vice-chairman of the Super League to whose daughter he is a godfather. “I was a criminal lawyer for 24 years so I have seen different people, but I have never ever seen people like that…” he said. “I don't want to speak much about Andrea Agnelli. He is probably one of the biggest disappointments or the biggest of all. I don't want to be too personal but the fact is that I have never seen a person that would lie so many times and persistently than he did. It was unbelievable.
"I spoke with him on Saturday afternoon and he said that these are only rumors, don't worry, nothing is going on, then he said I will call you in one hour and turned off his phone. The next day, we get the announcement. … Obviously, greed is so strong that all the human values evaporate. Everything is gone with some people.”
The president of the Danish football federation Jesper Møller, a member of UEFA's executive committee, meanwhile said that the rebel clubs left in the competition (that is Chelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid) could be expelled from this season’s Champions League at a meeting on Friday. "The clubs must go, and I expect that to happen on Friday,” he said. “Then we have to find out how to finish [this season's] Champions League tournament."
Marcelo Bielsa, the manager of Leeds, was, perhaps not surprisingly, the most articulate voice among players and coaches, placing the proposals within their wider context. “The logic in the world at the moment, and football is not outside of this, is that the rich get rich at the expense of the poor,” he said. “And then they demand more privileges."
After his side had drawn 1-1 against Liverpool on Monday, both Leeds star Patrick Bamford and and Liverpool veteran James Milner spoke against the plan. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was more restrained, but he said his opinion had not changed since 2019 when he spoke against the idea of a Super League.
Yet on Monday evening, Pérez was unrepentant, given a platform on Spain's El Chiringuito TV. "We have been working a lot, more than two years,” he said. “The pandemic has given us the finishing touch to a situation that was deteriorating. We are doing the impossible. We all signed on Saturday. Anyone to leave? No, it is binding. They do not leave. We are all going to negotiate together.”
But to blame the pandemic is clear expediency. Super League plans have been floating around for years. With each renegotiation of Champions League contracts they have been wheeled out to secure even more concessions for the elite, to make them even richer, even more dominant, to make the group stage even more predictable. The pandemic and the economic impact may have accelerated the process, but the idea it is the cause is nonsense, as Pérez admits by saying these plans have been discussed for two years.
A more plausible reading is that the emergence of what may be termed the petroclubs, Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, has disrupted the economy of football. They have almost unlimited funds and are not bound by the usual market constraints. Financial Fair Play was supposed to keep them in check, to prevent an inflationary spiral that was eroding the previous advantage of the elite. That recent investigations into PSG and City led to no sanctions, for many, exposed the toothlessness of FFP and so forced the traditional elite to take action.
That PSG has not signed up and that Chelsea and City were the last of the six English clubs to do so is not coincidence. They don’t need a Super League. The current financial environment was working fine for them. The irony is that City may find itself expelled from the Champions League on Friday effectively as a direct consequence of the way its suspension from the competition was overturned last summer.
Pérez was determined to present himself as the savior of football, to insist his method, his revolution, is the only way to protect the game. “The attractive thing in football is playing between big clubs, the value for television increases and more income is generated,” he said. “It’s not just the rich who want the Super League, we’re doing it to save football because it’s at a critical moment.
“Football needs to change to be more attractive globally. Instead of making the Champions League because it lost interest as it had in 1950, change comes and even at the time FIFA and UEFA were against it. But that’s how football changed.
“Football must evolve like everything in life. Football has to adapt to the times we live in now. Football is losing interest, TV rights are decreasing. We wanted to do the Super League, the pandemic has given us urgency: now we are all ruined in football.
“Here at Real Madrid we’ve lost a lot of money, we are all going through a very bad situation. When there is no profit, the only way is to play more competitive games during the week. The Super League will save the clubs financially.”
Pérez has correctly identified the problem: football, at least in the group stage of the Champions League, has become boring because it is predictable. His solution is to increase the wealth of the big clubs and make it more predictable. Television rights deals do seem to have peaked, and the economic ramifications of the pandemic will not help that. But Pérez's solution is grotesquely self-serving.
Crowds for football, looking across the leagues as a whole and not just the Premier League or Champions League, are at their highest in England for 60 years. If clubs are not making money from that it is not because the game is not popular; it is because the economic model is broken, and it’s broken because of the race to get close enough to the elite to gather some crumbs from their table.
“The English are most upset because anyone could think that the Premier League was going to disappear,” Pérez went on. “Those who do not want to lose their privileges have said that.” It’s the classic jingoist of the empty populist; it’s Pérez's own privileges, of course, that he wants to protect. The Germans seem pretty opposed as well, with Bayern speaking out against the Super League, but perhaps they’re not such an easy target.
"They have said that it is for the rich and it is not true,” Pérez continued. “It is to save football and based on solidarity. Someone has been interested to explain it like this, to say that the rich will be richer and the poor, poorer. And it is not so. We are all going to go out and explain the truth of what this is. We are going to save football, we are not going to allow football to disappear.”
You can’t help think that if that ever were part of the plan, it might have helped prevent the torrent of criticism if the precise detail of that truth had been laid out from the start.
As it is, European football finds itself taking economic lessons from a string of presidents who have run their clubs disastrously. Pérez, who despite enormous economic advantages, has seen his side win just five league titles in 18 years and has just blew $150 million on a 29-year-old Eden Hazard; and Agnelli, whose Juventus has almost double the budget of its nearest rival in Italy but somehow lies fourth and has won just one Champions League knockout tie since splurging $130 million on Cristiano Ronaldo three years ago. Barcelona is in over $1 billion in debt. Inter’s net debt is approaching $700 million, and its owner Suning has folded its Chinese Super League side.
“Many important clubs in Spain, Italy and U.K. want to find a solution to a very bad financial situation,” Pérez said. “The only way is to play more competitive games. If instead of playing the Champions League, Super League helps the clubs to recover the lost earnings.”
He seemed genuinely baffled by the idea that smaller clubs could make money but not the elite, adding: “It cannot be that in the Spanish League the majority of the modest teams win money and Barcelona lose a lot of money. That cannot last. “
But why not? Or maybe contraction is what football needs, a return to core sporting values rather than the endless expansion that untrammeled capitalism seems to demand. Football, after all, used to be about more than making rich people even richer. Čeferin, perhaps, having finally lost patience with the elite, is prepared to fight for that—although a first step may be to repeal the reform to the Champions League model he announced on Monday.
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