“The most powerful are every time more rich and the rest even more poor. This exceeds the world of the footballers or the managers. This is structural on one side. It’s commercial and it’s part of the regulations. And it’s a way of seeing how professional football functions.”- Marcelo Bielsa, Manager of Leeds United
News around the creation of a European Super League (ESL) surfaced late on Sunday 18th April. Initial murmurings suggested that it would be a competition that ran alongside the domestic season, giving a more lucrative competition for Europe’s ‘elite’ clubs to play in and earn from. However, in a week that saw George Floyd’s murderer found guilty, the ESL went from creation to destruction in just over 48 hours.
The original chosen ones were from the UK: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. They were set to join Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid in an attempt to break away from UEFA and their European competitions. The head of this new competition was Florentino Pérez, President of Real Madrid, who wanted to challenge the way in which European football was to take place. After years of planning, the aforementioned teams had signed up and speculation became reality.
It does not take much to rile British football fans, especially when their teams’ liberty was at stake. A price was put on the soul of each club and, for that, the backlash was a sight to behold. One of the teams to announce that they had joined the ESL, Arsenal, had been humbled by a relegation-threatened Fulham to a 1-1 draw only a few hours before their announcement, which did not bode well for advertising a competition intended for the best teams in the continent.
The first ones to voice their disagreement to the ESL were Sky Sports pundits, and former footballers, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. Their emotive approach to this news in the build-up to the Leeds vs Liverpool match did not faulter and worked well to drum up the anti-sentiment held by fans across the UK.
A day after the ESL was proposed, some 700 fans of Leeds and Liverpool gathered at Elland Road with signage in hand to ensure that their voices were heard outside the stadium. Even one group of Leeds fans formed a small orchestra to play ABBA song ‘Money, Money, Money’ as the Liverpool players boarded their coach. Inside the stadium, Leeds owner, Andrea Radrizzani, organised a sign to go up in the stands with the message “Earn it on the pitch. Football is for the fans.” With the Leeds players warming up with shirts adorning the same statement. It was clear, the ESL was not going to be accepted at face value.
As the week progressed, fans protested further and did what they could to show the owners of the 6 British clubs that they had made a grave error in signing up their clubs to this fat cat approach to football. On Tuesday 20th April, Chelsea faced Brighton at Stamford Bridge. More protests took place before the game, with fans again reminding their owners what football meant to them and how their desires did not match Florentino Pérez’s dream of a closed-group of teams playing each other time after time in a new world of franchise football, where the owners could replicate models that they were familiar with states-side. Now the fan movement was gaining momentum, with supporters of all 6 clubs protesting outside stadiums. What followed, became the start of the end for the ESL
After fans protested, managers and players in the PL spoke out about their disagreement with the ESL plans. Pep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City, commented “It is not a sport where the relation between effort and success, effort and rewards, does not exist… where success is already guaranteed, and it is not a sport when it doesn’t matter if you lose.” His views were reflected by managers of the 6 chosen UK clubs, which put great pressure on their owners. Then, by Wednesday, all British clubs had announced their withdrawal from the new format they had agreed to only three days prior. A fiasco from start to finish.
As a result of the British hesitancy, the man in charge of the ESL, Florentino Pérez, took to the Spanish media outlets to try to regain control of the situation. From accusing the protesting Chelsea fans as stooges, he then tried to suggest that the ESL was there to save football after the hardship of the pandemic. These rambles then stretched to Pérez arguing that football’s wealthiest of teams needed the riches promised by the ESL to filter the money down to smaller clubs. He failed in trying to rally support for his competition, claiming that young people no longer enjoy football and that fans would prefer shorter games played all over the world. Proving to fans their right to feel betrayed. The acts of the British fans and clubs seem to have halted any plans for now, with the feeling that this story is not fully over, with owners evidently after more wealth and less competition for their clubs.
As for the future, the footballing world has learned a lesson after the failure of the ESL. It has seen the fight in fans to keep the current structure of the footballing pyramid in place, as well as the cowardice of owners dropping players and managers in hot water, left on their own to face scrutiny for non-footballing decisions way over their heads. We are yet to see if the defecting clubs will be punished, with Man City winning the League Cup on the weekend, a week after trying to leave English football in its entirety. One thing is for certain, FIFA and UEFA are no saints in all this, with the controversy surrounding the Qatar World cup and the new format of the Champions League. There is still plenty of work to be done. In speaking to wider issues in the sport, it is clear that fan power goes a long way in bringing about change. One can wonder if only the efforts of the past week or so were shown in the fight against racism in football and how systemic changes along these lines can be achieved.
Featured Image Source: Sky Sports