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‘Back to normal’ will simply not suffice: the Super League 12 need to be punished

Jonathan Liew
·7-min read
Photograph: Matthew Childs/Reuters
Photograph: Matthew Childs/Reuters

Those of you with a taste for these things will have noted the irony: a competition designed to eliminate promotion and relegation in perpetuity somehow managed to shed half its teams in a single evening. One by one the scions of the European Super League fell, like spurned pastry chefs in a televised baking competition: first the prize flans of Chelsea and Manchester City, then the rest of the English clubs late on Tuesday night, then Atlético Madrid and the two Milan clubs on Wednesday morning. Farewell then, Super League. You promised a leaner, more tightly focused vision of football, and you achieved it by launching and shelving an entire tournament within three days.

Naturally there is a tendency towards schadenfreude here, the urge to rejoice and revel in this triumph of popular will over the cold hand of Big Commerce. The principal protagonists have been humiliated. Ed Woodward at Manchester United has already paid for the fiasco with his job. The Juventus chairman, Andrea Agnelli, was forced to bury his pet project on live television. Even JPMorgan Chase, the investment bank that was funding the venture, has paid a price: its corporate sustainability rating has been downgraded by Standard Ethics from “adequate” to “non-compliant”.

Watch: Tottenham Hotspur supporters spark protest denouncing European Super League

 Related: Uefa could be forced to alter Champions League plans amid backlash 

And then there have been the apologies: the stony-faced supplications from executives begging for forgiveness from the very same people they had so recently ignored. “I want to apologise for the disruption I caused,” the Liverpool owner, John W Henry, said in a pre-recorded video, as if this had all been some giant misunderstanding, like changing the wifi password, or accidentally ordering a lewd birthday cake. In a culture hooked on the drug of public shaming, maybe it’s tempting to regard this as punishment enough. We have listened. We will reflect. This is a learning moment for all of us. Anyway: as you were.

This was certainly the vibe emanating from Uefa on Wednesday, with the president, Aleksander Ceferin, magnanimously welcoming the rebels back into the fold and making a plea for “unity”. And given the sheer chaos of the past few days, the emotional exhaustion of fans who feared their bond with the game might be severed for ever, the thirst for closure will be strong. After all, football has a remarkable capacity for amnesia. There is always a next thing: another story, another scandal, another round of fixtures to pick over. But there are multiple reasons why “back to normal” simply will not suffice here. This idea, this specific scheme, may have died a death. But the cartel lives on, and so do the circumstances that created it.

They will come again. Maybe not this season, or even this year, but some day. And when they do they will have learned a thing or two. They will have learned that if you’re going to announce a 15‑club breakaway, it might help to have those 15 clubs lined up in advance. They will have learned the importance of a PR strategy, or even just a steady stream of distraction and disinformation to wrongfoot and divide their opponents. They will have learned that it might not be the best move to send the 74-year-old Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez on to television to speak at length about the desires of young people. This breakaway may have crumbled. The next will be no laughing matter.

Unless we do something about it right now, when the big clubs are at their weakest and most penitent. We can quibble over what an appropriate penalty might be for an aggressive coup attempt on the entire global game, but one thing is certain: European football’s dirty dozen must not simply be allowed to slip back into their domestic routines or resume their residency of Uefa’s top club competitions (now handily skewed even more favourably in their direction). Now, above all, is the time to get vindictive.

Points deductions, suspensions, expulsions, eye-watering fines, transfer embargoes: none of this should be taken off the table at this stage. A two-year ban from European competition for all 12 clubs would be a good start (even if Arsenal seem well equipped to impose their own exile). In the medium term Uefa should look at reversing its ill-advised reforms of the Champions League that were driven in large part by the threat of a big-club breakaway. Now that threat has been extinguished, there is simply no rationale for an expanded 36-team group stage with extra fixtures for the continent’s elite. To leave it in place would be to reward the breakaway clubs for their sedition.

 Points deductions, suspensions, expulsions, eye-watering fines, transfer embargoes: none of this should be taken off the table at this stage

On a wider level the response must be led by government and governing bodies, whose inaction has allowed deep inequalities to develop within the game: between the elite clubs and those further down the pyramid, between the big five leagues and the chasing pack, between the owners of clubs and the men and women who support them. The prime minister has certainly talked a good game on tighter regulation and giving fans a greater say over how their clubs are run, perhaps even enforcing a Bundesliga‑style fan ownership model. But for a government far more concerned about chasing the next headline, talk is currently all that 11 years of Conservative government has produced.

And really, what’s required here is not simply legislative but cultural change, a realignment of football’s toxic addiction to private equity, venture capital and the dogma of perpetual growth. It has been both heartwarming and maddening to witness the gradual disintegration of Gary Neville on Sky Sports over the past few days, the apoplectic fury of a man who has only just realised that billionaires like making money. Heartwarming because his impassioned opposition to the breakaway league gave the resistance a resonant rallying point. Maddening because his tone of shock belied the fact that he has had a front-row seat to the past three decades of carnage. Like, you were in the room when the Glazers walked in. You witnessed the rise of the petro‑billionaires first-hand. What part of this, exactly, surprises you?

Watch: James Corden saying he is 'heartbroken' by future plans of the European Super League goes viral

 Related: European Super League collapsing as all six English clubs withdraw 

In a way, Neville’s elegant outrage is emblematic of the wider awakening that seems to have occurred over the past few days: a common recognition that for millions around the world, the game no longer works for us. It happens; we watch it; we write or talk about it afterwards; we may even have been entertained. But any sense of pride or ownership in the process has been steadily eroding for years. Broadcasters determine the fixture list, and little digital lines determine whether goals exist or not, and macroeconomics determine who wins the trophies, and faceless billionaire owners determine who gets bought and loaned and hired and fired, and what your stadium looks like, and what to charge you for the privilege of visiting it.

None of this is new. What is new is the energy and vigour of the past few days, the strange convulsive energy that has galvanised football in the face of this existential threat. Something appears to have stirred in us since Sunday night: a clarity of thought, a breadth of purpose, a reminder of what we love and cherish most about this stupid game. A realisation that even in the age of the billionaires, football can be more than a pointless forum of bickering and banter.

Imagine if the coalition of fans and players and politicians and media that fought back the Super League could be harnessed in the cause of anti-racism, or greater competitive balance, or a more accountable ownership model, or an end to the stockpiling of young players, or genuine pressure on Qatar and its soiled World Cup.

Remember this anger. Remember how the Glazer family and Sheikh Mansour and Roman Abramovich and John W Henry and Stan Kroenke and Joe Lewis made you feel. Remember how, in the face of almost unimaginable wealth and power, in the midst of a pandemic, a broad base of “legacy” football lovers united in resistance. A better game is within our grasp. A better world is possible. We cannot waste this time.