Saving Football

Ben Walker

On a pre-pandemic panel in November 2019 at the London School of Economics on ‘The Future of Football in Europe: Access and Sustainability’, the sports journalist Gabriele Marcotti described a growing feeling among elite football clubs that they had reached a ‘ceiling’. The lack of competition between broadcasters had created a ‘monopsony’ and the European game was a ‘mature market’ with little room for growth.

Another panellist, Umberto Gandini, an executive board member at the UEFA-recognised European Club Association, worried that clubs were struggling to monetise new media. A ‘more innovative way to present the sport to people with millennial tastes’ was needed, he said. ‘The experience is becoming more important than what you witness when you watch a game.’ The elite clubs were essentially ‘playing a different game’ from everyone else, Gandini remarked. After years of regulation aimed at stopping them ‘flying away’ to start their own competition, it might be better for everyone to let them go and do it.

Last Monday (19 April), AC Milan, where Gandini worked for more than twenty years, was one of twelve clubs (six English, three Spanish, three Italian) that announced their intention to form a breakaway European Super League. The new competition, ungoverned by football’s traditional institutions, guaranteed the participation of its founder members. It was an attempt to separate the ‘elite’ clubs from the rest of Europe’s football pyramid. The league was backed by a $3 billion loan from the investment bank JP Morgan and the teams expected to raise a further $4 billion a year from sponsorship and broadcast deals, almost twice as much as UEFA’s Champions League.

The announcement, which leaked early on Sunday 18 April, was met with consternation from inside and outside the footballing world. Sky removed the option to watch games without artificial crowd noise (a feature introduced for stadiums emptied by the pandemic) to prevent TV viewers from hearing the loud protests outside. The former Manchester United player Gary Neville called it ‘a criminal act against the fans’. Even the duke and duchess of Cambridge ‘shared the concerns of fans about the proposed Super League and the damage it risks causing to the game we love’. The protests worked: within two days the project had collapsed, as one team after another announced they were pulling out. Only three haven’t officially withdrawn yet: Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus.

Most complainants agreed that the clubs had formed the league as a greedy cash grab. But greed comes in many guises. The owners (the distinction between clubs and their owners is important) signed up for a panoply of different reasons: some to avoid what they see as an unfair distribution of broadcasting money in the traditional UEFA competitions, some to stave off financial ruin brought on by the pandemic and others just to avoid being left behind. The three clubs still clinging to the idea have been among the worst hit by Covid-19. The Real Madrid president, Florentino Pérez (the CEO of Grupo ACS, a construction and telecoms company with an annual revenue of $40 billion), gave an extensive interview on Spanish television the day after the initial announcement:

Here at Real Madrid we’ve lost a lot of money, we are all going through a very bad situation … the attractive thing in football is playing between big clubs, the value for television increases and more income is generated. It’s not just the rich who want the Super League, we’re doing it to save football because it’s at a critical moment.

When Pérez talks about ‘saving football’ he means as a business not a sport. A number of elite clubs have made untenable financial decisions in recent years (mostly regarding player contracts) that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Juventus, for example, use a fifth of their annual revenue to pay a single player: Cristiano Ronaldo.

AC Milan are now owned by Elliott Management, a $38 billion hedge fund founded by the venture capitalist Paul Singer. Elliott is a vulture fund with a history of buying up sovereign debt cheaply and then squeezing countries (Peru, Argentina, Congo) for assets when they default. In 2017, when AC Milan’s previous owners (who had bought it from Silvio Berlusconi) defaulted on loans owned by Elliott Management, the fund took over the club. The team were in a rut on the pitch: they hadn’t won an Italian title for six years and had failed to qualify for the Champions League in five of those seasons. ‘I think it’s going to be really hard to turn Milan around and sell it for $1 billion,’ an anonymous source inside the club told the Financial Times in 2019. ‘I keep thinking there must be a more obvious play here that I’m not seeing.’ The ESL was that play. It would no longer have mattered to Elliot how well AC Milan performed on the pitch.

The prime movers behind the English cohort were the American owners of Manchester United (the Glazer family) and Liverpool (John W. Henry). Their motivation seems to have been a combination of a desire for wealth accumulation and an ideological abhorrence at the way UEFA operates. That doesn’t mean, however, that the debate should be framed as a battle between the defenders of football history and tradition (UEFA) and the franchise model of contemporary American sport (Henry also owns the Boston Red Sox baseball team). UEFA was not against a European Super League in principle; indeed, the breakaway was an alternative to UEFA’s plans to reform the Champions League so as to future proof the participation of the big European clubs – a super league in all but name.

What made UEFA unhappy wasn’t that the clubs were trying to consolidate their elite status, but that they were trying to do so on their own terms. Aleksander Čeferin, the head of UEFA, called the Manchester United vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, and Juventus chairman, Andrea Agnelli, ‘snakes’ and ‘liars’ for appearing to go along with UEFA’s reforms while covertly planning their own breakaway league.

Despite the rampant financialisation of football, ‘what you witness when you watch a game’ seemed to have been at least aesthetically resistant to what happens off the pitch. VAR is most often criticised for what it does to the flow and feel of the game, rather than whether it makes it empirically fairer. The panellists at the LSE event in 2019 were especially worried about football’s ability to attract younger supporters (‘with millennial tastes’) who did not have, according to Gandini, ‘the level of attention for two hours’ of football. The Juventus chairman said the Super League was meant to simulate ‘what young people do on digital platforms … with Call of Duty, FIFA or Fortnite’. Pérez suggested ‘that if young people say football matches are too long … maybe we have to shorten the length of matches.’ As David Runciman put it in the LRB in 2018, football is becoming less of a sport and more ‘a subset of the entertainment industry’.


  • 28 April 2021 at 4:02am
    Mick says:
    Thanks for the great blog post. As an American, but a former Islington resident and fervent Gooner, I think the piece is lacking one key element: how did these greedy clubs get to this financial point, esp. on the continent? It is the spending of PSG, Chelsea, and Manchester City that has driven European football to this point. Those three club have sovereigns or an oil oligarch backing them. The other clubs are run for profit (by Americans) or are fan-owned (Madrid/Barca). The Super League would have instituted a spending cap. While I am totally against the ESL, the fact is, any discussion about it would be remiss not to mention the root of the problem: oil wealth in football.

    • 29 April 2021 at 5:13pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Mick
      As a Manchester City fan (of dwindling fervency, it has to be said) I'm obviously not a dispassionate observer, but it's really simplistic to blame oil. A European super league has been a recurring idea since the late 90s, with the richest clubs (none of your trio among them) on more than one occasion using the threat as a way to get more money out of UEFA.

      By all accounts the most enthusiastic drivers of this round of the SL were Florentino Perez, the Glazers and Fenway Sports Group. Both United and Liverpool have been owned by Americans longer than City have been owned by the Abu Dhabi group or PSG by Qatar Investment Authority. It's no coincidence, I think, that the planned super league was to be set up rather like an american sports league, with the clubs themselves as perennial owners of (and therefore, reliably profiting from) the competition, rather than having it run by a third party like UEFA.

      None of this is to defend City or to suggest that the club were unwilling participants forced into the super league by other clubs, as some City fans desperate to retain the moral high ground have done. I'm simply saying that the root of the problem is money, not oil.

    • 5 May 2021 at 3:15am
      Mick says: @ Harry Stopes
      All fair points - I do not mean to say that the oil wealth of PSG/City/Chelsea is the root of the Super League, which I'm sure would have been concocted by these greedy American owners regardless. I just meant, as an Arsenal Fan, I find it hard to stomach the current model, and see the motives of non-oil funded teams in England to create such teams at least partially stemming from the fact they cannot keep up with such owners. Success on the pitch should not depend on one being owned by a sovereign. That being said, City look fantastic this year, and Pep is showing why he's the best in the game today.

  • 29 April 2021 at 1:18pm
    Simon Wood says:
    I downsized from Millwall to Dulwich Hamlet. Now that Hamlet have gates of up to 3,000, I'm looking at Peckham Town whose ground is in the middle of the delightful Dulwich Estate, close to nature.

    But nothing beats taking a ball to the park and scoring not imaginary nor observed but real goals.

  • 30 April 2021 at 4:51pm
    Camus says:
    From what I have been reading, a similar capitalistic shenanigans is about to overtake New Zealand Rugby, where US Hedge Fund about to take over the All Blacks and make Rugby into an all-American Operation. What hit cricket with the IPL is about to ruin Rugby.