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The power of football in the wake of Super League backlash

Now that the initial shock, the ensuing anger and widespread condemnation, and the media hype have started to subside, we can reflect and think more clearly.

For many years, UEFA was not the governing body we know today.

The same applies to football clubs – Nottingham Forest, Porto, Benfica, Steaua, Red Star, Ajax, Celtic and Hamburg enjoyed some great moments in European football in the past, today it is the traditional superpowers, the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Liverpool, who are lifting the trophies consistently.

Football is dynamic and clubs that were successful in the past are not necessarily in the same position today while those that are at the peak today are not guaranteed to stay at the summit tomorrow.

One could say the same of the Champions League, UEFA’s flagship club competition and biggest revenue generator which has reached unprecedented heights thanks to the rapid commercialisation which has driven up revenues, particularly from broadcasting.

Although many, including Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, argue that this is tantamount to a conflicting situation of monopoly where the regulators are also the main competitors – this is legally debatable and makes for a potentially compelling case before the ECJ (European Court of Justice) – as football lovers and enthusiasts, we have an obligation to safeguard and protect the product, in this case the Champions League.

More importantly at this stage, we need to renovate and upgrade the competition which inevitably raises the question… why has football reached this point?

Indeed, there is a growing need for all the stakeholders to listen and discuss, exploring ways and means to make the Champions League more sustainable and minimise the negative impact on the clubs that compete in the top-tiers year in year out.

However, there are other important considerations.

Although the Financial Fair Play rule has helped to drastically reduce club losses over the last decade, the clubs themselves need to stop paying astronomical transfer fees and salaries to players.

The system is totally unsustainable and deficits are evidently showing.

To this end, there are numerous arguments which, when properly assessed, will deliver a clear outcome.

Despite its status as the  most important and prestigious annual sporting competition in Europe, the Champions League may create the need for an exit strategy for clubs if, sportingly, they do not perform to the expected levels and fail to achieve placings that guarantee lucrative financial rewards.

A shorter domestic calendar, allowing more time and opportunities to venture into global football, could already represent an important step towards giving these clubs the space to showcase and grow their brand  outside of Europe.

In times of financial distress due to the pandemic and in view of the concept of prize money based on elimination, the introduction of parachute solidarity payments to ensure a soft

landing in case of early-competition disappointment could also be a mitigator.

Other strong arguments both sporting, primarily related to sporting access to the competition and the competitive balance, together with marketing strategies such as expanding the global brand by tapping into new markets, especially in North America and Asia, could also provide the basis for a consensus to remain part of the family.

Beyond the reflections and considerations on the way forward, in just 48 hours, European football has trembled in the wake of the announced breakaway of 12 of the world’s top clubs which sparked protests by thousands of passionate supporters and provoked the ire of other football clubs playing in the same domestic leagues as the so-called rebels.

The backlash was reinforced by the strong and decisive positions taken by FIFA, UEFA, led by president Aleksander Ceferin, and others who spoke out on behalf of the society at large.

It must be stressed that this is an issue that also impacts the social and cultural fabric, same as in the early days when football was founded in England back in the 18th century.

The rollercoaster experience of the last few days is definitely no catastrophe for football. I prefer to see it as a reality check, on the same lines as the unforeseen challenges and difficulties caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Let’s not fool ourselves about one thing, however. The sporting agenda has always been dominated by club vs country issues and we all know this. Top chief executives against sport administrators.

The former constantly look at the bank accounts to ensure that the financial situation is sound, while the latter are mostly concerned with protecting and safeguarding the values and principles at the heart of football, its ideals and history.

To cite a similar example, a breakaway of this magnitude occurred in basketball more than 20 years ago and up this day, FIBA and EUROLEAGUE co-exist but disputes and threats are the order of the day.

Hence, we should not be surprised that some of the most famous football clubs wanted to leave.

Revamped competition

It is rather the way they went about it that has caused much consternation with two of the Super League promoters, Andrea Agnelli (former UEFA EXCO member) and Ivan Gazidis (Professional Football Strategy Council) having given their full support to UEFA’s proposals for a revamped competition as from the next cycle, kicking off in 2024, before declaring their total disagreement and announcing the breakaway plans in a matter of hours.

I see this behaviour as disloyal towards the European Club Association (ECA) and all the other member clubs, seriously undermining the values of honesty and ethics.

When in 2015, precisely in Malta, the ECA joined the UEFA EXCO, both Michel Platini, the president of UEFA at the time, and current FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who was UEFA general secretary then, had promoted their representation with a bold message that all football stakeholders should sit around the same table in pursuit of constructive discussion.

I personally still support the idea of having everyone contributing to the dialogue, it was the right thing to do at the time, it still is and we should never doubt that.

From left: Bjorn Vassallo sits alongside former MFA president Norman Darmanin Demajo, Andrea Agnelli and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge during a UEFA Executive Committee meeting held in Malta in 2015.

I remember that sunny day in September when, at the Westin Dragonara Resort Conference Centre, Agnelli and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge were the members approved by the ECA to protect the best interests of all football clubs, big or small, and to support open competitions based on the principle of solidarity and redistribution model for the benefit of the development of the game of football across Europe.

Although Rummenigge stayed in his role until 2017 only to be re-appointed instead of Agnelli a few days ago, it must be noted that he was not a promoter of the Super League which is a closed-league system based on the American model of sports which ensures financial gains for the selected few.

In a few words, Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez, Agnelli and their allies wanted to privatise the last asset of society.

In the end, almost all the clubs who had agreed to take part in the Super League, for the time being, reversed their decision for one simple but crucial reason… the reaction of the fans, those who, rain or shine, follow their clubs with positive energy as for them loyalty and sporting glory are more important than monetary gain. 

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