Has there ever been anything in the history of football which has attracted more nonsense than the announcement of a new European Super League? It’s as if no one has been paying attention to what’s been happening to football in the last thirty years.
First, there’s been a lot of sentimental talk about the working-class roots of the game. That was then, this is now. For an adult the most expensive season tickets at Liverpool cost £869, at Manchester City it would cost £900, at Manchester United, £950. If you took a couple of kids that would be another £300 and more. At Manchester City. Then there’s your subscription to Sky Sports, not much change from £500 a year (closer to £600 a year if you add BT Sport). None of this includes rail fares, parking or petrol. This is not the world of cloth caps and Hovis ads.
Then there’s all the talk of tradition. Leicester City sold Filbert Street to a development company for £3.75 million in 2002, Manchester City left Maine Road in 2003, Arsenal left Highbury in 2006, West Ham, left Upton Park in 2016 and Spurs left White Hart Lane in 2017. The dates are significant. All in the last twenty years. The names matter too. Filbert Street, Maine Road and White Hart Lane, all in working-class neighbourhoods amidst terraced streets. Not anymore. Now parking and bigger grounds are the name of the game. And look at the new names: the Etihad, the Emirates, the King Power stadium (named after the travel retail group, King Power owned by the club’s owners).
Talking of owners, Manchester United were owned for years by Louis Edwards, who fought in the war and ran the family’s meat packaging and processing business. Not now. Since 2003, the club has been owned by the Glazer family from America. Shares were also bought by George Soros and Baron Capital, neither well known for their Manchester associations. Liverpool are also owned by Americans, FSG, Fenway Sports Group named after Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox baseball team, who are also owned by the same people. Chelsea are owned by Russian-Israeli billionaire businessman, Roman Abramovich, and since 2008 Manchester City have been owned by Sheikh Mansour, who has an estimated net worth of at least £187 billion and a family fortune of at least $1 trillion. Arsenal owner, Stan Kroenke, was born and grew up in Missouri, and his portfolio includes the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, Denver Nuggets of the NBA, Colorado Avalanche of the NHL, Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer, Colorado Mammoth of the National Lacrosse League, the Los Angeles Gladiators of the Overwatch League, and the newly formed Los Angeles Guerrillas of the Call of Duty League.
Ignore the sentimental tosh about working-class sport, tradition and community. For years now England’s top football clubs have been owned by the American, Russian and Arab super-rich, part of huge and diverse portfolios, where all that matters is the share price, sponsorship and TV rights.
The fans and media want international stars, the best from all over the world, and they want foreign owners
To attract sponsors and TV executives, these companies hire foreign managers and pay top dollar for foreign stars. Manchester United never had a foreign manager till 2014. Since then, their last three managers were all European. Manchester City didn’t have a foreign manager till Sven-Göran Eriksson in 2007. Since then, they have had five managers, two Britons, who lasted barely 19 months between them, and three Europeans. Chelsea, apart from a few caretaker managers, have only had one English manager since 1996 and 16 foreign managers in 25 years. None of the six breakaway clubs have a British-born manager and are unlikely to for the foreseeable future. The turnover of managers is significant too. The days of Ferguson and Wenger, who ruled for 17 and 22 years respectively, are as remote as the days of Shankly and Bill Nicholson.
Then there are the players. When Manchester United won the European Cup in 1968, they had nine British players and two from Ireland. When Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005, they had two English players and one Irishman out of the 14 who played. United fans today cheer on Pogba, de Gea and Fernandes, among the club’s seventeen overseas players. Spurs have almost 20 and Manchester City have 22.
And the fans and media love this. They want international stars, the best from all over the world, and they want foreign owners who will pay huge wages to keep stars. As journalist Grant Feller wrote today, these fans “gloated about foreign owners’ financial muscle and ignored debt. And now the inevitable has happened — those owners want payback.” A passionate Liverpool fan tweeted, “To those fellow Liverpool fans wanging on about the new super league being ‘just about money’ and us being a ‘socialist club’… did you not notice that the guy who bought it in 2010 is a billionaire uber capitalist? What did you think he was going to do?”
Of course, it’s just about money. Wasn’t it just about money when Liverpool bought Kenny Dalglish, when Blackburn bought Alan Shearer and when United bought Andrew Cole? Today there are extra zeroes on the transfer fees and in the wage packets. Who pays for that? TV companies and sponsors that’s who. Not working-class fans in cloth caps. Sky and BT Sport have their eyes on viewers in Asia and Africa more than in Bolton and Sunderland. When I saw Manchester United play Chelsea a few years ago I was talking to a United fan who’d flown from Asia the night before with his two children so they could watch the game at Stamford Bridge.
In the last fifteen years, Leicester are the only club outside the Big Six who have won the Premier League
Another journalist tweeted, “Let the arrogant bastards go, we can watch the L1 promotion race instead.” But he won’t. If he was a proper journalist, he would find out who owns the TV rights for the new Super-League. Whoever it is, they don’t care about the L1 promotion race. They have their eyes on huge TV audiences around the world who will never go to Stoke or Middlesbrough in their lives but who will pay to watch Messi, Ronaldo and Pogba, de Bruyne, Lukaku and Harry Kane.
Over the coming days we will hear a lot about rootless cosmopolitans and metro elites, people will go on about Leicester City who won the Premier League in 2016 and will be in the FA Cup Final next month. They have done brilliantly. But in the last 33 seasons only three clubs outside the elite have won the Premier League. Only four have been runners-up. And the breakaway clubs are dominating more and more. In the last 15 years, Leicester are the only club outside the Big Six who have won the Premier League. In the last twenty seasons, Jamie Vardy is the only player for a club outside these six who has been the top scorer. Wigan are the only club outside these six to have won the FA Cup in the last ten seasons.
The most hilarious losers, of course, are the fat cats from UEFA and FIFA
I feel for great clubs like Aston Villa, Leicester, Everton and Newcastle. West Ham are close to qualifying for next year’s Champions League. Now they will never qualify for the new Super-League. The big clubs will pull the ladder up behind them. Sponsors and TV moguls don’t want the uncertainty of small clubs breaking into the party. No Roma, no Sevilla, no Leicester. Celtic, Villa and Forest both won the European Cup. Sevilla won the Europa League four times in the last seven years. Porto won the Champions League under Mourinho. Now they’re outside, with their faces pressed against the window.
The other big loser is the BBC. No one on Match of the Day 2, the BBC News or the Today programme had the honesty to say this, of course, but whoever’s forking out the £3 billion for the Super-League it’s not Auntie. The final blow to the BBC’s bid to be a big player in the world of sports rights. Gary Neville has been fulminating about the clubs, but he’s been careful not to attack the TV company involved in case it’s his old paymaster, Sky.
The most hilarious losers, of course, are the fat cats from UEFA and FIFA. You would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at them talking about ethics and morality. To be fair, they have also issued endless threats, loud but empty. They have told the top clubs they won’t be able to compete in their domestic leagues and cups. What, no more rainy Tuesdays in Stoke? No more Thursday night football? And FIFA have threatened players with not being able to play in the World Cup any more. I wonder how many sponsors and TV companies will pay FIFA huge sums for a World Cup without the Galacticos, the top stars of the Premier League or the best African, South American and European players players? Like the Premier League itself, the World Cup will become second-rate without its stars. The FA and FIFA should leave it to the lawyers to sort out, if they can.
This breakaway was inevitable. The top clubs need big money to pay for their big new grounds and their famous stars. And thousands of miles from Leicester and Wigan there are millions of people who will pay whichever TV company has the rights. Somewhere a lot of rich sports lawyers and agents are going to make a lot of money making this happen.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe