Ring the sirens. The football industry is in chaos and the crisis is urgent. Years of blind negligence and unconvincing acceptance has pushed the sport towards this climatic point. The war for football’s soul has finally begun.
The financial structure has been debt-ridden, polarising and unbalanced for nearly three decades. The Covid-19 pandemic was the catalyst for bringing the tense financial squabbling and reciprocal differences to its culmination. Project Big Picture (PBP) acted as the Dianabol to radicalising the situation further. It turns out, however, this was just one backdoor plan in curating a revitalised football order.
The fresh FIFA-backed European Premier League (EPL) proposals were stark. A Super League has been a loose threat for two-decades, but this was different. The timing of its revelation coincides perfectly with the changes to take place in the football calendar from 2024. And it was allegedly backed by FIFA.
It is yet another timely reminder of the environment elite professional football has positioned itself in. The instability, which the Premier League has not been a sole factor in but a crucial long-term fundamental, has poised for a showdown between the sport’s peasants, the governing bodies, and the rich Lords who want to take control. Football’s patriarchal hierarchy is fuelled by the the billion-pound TV deals and the laissez-faire regulation of owner, super agents and the vast financial network they implement. This gentle evolution has pushed the sport on the brink of unexpected consequences.
Football, similar to other industries, carries its weight on a pure capitalist structure. Capitalists use the same winning ideology as the players and managers themselves. The sporting performance desire for more in terms of winning is not a bad thing. It inspires greatness. Though, the difference is domination by Liverpool’s primary owner John W. Henry or Manchester United’s Glazer family – the central architects behind Project Big Picture – is viewed entirely differently to Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s extraordinary careers. Their desire for more is naturally fixated on their finances.
On Blood Red, a Liverpool fan podcast, football finance expert Kieran Maguire made the purpose of Project Big Picture clear. “It is nothing to do with football, it is all to do with making money,” Maguire said.
“They already have the biggest slice of the pie. Manchester United and Liverpool make three to four times of the incomes in the bottom six. What they are saying is ‘having four times the money is not greedy enough. We want to be greedier.’
“From a purely capitalist point of perspective, that is perfectly logical. You are not in business to support your competitors. Looking at some of the comments John Henry has historically said, he has made that perfectly clear.”
An executive outside the Big Six offered a different view to Maguire’s passionate analysis. “A lot of people would use the word ‘greed’, the source told The Athletic. I don’t like that word, so I would prefer to use a different word: certainty. They want guarantees that their income is going to go up and up and up.”
The quick turnaround from PBP to project European Premier League has been a fast one and falls in parallel with either view. The capitalists, like the American owners or Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, want both. They desire greed, certainty and power. You could say Project Big Picture was more about the Big Six being able to flex their muscle without opposition, rather than absorbing the Premier League’s total revenue. Or, greed and power are directly driving the football’s elitists to complete monopolisation.
Whichever theory you believe, this is the concern Sean Dyche and Steve Parish forgot when they perpetuated their financial ideology in the last few weeks. The Burnley manager and the Crystal Palace chairman followed the same narrative in their arrogant ways. ‘Why should Premier League clubs’ bailout their lower league peers?’ they shrieked. In fact, Dyche and Parish are right. No other industry should need to give handouts to their competitors, and neither should football.
However, they crucially fail to apply context. It is common knowledge this government is unforgiving, especially towards football. Committing to spend £1.2 billion on transfers fees, as well as agent fees, wages and other fine print details, during a pandemic shows how thick of a bubble the Premier League lives in. Not many industries have the same financial clout football has. The government are cynical, but the Premier League are tone-deaf.
The concrete belief they preach is the result of being manipulated by the Premier League’s materialistic philosophy. They seemingly forget the clubs’ community importance or even the role the EFL has in developing players. Queens Park Rangers adopted Eberechi Eze when no other London club wanted him. They matured and developed him, giving him the platform to spread his wings. It is seemingly ironic that it was Crystal Palace who bought Eze this summer.
Yet, it is a cardinal sin for football clubs to focus on the collective picture. This belief acts as the perfect Trojan Horse for the elite teams. Modern football’s food chain promotes a damaging ecosystem. Dyche and Parish might pretend to be deadly predators, but they are just another source of isolated prey. Project Big Picture revealed how vulnerable they truly are in their habitat. When Henry’s and Glazers’ plans were revealed, they scurried into defensive positions to kill the coup. If Dyche and Parish want to do the hunting, they must be prepared to be hunted.
The elite teams employ a simple divide and conquer tactic to benefit from the climate. It is not in their interest to support the other eighty-six professional teams. The acclaimed ‘Big Six’ label is a symbol of their apparent competitive advantages, wealth and their unbreakable alliance. They all entertain the same interests.
Henry, the Glazers and Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke are all of the same background: American billionaires involved in global sports enterprises. Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck is known to have worked on PBP (albeit it is unclear what part) while Tottenham’s Daniel Levy dealings have made it clear he wants global expansion. This only leaves Manchester City. Extending City’s power is in the interests of the City Football Group, the UAE and their minority-shareholders from America and China. If only five could join the EPL, it will be a test to their united resolve. Not one of them will want to be exiled to their domestic league.
As things stand though, this puts the Big Six in a category of their own. They are a stray pack from the rest of English football. They seek extreme globalisation and that means undeniable consequences for English football. John Henry, the Glazers and their associates did not go three-years grilling themselves covertly, spending day and night creating the 18th draft of a vision they believe in, just to back down. You do not reach their positions of power on that mentality. They are winners in their own right. Winners of America’s brutal capitalist system. And these winners want more.
The decision to unanimously vote against their creation is a subtle retreat. The Athletic writer Matt Slater said on The Ornstein and Chapman Podcast the general tone was that Liverpool and United were not ready for PBP to be revealed. They chose not to fight against something which was so vehemently opposed. It would be pointless. The battle was over before it even began. It was a case of living to fight another day.
While that day came sooner than anticipated with FIFA’s alleged European Premier League, the plans showed details on the mysterious agenda Gianni Infantino has in a Covid-19-dominated world. Usurping UEFA as football’s kingpins has been a long-term ambition for the FIFA president, but it was always a question of how. A European Premier League softens the Champions League and therefore drains away UEFA’s potency.
The legality surrounding it was immediately called into question. A league would need UEFA’s backing and every approval by every European FA. Any hope was sunk with UEFA’s “non-negotiable” statement they released earlier this week. It simply became another example of football’s backdoor corrupt business: a speciality FIFA are exceptional in. This is why Infantino’s denial must be taken with a pinch of salt. It would be bad business for him to admit to the plans.
Perhaps eventually, there will come a time when the elite will break their opposition in some form. The Big Six managed to convince the majority that an unequal split of international TV revenue was for the best of the Premier League a couple of years ago. If they choose to stay in the Premier League, mutineers with ambition will take their bait. Leicester, Everton, Wolves and potentially even Leeds in the future will feel they have the extravagance to challenge the status quo.
“Sometimes when you pitch something outrageous, you end up getting what you expected,” Maguire explained on The Price of Football podcast. “This is a classic negotiation tactic. I anticipate, first of all, a reduction in the size of the Premier League; there will be a scrapping of the Carabao Cup; some of the Premier League clubs, who have been pushing for the right to sell their TV rights themselves, will be given an element of that.”
“Liverpool and Manchester United are global brands. They have global fan bases. You can understand in 1992, the Premier League had to give away overseas TV rights. They gave them for nothing. By the time they paid for the transmission costs, they were out of pocket. The world has changed. You have to acknowledge the romantic view of sport is idealist.”
The European Premier League offers an alternative universe where the prized franchise league is finally formed. The desire for more drives them to that conclusion. European super-clubs like Juventus, PSG and Bayern Munich have outlived their time in their domestic leagues. Andrea Allegri made that perfectly clear when he questioned Atalanta’s privilege of being given access to the Champions League. The desire for more is always on the agenda.
Extreme globalisation is becoming a greater priority for the elite. In England alone, the Big Six are always making moves to expand and grow beyond their confined domestic spaces. China’s audience is currently United’s focus. They celebrated their milestone on Webo by being the first club to reach 10 million followers. They will hope to increase their audience further with their Chinese ‘Theatre of Dreams’ fan sites. For Tottenham, Levy wooed the NFL into building an American relationship with his club. Meanwhile, the City Football Group owns ten clubs in their quest for global domination. Liverpool listed owner, Fenway Sports Group, are on the verge of setting up their own sports empire with their merger with RedBall. These are the vicious predators the other Premier League clubs are competing with.
The one element Project Big Picture and the EPL plans have gifted the football world is how it revealed the Big Six’s true intentions. They no longer need to hide behind the wall of propaganda. Their public relation campaigns say they care for the community, for the health of the sport and an equal playing field. Their position has been exposed.
Nevertheless, this gives the rest of English football a reason to stay united. The EFL collectively agreed to turn the Premier League’s £50m offer to League One and League Two because it excluded the Championship. They preferred the offer included everyone. For the first time in the financial chaos, there was unity in the EFL. This must be extended to the 14 outside clubs and the Premier League’s hierarchy. Strength in numbers is the only way English football can rebuke the elitist rebellion.
When the rebellion returns to the shadows, the fire causing the civil war will continue to burn. “They’ll go away and work on another proposal,” one source told The Athletic before the EPL proposal was revealed. “You can be certain that, whatever comes next, whether it’s about Champions League expansion or changes to the Premier League, it’s going to be about getting more money and more influence for the biggest clubs.”
Football has rapidly evolved to suit a minority. These two proposals are blatant examples to blackmail their colleagues and other sporting authorities into giving them the power they crave. Something will ultimately give. There will be a choice between appeasement or ultimatums. The desire for more will continue to rage on until a legitimate authority can take control of the self-interested parasites. Make no mistake, football is in civil war. The winner, will take football’s soul.