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Ken Early: Super League can pull elite clubs even further from fans

Big European clubs see they have more in common with sheikhs than domestic leagues

The latest tranche of Football Leaks revelations, presented over the weekend by a consortium of media organisations led by Der Spiegel, contained more remarkable stories of behind-the-scenes chicanery at the highest levels of European football.

One of the best bits was a line attributed to Manchester City lawyer Simon Cliff, which came from correspondence dating from the spring of 2014 as City argued with Uefa about the extent to which it was fair to punish the club for breaching the Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules.

As Der Spiegel's report put it: "Club lawyer Simon Cliff wrote in an email that [Khaldoon al Mubarak, the City chairman] had told Infantino [current president of Fifa] that he rejected the idea of a possible monetary penalty. 'Khaldoon said he would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years'."

It is humbling to reflect that Khaldoon al Mubarak represents people so rich that he has about as accurate an idea of how much it might cost to hire the 50 best lawyers in the world as Lucille Bluth does about the price of a banana.


You also couldn't help thinking of "The Revolution Will Be Digitized" – the manifesto written by "John Doe", the whistleblower behind the Panama Papers.

Stand up to them and they will drag you into a ruinous battle of legal attrition that you cannot afford to lose

Do you remember the Panama Papers? That was the name given to a massive 2015 data leak that appeared to show thousands of rich people all around the world engaging in tax evasion on a heroic scale. In a way it was inspiring to see so many people, from so many different cultures and creeds, united by a common passion for this epic enterprise. It was a story of apparently stupendous significance that burst like a thunderclap and then seemed to vanish just as quickly.


John Doe observed that criminality on such a scale was only possible due to the simultaneous failure of multiple institutions across society. He blamed banks, financial regulators, tax authorities, courts and the media, but the strongest condemnation was reserved for the legal profession.

“Democratic governance depends upon responsible individuals throughout the entire system who understand and uphold the law, not who understand and exploit it. On average, lawyers have become so deeply corrupt that it is imperative for major changes in the profession to take place... To start, the term “legal ethics,” upon which codes of conduct and licensure are nominally based, has become an oxymoron...Those able to pay the most can always find a lawyer to serve their ends... What about the rest of society?”

In theory the civil legal system exists so that disputes can be settled in a just and peaceful manner. Mubarak’s alleged threat reminds us that in reality it feels as though the legal system is something the rich use as a club to batter opposition into submission.

Stand up to them and they will drag you into a ruinous battle of legal attrition that you cannot afford to lose (though they can). Are you absolutely sure that your position can stand up to everything the world’s most expensive lawyers can throw at you? If not, it might be better to back down and settle.

Little appetite

It appears that Uefa had little appetite for punishing Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain for breaching FFP. It's not as though the system was ever universally popular in the first place. Critics of FFP often make two arguments: first, that by linking spending to club revenue, it served to entrench the existing hierarchy, preventing new challengers from breaking into the elite; second, that if rich people come along and want to pump money into a sport, how can it make sense for the sport's governing body to stand in their way?

The first argument makes sense. FFP as designed does have the effect of protecting the already-rich against would-be competitors. In this way FFP is itself an example of how regulatory bodies cater to the interests of the rich.

The second argument sounds stronger than it is. The sleight of hand is in the implied assumption that “money coming into the game” must be good. When money is “pumped into the sport” by rich club owners, what does this actually mean in practice?

The most obvious effect is an inflationary spiral in transfer fees and wages. This is good for top players and their agents, but it is unclear how it is good for the sport as a whole.

The other important effect is that if other clubs want to stay competitive they have to find a way to keep up with the unnatural pace being set by the new rivals. Some will succeed, others will go bust, but everyone has to get greedier: higher prices, more sponsorship deals, longer pre-season tours, and ultimately perhaps reorganisation of the game itself.

Petrodollar giants

This dynamic helps to explain the attitude of the traditional big clubs to the petrodollar giants, which is more conciliatory than you might expect.

In public FC Bayern's power-brokers Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge have been vocal critics of City's and PSG's irresponsible and inflationary spending. But we know now that in private Bayern have enthusiastically explored the possibility of joining forces with City and PSG in a European Super League. The leaders at Bayern – and at other big European clubs – evidently recognise that they have more in common with the sheikhs than with the small fry in their own leagues.

If the competition of the big clubs for ever greater revenues does lead to the creation of a new Super League, will the fans buy it?

The dynamic of commercial competition has always been part of football – most obviously in market-oriented England, where clubs are owned privately rather than by large groups of fan-members, but also in Italy, where magnates like Silvio Berlusconi and the Agnellis bought success for decades.

The desire of the richest clubs to take a greater share of growing revenues was behind structural reforms like the 1992 Premier League breakaway and the formation of the Champions League, and the saturation-commercialisation of every inch of space to do with top-level football is driven by the same imperative.

So City and PSG are not doing anything really new; it’s only the level to which they have driven things that is new. Berlusconi was talking about a European league as long ago as the late 1980s, but it took the involvement of clubs that are owned and funded by oil states to accelerate the process to the point where the biggest clubs feel they have outgrown their national leagues and must expand internationally.

Greater revenues

If the competition of the big clubs for ever greater revenues does lead to the creation of a new Super League, will the fans buy it? So far the clubs don’t seem to have given that much thought.

"What do you notice when you read the cartel's documents?" the Football Leaks whistleblower "John" asks Der Spiegel. "The clubs are constantly talking about the Super League and how they can market all this shit even better and make even more money. But there's one thing they never talk about: the fans. About the people who made this sport great."

Looking at the reactions on social media and forums of many Manchester City fans to the weekend’s reports, you suspect the clubs won’t have much difficulty getting fans to believe in this new competition. Notice how often City fans use words like “we” and “us” – “we’ve been shafted”, “Uefa f***ed us over”, etc.

Apparently they think that there is a “we” which includes both them and the millionaire functionaries who run Manchester City on behalf of Sheikh Mansour. If they believe that they can believe anything.