European Super League, Football, Soccer, Sports, UEFA

The ESL. Culture always eats strategy for breakfast. Heartily.

Bahram Arjmandnia

On Sunday, Manchester United’s home match against Liverpool was cancelled due to fan protests against the Glazer ownership.

I was pained the match was cancelled. United is in such fine fettle. Sunday was an opportunity to drive kryptonite-tipped and plutonium-coated nails into Liverpool’s ‘Top-4’ coffin. Condemn them to wallow in the Europa muck with Outer Mongolia FC and Borat Kazakhstan. They dodged a bullet. But the bullet has their name on it. It’ll home.

We have a lot to be aggrieved about. There is the greedy Glazer family. These geezers see Manchester United only as a nest egg. When they bought the club in 2005, the club had zero debt. Fast forward to 2021 and we are in a debt of £526m. This is after paying over £500m in interest. These blokes haven’t put a nickel of their money in the club. All they do is take. Recently, they paid out £122m as dividends to their apparently penurious selves.

Look, I get it. The Glazers bought United as a business, not as a football club. Trophies mean diddly squat to them.

The problem is, United was an attractive buy because of the ginormous brand equity and successes of the club. We had and still have a huge (and monetizable) global following. Our consistent success on the pitch led sponsors to beat a path to Old Trafford. We have the biggest club stadium in the country. In essence, United minted money. This inevitably became our undoing because the glitter attracted the attention of marauders from outer space. These Glazer are plundering the club and killing the golden goose. I can’t understand it. It’s either they are incredibly dumb, or they are secret agents of Liverpool.

Billionaires can’t be dumb, can they? So, that only leaves Liverpool…

And there is that Ed and his cohorts. Commercially savvy, Ed Woodward. The bloke can sniff out a dirty penny faster than a bloodhound. But that’s all Ed cares about. The business and not the football side of things. The bean counter probably can’t tell the difference between a left and right-back. “Remind me again, Ole. Why can’t Maguire be a striker?”

We are also aggrieved because of the gradual but visible descent of Manchester United into mediocrity. The last time we won the league was 2013. The last time we were in the semi-final of the Champions League was 2011. Worse, we were alive to witness Liverpool win the Champions League again in 2019 and finally win the league in 2020. It was a nightmare that came to pass. Now, Manchester City is a dreaded adversary and is boasting more trophies than the devil has sinners. It’s pathetic.

You might ask what gives. Why the cudgel against the Glazers now? Didn’t they buy United all the way back in 2005? Since then, hasn’t United won significant trophies? Five league titles. One Champions League. Four FA Cups. Six EFL Cups. One Europa Cup. And one Club World Cup?

Well, let’s just say we like to hug the brownie. We’ve lived so long on Olympus, we’ve forgotten what it is like to be afflicted with human frailties.

However, the real fodder for Sunday’s protest was, of course, the club’s membership in the doomed European Super League (ESL). The Glazers were supposed prime architects.

The ESL!

What an implosion!

Even Mr. Bean could not have orchestrated a more resplendent disintegration.

Heineken joined in the derision.

The idea behind the ESL was more prosperity for a few elite clubs, the twelve ‘Founding Clubs.’

Founding Clubs.

Founding Fathers.

Considering that the owners of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal are Americans, I can see how the notion of ‘Founding Clubs’ can appeal to them.

But I digress.

The idea behind the ESL was lucre. The big clubs complain UEFA isn’t rewarding them enough. Yet those clubs pull in the global viewership and money UEFA clutches. No offence to my homeboys in Armenia but nobody watches Real Madrid vs Ararat-Armenia because of Ararat-Armenia. They watch the match because of Real Madrid. Yet Real Madrid does not get appropriate compensation from UEFA.

And because UEFA is steeped in European social-democratic philosophy, it shares the proceeds of the TV rights with football administrations across the continent. So, when Man City plays Real Madrid in the finals of the Champions League, the Faroe Island or Malta or Armenia FAs partake in the TV proceeds. One for all, all for one.

Capitalist America cannot understand this. What? Is Bernie Sanders running UEFA? Servants upon horses while princes walk as servants upon the earth? Look here, boy, he who does not work, neither shall he eat. 2 Thessalonians 3:10.

