Sport

Did the European Super League actually have a point?

I mean, the structure of the competition is not something I could ever abide by. A closed shop of self-chosen elite, with a few invited guests, who would be constantly reminded of their luck to be invited into the club. It was an arrogant plan executed by old men who have a lot of money, and still wanted more.

The reason I ask whether they had a point, is that the pandemic has put the financing of football under a microscope. Many clubs have struggled throughout this time, some going out of business completely or falling into financial ruin. And as you go higher up the pyramid, the more the costs skyrocket. And those costs are ultimately unsustainable. This was one of the stated reasons for the formation of the Super League, the clubs claiming that the pandemic had accelerated this problem to its breaking point, and that the financial structure of the Super League would address these problems at its source. Unfortunately, what appears to have happened is that club directors (particularly those at Real Madrid and Barcelona) looked at their balance sheets and saw that they were massively into the red. What would normally happen in a situation like that is that the directors would look to cut costs and become more efficient. Instead, they looked to ways of making more money. And that involved sealing themselves off from the rest of Europe to create the footballing version of the Harlem Globetrotters. It wouldn’t have been football, or even sport, it would have been a circus. So, it doesn’t surprise me at all that the driving force and (only) public face for this entire farce was Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid and the same guy who once tried to create a Real Madrid theme park in the Middle East. I promise I am not making that up.

The problem for the two Spanish clubs who are still publicly backing this joke of a proposal, is that they are both heavily in debt, Barcelona to the tune of over a billion euros. And a lot of this is down to how they have acted in the transfer market. Perez was the man who brought in the era of the Galacticos at Real Madrid. Simply sign all the best and most famous players in the world, hurl them at a coach and say “make it work.” Barcelona meanwhile are still paying for prior success under coaches like Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique, mainly through enormous contracts to players associated with that previous era who may no longer be in their prime. They have also been very hit and miss when they’ve entered the transfer market, sometimes signing well and for value, other times paying far too much for players who have never delivered. They still in fact owe money on players who have left the club. Barca have an unusually high wages to turnover ratio, and this only adds to their financial problems. Real Madrid also have one of the largest wage bills in the world, but they do have a more sustainable model.

What I feel is the real reason for their insistence on ripping up the current model is that they are terrified that they will be left far behind the English teams in terms of financial power and being able to attract the best players. You see, with how transfer fees have ballooned ever since we had the first round of Galactico transfers in the early 2000s, it’s getting to the point where the only teams who can afford to pay those sorts of fees are those owned by billionaires. Real Madrid and Barcelona are not owned by billionaires. They are technically owned by ‘socios’, or club members. But all they can really do is vote for the club president every four years, who then appoints the board and makes all the decisions about managerial and player signings. They don’t have to consult the socios at all, once they are president. However, because they are still technically owned by the club members, the rules stipulate that they have to exist off of the money they make. So, by inviting those English clubs to play against them in what was a glorified pre-season tournament, that they could control all various rights to, it would level the playing field financially, and allow Real Madrid and Barcelona to continue deluding themselves that they are football and if they fail the sport fails. Because that is what this was about. For them at least.

But football has got ruinously expensive. If anything needs to be done, it is to make the sport more cost effective for everyone. Right the way through, from player wages and transfer fees to the cost of TV sports packages. Because who makes the sport happen? Fans. Fans buying those TV bundles, their season tickets, their memberships, their club shirts every single season, buying all the other merchandise. And they are slowly being priced out of the game. Fan concerns need to be put front and centre of football going forward. Whether that’s through new legislation, fans being able to buy shares in the club and become board members, or as Chelsea and Tottenham have done, have fan representatives attend board meetings. German football is being held up as the model that we should be aspiring to. And there is a lot to like. The ticket prices are very reasonable, with train fares included. The stadiums are always full and they have the 50+1 rule so the fans retain majority control of their clubs. They can have investors, but not owners. That’s why no German clubs signed up for the Super League; they would never have got it past the fans on the board.

The Super League was a bad idea. It went against the very principles that football has lived by since the inception of the Football League in 1888. That any team can progress to the very top of the game. It was nothing more than a way to not only ensure that certain teams would forever stay on top, but that the owners would be able to put yet more money into their pockets.

But they did have a point when they said that the current European football model is unsustainable. There needs to be changes. But instead of looking to make it more lucrative, further away from being a sport and a rich boy’s club, they need to go in the opposite direction and look to reduce the costs. Artificially or by their own volition. Or otherwise we will end up in this situation again.

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