DUBAI: The Sword of Damocles came crashing down. The Doomsday Clock struck midnight. And Twitter went into meltdown.
However you like your trite football metaphors served, there was little doubt the news that a European Super League is set to become a reality after years of less than veiled threats immediately relegated the pandemic, mass shootings and train crashes to minor news items.
Twelve founding clubs, plus three others to join. Five measly spots for qualifiers. A closed shop with no relegation or promotion. End of UEFA Champions League as we know it. Lots and lots of money. A full house in the ‘football is dead’ bingo.
The backlash was expected, immediate. ‘We’ll kick you out of all our competitions,’ UEFA, FIFA and their member Football Associations threatened. ‘We don’t need you and we don’t care,’ was presumably the reaction from the Bond villain-like club owners in their lairs.
The move will bring the 12 revolting clubs - Premier League’s “Big Six”, the two Milan clubs, Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid - in the region of $300 million for simply competing in the new competition. many believed it was a nuclear negotiating tactic with UEFA, while it’s been reported the owners are fully willing to wait out the bad PR and the anger of the supporters.
…Ah yes… the supporters, almost forgot about them.
The obvious conclusion to this development was that the owners of the world’s most iconic clubs don’t care about the fans that made their current play toys iconic in the first place.
Except that’s not quite accurate. They don’t care only about certain types of fans. So brazen is their contempt, they even gave them a name; “legacy fans.”
The truth is that, while so many fans voiced their fury on social media, Gary Neville brilliantly railed against the “joke” owners and Liverpool supporter groups demanded the removal of their banners from the Kop, millions are likely to shrug in apathy and fully embrace the new European Super League.
The European Super League is designed to cater for what its founders are calling “Fans of the future”.
This is where the waters get muddied. Exactly where is the line drawn between legacy fans and those of the future? Is it generational? Is it demographic?
There will be a temptation, as ever, to assume international audiences are the ones that will ensure the European Super League will always find an audience. For fans of the future some will read armchair fans. Purely in mathematical terms, that is true - match-going fans are a drop in the ocean compared to television audiences.
At the same time, it would be wrong to assume all - or even - most of the non-European supporters are so far removed that they will blindly welcome the idea.
Certainly, in the Middle East, and particularly in GCC countries, any attempt to neatly categorize fans will fail. However, it seems that everyone agrees that Super League, by taking on the US model of no relegation or promotion, will remove the element of jeopardy, of competitiveness from football.
Daniel Evans, a Dubai resident and life-long Tottenham supporter, feels let down by his club, who perhaps stand to gain more than other, recently more successful members of the cabal.
“I've supported the club for 27 years ever since the day my parents got in a fight and my mother bought me a Spurs shirt to annoy my Chelsea-supporting father,” he said.
“I've supported the club through the dire mid-table obscurity of the 90s and even a Champions League final. One trophy in 27 years of support never bothered me, the club meant more than winning. However, I will now be giving up my spot on the Spurs season ticket waiting list and don't intend to follow the club if the ESL goes ahead. I am not against the game needing to modernize and adapt but perhaps modernization like this just isn't for fans like me.”
“I know that football clubs are businesses who need to make profit to be able to compete but this should never be at the expense of fair competition,” Evans added.
“The ESL proposal, with its lack of relegation for founding clubs and hoarding of prize money, is completely anti-competition and allows the richest clubs in the games to solidify their positions, to the detriment of grass roots football.”
Tottenham’s legendary Double-winning captain Danny Blanchflower famously said: “The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.”
Never have those words felt more anachronistic than over the last two days.
“Our club stands for more than this,” Evans said. “It stands for passion, exciting football, maybe not recently under Jose, but at least he’s gone now. Also, the club has always done great work with local non-footballing outreach projects but I also liked to think we did a good job within our wider footballing community.”
“The club has supported grass roots football, we’ve brought great English players through our youth academy, and we’ve never been a club who just go out and buy a team. Joining the ESL violates that, we’re abandoning the football community to fend for themselves whilst we go out and get even richer.”
Others feel that the issue is far from black and white, and that the traditional powers have long been getting away with abusing the game for years.
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin called the plan a "spit in the face of football lovers”, and Zaid Al-Qaimi, a Liverpool supporter who lives in Abu Dhabi, says he’s amazed more people aren’t seeing through the victim act. And while acknowledging that the owners’ intentions are clearly driven by money, he believes the European Super League is no worse than the plans for a revamped Champions League that Ceferin is pushing.
“UEFA and FIFA are the ones killing the game, and have been diluting their products for years,” he said. “The Euros used to be brilliant with 16 teams, and then they made it 24. The next World Cup is 48 teams. The next Champions League revamp will have a hundred extra low-quality games.”
“The FIFA Club World Club Cup will be even worse with more clubs from all over the world. Let’s not forget the Nations League UEFA bought in. The Super League is the first new competition in years that actually increases quality.”
“The owners are doing it for money, but so have been UEFA and FIFA with more and more games,” Al-Qaimi added. “Yes, they need to solve the merit issue. But this is better than a 32 game Champions’ League group stage that will have endless meaningless games.”
Mohamed Shamseer, a Chelsea fan from Kerala, says he is well aware how much money has contributed to his own club’s success, but feels that heritage and any notion of competition are being eroded.
“We shouldn't allow businessmen to play games with people's passion. They are out to seek total control,” he said. “I know money has been heavily involved in football, but with the arrival of European Super League, it’s going to be only about money. Sporting merit will go down the drain if the founders’ clubs can’t get relegated. It’s also against one of the basic principles of any sport as there won't be any open competition.”
While Shamseer, who has lived in Dubai for 11 years, has never had the chance to visit Stamford Bridge, he does not consider himself less of supporter than match-going fans. The idea that being geographically distant from the club means you care less for the well-being of football is unfounded for him.
“As much as I love my club, I love the Premier League as well,” he said. “Whatever we are today, our rivals helped us get there. The European Super League will eventually kill the Premier League. The Big Six teams [if they stay] will field their academy kids to focus more on the big fat Super League. There wouldn't be another Leicester fairytale nor there wouldn't be any European dream left for the smaller clubs as well. It will take the charm out of everything. In simple words, football wouldn't be the same.
Dubai resident Neil Mitchel, founding chair of Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) is equally opposed to the European Super League plans, and would have been even had a much-speculated takeover turned his boyhood club into one of the richest in the world.
“As a lifelong Newcastle fan, a legacy fan as the new ESL would have us known, I have personally been through the highs and lows of supporting your team,” he said.
“I have been there through the Keegan ‘entertainers’ years. Seen us challenge for titles and get to finals only to suffer glorious defeats. I’ve seen us take on the best of Europe and win. Barcelona, Juventus, PSV and more have been taken down by my boys. I’ve also seen us relegated twice under the current ownership and the hard battle to regain our place in the top flight of England. In the game of football, it is simple. You are where you are based on sporting merit alone.”
Romance and competitiveness; without those two elements, football is just not the same.
“The league table does not lie. Each season is a level playing field,” Mitchel added. “Sporting merit is how the game should be settled. It should not be about how deep your pockets are. An ESL based on this is an insult to every fan who dreams. Every fan who longs to see their club rise on the basis of their effort alone. The ESL and their member clubs' collective greed will in my opinion be their undoing and its time the football family stood together and said enough is enough.”