So, they got together and came up with a brilliant idea.

How about we start our own league? A big-boys-only league. Playing each other weekly. It would be eye candy. Broadcasters and sponsors will fall over themselves for rights. It’ll be guaranteed riches for the founding clubs. Money to buy elite players and build infrastructures. Think about it; the money to buy Haaland, Mbappe and Pogba in one season. Sure, we’ll throw in bottom feeders like Arsenal for a semblance of inclusion…

So JP Morgan committed over £4bn to the project. Each of the ‘Founding Club’ would receive about €350m to join the ESL. Then as the competition enters its third year, that sum would be tripled.

Say what, JP? €350m? Here, hold my beer, where do I sign?

And so, on 18 April 2021, the ESL was announced with twelve founding members. Six English clubs, three Spanish clubs and three Italian clubs. Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspurs, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan. Bayern Munich and PSG declined to join.

The backlash across Europe was fierce. Aleksander Ceferin, UEFA’s President, called Ed Woodward a ‘snake’ for joining the ESL despite assurances that United would not.

The hostile response was fiercest in England. Fans besieged their grounds. The English FA, pundits, players and the press denounced the new-fangled league. Boris Johnson said the government would “look at everything that we can do with football authorities to make sure that this doesn’t go ahead in the way that it’s currently being proposed.” France President Emmanuel Macron welcomed French clubs’ refusal to join the ESL.

So fierce was the backlash that by 21 April, all the six English clubs had withdrawn their participation in the ESL and apologized to their fans.

Tail tucked beneath its hind, the ESL scurried away to announce the ‘suspension’ of the competition.

72 hours was all it took for the house of cards to come tumbling down.

But what happened? How and why did the ESL collapse so spectacularly?

I’ll tell you why.

It’s because football is not only a business.

It is a people’s way of life.

It is profit + fans + tradition + emotions, all jostling for prominence.

It is culture.

And culture will eat £4bn JP Morgan-breakfast all day.

You’d hear many people say that football is a business and money must rule the gamut.

That’s a load of bunkum from a constipated bull.

Football is not like other businesses. In most businesses, if the line manager has a fallout with a subordinate, the subordinate is toast. In football, a coach is toast if he falls out with Messi, Ronaldo or Pogba.

Football also buck common sense economics. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Borussia Dortmund still insisted on €120m for Jadon Sancho in the close season. Erling Haaland would probably cost upwards of €170m if he moved this season.

It’s madness. But it’s football.

Remember Assem Allam, owner of Hull City? In 2013, the man had Hull City registered as Hull City Tigers. The next year, he planned to register them as ‘Hull Tigers.’

Hull Tigers. How sweet. How about Hull Chihuahua?

Of course, fans marched with the banner ‘City till we die.’ The FA sensibly rejected the name change. The club is still known and registered as Hull City.

In football, the fact that you own a club does not mean you can do with it as you please. You may be the largest shareholder but you are not the only stakeholder.

Grounds, jerseys and names mean something in football. They are artefacts of history and emotions. I’ve travelled from Nigeria to watch Man United a couple of times. Not because Old Trafford is a fantastic stadium but because it is the Theatre of Dreams. I travelled to see the statues of George Best, Dennis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton. I travelled to experience the atmosphere at the Stretford End.

It’s probably what JP Morgan and the American owners of United, Liverpool and Arsenal missed. Football is not a spectacle like the NFL or Major League Baseball. In Europe and South America, football is steeped in rivalries, history and raw passion. Fans commit suicide because of a match. Bill Shankly summed it up well: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

I don’t delude myself that fan power solely aborted the ESL. Those behind the ESL didn’t become wealthy bowing to the demands of people or governments. Perhaps legal challenges from individual FAs, UEFA or FIFA were also strong factors.

And I do have a sneaky feeling we’ve not heard the last of a breakaway league. After all, Florentino Perez, Chairman of the ESL and President of Real Madrid merely said they were ‘suspending’ the ESL.

Whatever the case, I’m glad football won this round.

Somehow, ‘Arsenal’ and ‘Tottenham’ in the same sentence with ‘elite club’ doesn’t sound right.

 

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