It is easy to imagine what the “dirty dozen” thought they were achieving when they officially announced that they were joining the Super League. It was simply their version of the American Revolution: they were the heroic Founding Fathers (or clubs), UEFA was the equivalent to the British and the Champions League was its empire.
Yet, there was no independence. No liberty. No revolution. No grand democracy. Instead, they retreated into the shadows before they could even lay seize on liberating cities from UEFA’s imperial rule.
The whole saga was a severe miscalculation. They believed they had the resources, but they did not. They believed they had enough support, but they did not. They believed they had undying unity, but they did not. Like in any rebellion, timing is everything, and the Founding Clubs had got it drastically wrong.
For all the planning, they failed to understand why football’s bogeyman always lurked in the shadows and never stepped foot in the light. It was hidden and safe. Whispers of such a reality played on people’s minds. By remaining as an idea, it was regarded as a myth. And as a myth, it was a tale that could keep people in line. The fear of the unknown antagonist persistently struck fear.
However, a fortnight ago that all changed and now some would like to believe the Super League project is over. When Jürgen Klopp called for the sport to “move on” and to “calm down”, he probably did not know the conspirators were still scheming. “He [Florentino Perez] is not going to abandon this fight,” The Athletic were told regarding the future of the Super League. “He really believes the Super League is the solution, and that helping [Real] Madrid, as he has done, also helps football.”
Another source said: “The exits were for show, for the fans, but there is no legal exit as the contracts are signed and must be respected. There are people still working on the project – and not just from Real Madrid, other teams are still involved.”
So, in many ways, the events on 18th April were the first shots in a long war. Perez, Andrea Agnelli, Barcelona and AC Milan are on the record for their continuous support for the project despite its collapse. The Super League is allegedly destined to ‘save’ football. The Real Madrid president has made that abundantly clear. In addition, the Glazers and the other five Premier League clubs made their intentions known when they supported Project Big Picture. No level of PR can cover the façade they want to exude.
And that is what we have seen with the protests outside the Emirates, White Hart Lane, Old Trafford and The Lowry Hotel. The scene on Sunday is symbolic of the fan radicalism the Glazers have caused. Tensions were always brittle under the American’s. Right now, the takeover has cost the club an estimated £1.5 billion alone.
So, it isn’t surprising the atmosphere on Sunday led to the postponement of the fixture. Lines have been crossed and fan identity has been attacked. Underestimating the latter was another miscalculation by the Glazers if they thought a single apologetic letter drawn up in a PR war room could defuse the situation. They have never cared about the fans or cared for their opinions. It is doubtful they will start to now.
Within the stoking anger, it has unfortunately caused some unneeded scenes. Attacking a police officer is completely unacceptable and it has been correctly criticised. Violence must not be a method fans use to express their grievances. The message will be lost as public opinion will turn on the entire movement. To do so would shame football once more.
But it is also important not to connect the actions of a minority with the whole movement. There is a means to an end, especially when the owner’s flaws are so clear. When Blackpool fans forced the postponement of an end of season fixture to protests against Karl Oyston, the message or the momentum was never lost. It was clear and remained clear. They finally won four years later with a court ruling. Oyston was thrown out, the club was returned to the fans and football was victorious.
These events are long and drawn out. The Glazers have been hated in English football since they arrived and they are still here, profiting and radicalising. In another scenario, Stan Kroenke became the “most hated man in St. Louis” in 2016 when he moved the NFL’s Rams to Los Angeles. He is hardly swayed by such dislike. Then you have FSG, who has also maintained they are not interested in selling. To be fair to them, why would you when you have such a big vision for the industry you occupy?
The stylistic differences, tone, recklessness and overall unapologetic nature of the Super League and Project Big Picture means there is no appetite to just give in. Teams will perhaps try to buy off their fans by recruiting new star players and make more PR manoeuvres (for example, Chelsea kindly reversed their decision to increase season ticket prices during a pandemic). The summer will act as a buffer in many ways. Attention will switch to international football, with the agenda then focusing on how far England can go. In the medium term, pressure will undoubtedly ease off.
Nonetheless, club football will return, and it will return with fans in stadiums. Discussions will be switched back and pressure will be reasserted. Ultimately, this must all result in change. The fan-led government review and the Premier League’s new laws will change things to an extent. However, the real issue that has to be tackled is the culture that has allowed this to happen in the first place. To alter the culture of football is to change how it is coordinated, broadcasted and governed.
