Today was meant to be a good day down at Uefa HQ. At 1.30 this afternoon they were due to unveil the big Champions League revamp.
The Swiss System, or as Uefa’s press release put it: “Every. Game. Counts.” Four extra games for everybody, four extra places in the competition, more money all round – what’s not to like?
Well, lots of things actually, but what are you going to do – it’s not like there’s some other Champions League you can go and watch instead.
As it turned out, by mid-afternoon on Sunday, Uefa found itself issuing the most dramatic call to arms in the organisation’s history.
A joint statement from the European governing body along with the football associations and leagues in each of England, Spain and Italy read: “[We] have learned that a few English, Spanish and Italian clubs may be planning to announce their creation of a closed, so-called Super League. If this were to happen, we wish to reiterate that we . . . will remain united in our efforts to stop this cynical project, a project that is founded on the self-interest of a few clubs at a time when society needs solidarity more than ever.
“We will consider all measures available to us . . ... to prevent this happening . . . We call on all lovers of football, supporters and politicians, to join us in fighting against such a project if it were to be announced. This persistent self-interest of a few has been going on for too long. Enough is enough.”
“This persistent self-interest of a few” has indeed been going on a long time.
It has been the force driving the reorganisation of European football since the 1980s, and Uefa are well-placed to know because they’ve been negotiating with it at every turn. The Champions League reforms to be announced today were just the latest stage in that decades-long process, the latest concession in a long Cold War in which the balance of power has shifted gradually but steadily in favour of the biggest clubs.
News of the planned breakaway suggests those clubs finally feel as though they hold the whip hand.
Uefa’s statement, with its reference to “a time when society needs solidarity more than ever” made it sound as though they were shocked and outraged that the clubs could make a break for it now, in the tragic context of the pandemic.
Their indignation was shared by pundit Gary Neville, who told Sky Sports "to bring forward proposals in the midst of Covid and the economic crisis for all clubs is an absolute scandal".
Such moral grandstanding misses the point that the pandemic is literally the crisis that has prompted the would-be breakaway clubs to make their move.
Last November, the European Club Association’s annual report predicted that Covid would inflict €5 billion of losses on European football clubs by the end of the 2021 season.
Meanwhile the TV rights market has been curdling for some time. The Premier League lost a Chinese TV contract worth nearly half a billion dollars, the French league’s new TV deal collapsed in December, while the German and Italian TV rights auctions did not meet expectations.
The big clubs in the Premier League have long felt as though they should be getting a bigger share of the pie; the League has been able to contain this anger by making sure the pie keeps growing. Now that trend has reversed the anger is becoming explosive.
The logic of European football at the top end has long suggested the eventual establishment of some kind of superleague. The essential problem is that the game in Europe is an uncontrolled arms race between clubs who aren’t all playing by the same commercial rules.
Uefa’s effort at an arms-limitation treaty in the form of Financial Fair Play failed miserably. We have a Champions League semi-final line-up where three of the four clubs are owned by petro-billionaires or -trillionaires.
The big clubs’ need for more and more money to fund spiralling wage and transfer costs is an itch that can never be scratched by the sort of incremental measures Uefa planned to announce today.
An NFL-style organisation incorporating spending restrictions such as salary caps is the only way to escape the arms race dynamic that has seen the likes of Barcelona – Europe’s biggest club by turnover – plunge themselves into a billion euro of debt.
The major obstacle to the establishment of this American-style owners’ paradise has always been: can’t get there from here.
The European football structure has grown up organically over 150 years, rather than being designed rationally according to which regional conurbation could best support a profitable franchise at any given time. Nobody has yet come up with a way by which the members of this Euro-NFL could be selected. Until now.
With previous successful plans to enrich the biggest clubs, such as the Premier League or the Champions League, it was always clear how the new formations would relate to the existing structure.
The Champions League created enormous new financial rewards for participating clubs, but if you wanted to collect them you had to qualify first. So while in practice the Champions League has entrenched elitism and inequality, in principle it remains a competition your team might get to play in.
The proposed breakaway league, with its permanent cast of 15 or 16 founder members, is different. It’s a naked power-grab by a self-appointed group of gangster clubs who want to set themselves up as a permanent aristocracy.
They must have anticipated that everyone else was going to hate it , since their proposal benefits nobody but themselves. The interesting question is: how do they expect to get away with it?
The breakaway is a gamble on the nature of fandom. The clubs would be betting that most existing fans would not be repulsed by the move, that the casual fans would tune in to see the top players, and that the angry objectors would be a noisy minority.
They might find they’re grappling with larger forces than they’d reckoned with.
In an impassioned tirade on Sky Sports, Neville’s key accusation was that the club owners had “no loyalty to this country or these leagues”. Nigel Farage’s tweet also hit on the theme of foreign subversion: “A breakaway European Union of Football backed by globalist banks and the so-called “Big Six” must fail.”
With populist nationalism in the ascendant, the clubs are standing up for the rights of the international billionaire class to maximise profits. In an age of division and rancour, hating this idea might be the one thing all the peoples of Europe can agree on.