Tuesday, April 03, 2007

You Can Go Your Own Way

A few years ago or so, this story would have been big, big news. Prior to the Champions League match between Arsenal and PSV Eindhoven last month, the G14 met with two MEPs at the Emirates Stadium (second home of their current man in charge, the almost creepily unlikeable David Dein) to discuss the possibility of breaking away and form their own "Super League" if the Independent European Sport Review doesn't come up with ideas that they like the sound of when it issues its report later this year. There will be, I've no doubt, some people that are still shocked by this, but for those of us that are familiar with the way that European football's self-elected "elite", it's no surprise whatsoever.

It's long been an open secret that the G14 would like to break away from UEFA and FIFA, and get rid of all the inconveniences of football as it is, such as having to share any television money at all, actually having to qualify for the Champions League, releasing players for international football and those inconvenient trifles such as player quotas and salary caps, that get brought up in polite conversation every once in a while. They want all the money because, somewhere along the line, they decided that they own football.

The two MEPs involved are, I suspect, getting out of their depth here. The first one, Toine Anders, seems to be misguided to an almost dangerous level of naivety. Consider, if you will, this quote:

"I believe there will be an 'EU league' within ten years. There are so many distortions in the market. A level playing field across Europe is what's needed. By my reckoning there would be promotion and relegation in this 'EU league' and the play-offs would be held in Brussels every year. Players earning above a certain threshold would pay a percentage of their salary into a solidarity fund which would pay players' salaries where clubs went bankrupt."

Now, you'll have to excuse me if I pause a minute to stop laughing. Players paying into a solidarity fund to pay salaries if clubs go bankrupt? Oh, bless them, the poor impoverisshed footballers. Anyhow, here's an open letter to Toine Anders:

Dear Toine,

If you're reading this, please pay attention to what I have to say. The various bosses of the G14 clubs may be making very interesting sounding overtures to you at the moment about the future of European football, but they're using you. You're a patsy. You're their ticket to legitimacy, and that's it. We had a break-away in English football fifteen years ago. They promised to cut the number of teams to help the national team. They made all these noises about pouring money into youth academies and grass roots football. They didn't do any of it. They just wanted the money for themselves. The only reason there is still promotion and relegation is because the rest of English football wouldn't stand for it. They've got intention of "play-offs in Brussels". They want to cut and run with the cash, and they're using your federalist idealism to start a public relations war to try and convince the wider public that their own avarice is in everyone's interests. Promotion and relegation won't happen, because UEFA and FIFA won't allow it, and the G14 won't want it. If they break away, the rest of European football will carry on much as before. The clubs' positions within their domestic tournaments will be lost forever. No more Merseyside derbies. No more Manchester derbies. Don't let them fool you on this. If it means that they make more money, they'll jettison every tradition that they hold. Is it really worth it, for Chelsea vs Barcelona twice a year, forever?

You talk, in your recent interview with Euractiv, of concerns about a media monopoly regarding football on the television in Europe, when "Germans who wanted to watch the football had no choice but to pay 17 euros per match on a pay per view basis". That's been happening in England for fifteen years! And who was at the head of the group that formed the break-away to allow this to happen? David Dein. The man that you met in London last month. Your belief that an EU Super League will somehow lead to more people being able to watch football on the television for less money is touching, but misguided. Whichever channels it is that win the rights to it will almost certainly play through the nose for it. In the multi-channel era, advertising revenues are tumbling. No terrestrial channel could afford the amount of money that you'd be talking about. It would have to go onto cable or satellite, where they could recoup their money through subscriptions and, at a guess, Pay Per View.

If I were advising UEFA on what to do, my advice would be simple. Football is bigger than the eighteen biggest clubs in Europe. Much bigger. Bigger than the clubs themselves could ever take in. All UEFA has to do is stand firm, close ranks with FIFA, and isolate them completely. No promotion and relegation (which would, in a way, validate their competition). A lifetime ban on anybody that ever plays or coaches in it being involved in any UEFA, FIFA or national association-affiliated competitions. That should give the best players and coaches pause for thought. A ban from them playing in the World Cup? Why not? The World Cup is the greatest football spectacle in the world. Think of the advertising revenue they'll lose. Think of the sponsorship money and endorsements they'll lose. Within a couple of years, it would be little more than an exhibition tournament - reminiscent of those ill-advised "Select XI"s that toured white South Africa in the 1980s. When the public realises that this isn't a "brave new world" for football, that this is all about money, money, money and not sport at all, they'll start to drift away too. And you'll be left with eighteen European versions of The Harlem Globetrotters, playing out a sorry "spectacle" in half-empty stadia, in front of a few people that have paid a few Euros each for Ajax vs Lyon on a Tuesday night in Amsterdam.

And the rest of us? We'll be delighted. The top domestic leagues in Europe have been left all but unwatchable by the biggest clubs hoovering up all the trophies for years, now. This has happened precisely because of a centralization of power and concentration of money and resources in a very small number of clubs. Further centralization of power and more money for themselves is what the G14 is all about. Get rid of them, and our competitions will become competitive again. We'll be told how much we miss them (and we might miss the schadenfreude of occasionally sticking one over them for a while), and we'll be told told how big and shiny and sparkly their competition is, but we'll largely carry on as normal, and once they've broken away, they're gone forever. We can ignore the newspaper reports about them, and we can ignore the TV broadcasts of their matches (not that we'll be able to watch them unless we pay £50 per month in subscription fees). Our competitions will be competitive again. There are plenty of good footballers out there. We'll just watch them instead.

What if I'm wrong? Well, I can say with absolute conviction that it won't make a scrap of difference to me if I am. The team that I support will keep plodding along, winning a few matches and losing a few more. I guarantee you, however, that the chairmen of these clubs have no interest whatsoever in European harmony, sharing television money, or making easier or cheaper for people to watch it on the television - and if you believe them should they say that these are their primary motivations, you're a less intelligent man that I would assume even a politician to be.


Ed said...

If the English G14 clubs left our domestic league, we'd all be left just remembering the good old days. Which is what I do anyway, so I say sod the lot of them. There's enough professional teams in this country without them for a start, and I think their support will be boosted by a lot of proper disillusioned fans with no taste for what their "big" club have done.

I would like them to do it, actually. I could use a chuckle, and it will also be a good way to teach youngsters about the folly of greed.

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