UEFA are the guiltiest party for allowing football’s broken culture to sleepwalk itself into war. They are the ones who gave up concession after concession to the rebels up until it got to a point where they needed to submit their veto power. Then you have the failure to appropriately punish Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain for Financial Fair Play breaches. While some will always question the legitimacy and motivation of FFP, UEFA’s failure to impose their regulations is a reason behind the Super League.
Outside the remnants of dealing with the elite, UEFA has shown contempt for fans persistently. The symbolic absurdity of the Europa League final in Baku, and how the saga unfolded was disastrous. In fact, the treatment UEFA has given to fans regarding ticket availability and prices are shambolic. They are happy to hand the majority of seats to corporation friends. Lastly, UEFA is the pinnacle of woeful governance regarding racism and other prejudicial issues. The difference between the reaction to the Super League, and derogatory abuse, only heightened their failure.
Reforms that corrects their Champions League economics and qualification system, their financial regulation failures, and appropriately attacks prejudicial issues and fan treatment should be atop the bucket list to transform football culture. Whether that will actually happen is another means.
To do so, the fans need the help of the players and managers. They hold powerful positions as the voices of the sport. To their credit, Pep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman, Thomas Tuchel and İlkay Gündoğan have all recently challenged UEFA on some of these issues. Guardiola sarcastically proposed “you have to make a year of 400 days” to complete the reformed Champions League; Koeman complained “UEFA is talking a lot but is not doing or listening to the football people” and all they care about is money; Tuchel said it is not “more quality, just more games”; and Gündoğan tweeted “no one [is] thinking about us players?”. It is a welcoming start to a conversation that must be continued.
The series of comments suggest that there is frustration among players and managers that they are not being consulted. Their anger cannot be underestimated either because they were all just as betrayed by their bosses as much as the fans. Not one owner from any of the twelve believed it was right to discuss the plans with their employees. The same can also be said for the two years’ worth of negotiations UEFA underwent to appease the elite’s grievances that led to the Champions League reforms. Using Real Madrid’ Toni Kroos’ words, the players and managers are simply “puppets”.
If football is going to reform for the better, a consultation method for such big decisions needs to be used. When players are not wielding their player power to sack a manager, the Super League showed they can use that same power to alter their employer’s business decisions. James Milner’s unfiltered interview after Leeds United vs Liverpool and the momentum it started was the definitive example of player influence.
Next up you have the conundrum that is football broadcasting. The Premier League are attempting to roll over the £4.7 billion TV deal for the next three-year cycle between 2022-25. This means Sky, BT Sport and Amazon will essentially pay and retain what they have, with the usual auction not going ahead. If that gets done, is yet to be seen.
However, the future of BT Sport is a whole story in itself. The broadcaster pays around £9million per game – a symbolic unsustainable model that is almost replicated in every part of football governance. As a result, BT Sport put a stake of the company up for sale and now ITV, Disney, Amazon and DAZN are reportedly interested. It is a development that is perfectly in time with the renewed attacks on Sky Sports and BT Sport for their ‘hypocritical’ Super League coverage.
There is still tension, almost 30 years on from the Premier League’s birth, for how an expensive pay-tv service has become the juggernaut in football broadcasting. Many hold Sky responsible for the predicament the game is in today as their alliance with the ‘Big 5’ (Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham) kicked off the drive for a more centralised accumulation of wealth. To put it lightly, former Stoke striker Jonathon Walters tweeted on Sunday, “Breaking News…. Sky aren’t the guardian angels of football” – a belief felt by many fans.
How Sky or pay-tv departs from the sport is impossible to say. It would more or less be on the Premier League’s terms as they need a viable option to remain sustainable. Nonetheless, what the entire coverage has done is kick-start the demand for change and people are listening. The talk is no longer about if it was coming, but when. Previously where the sport has often tried to dodge and dart away from these awkward subjects, now it has no choice but to face up to them in their entirety.
While some will wait for the fan-led review conclusions, others will attempt to keep the discussions going. Protests will happen. More games will perhaps be postponed. It could take years even before significant progress has been made. There is a long road ahead. But, as Florentino Perez would say, all this hassle is in the name of saving football.