‘So you’re telling me they’re wetting the bed because we’re suggesting the same teams should compete in a competition in which the same teams always compete?’ It’s not hard to see how the owners of the European Super League clubs, the Americans particularly, might be confused by the splenetic reaction of English football fans to their proposal to update the annual Champions League megabucks jamboree – a tournament that at the sharp end has for decades featured pretty much exclusively the same teams.
Instead of being able to point that out, now the wantaway billionaires must grovel and debase themselves. Liverpool owner John Henry has even released a video not unlike those hostages are sometimes forced to make by terrorists. Staring straight into the camera and wearing a very serious expression – belying not one jot of how hilarious the whole thing is – Henry apologised for both the sins of himself and those he represents. The other clubs have released more or less sorrowful written statements of remorse, but it’s early days yet.
How different it could have been. Had the PR been managed half competently, would the opposition to the plan have been so unanimous? By announcing the move in a collective statement at the furtive-seeming hour of quarter to eleven (UK time) last Sunday night, the Super League plotters failed comprehensively to seize the narrative, instead handing it gift wrapped to Gary Neville and co. – multi-millionaire former players, now broadcasters, never shy of a chance to advertise their ‘men of the people’ credentials.
A well-placed interview with Manchester United’s executive vice chairman Ed Woodward would surely have been a better place in which to announce the venture – an opportunity to set out properly why the scheme might be advantageous for all clubs, from Real Madrid to Accrington Stanley, and to articulate everything that is wrong with the status quo. This approach would not have guaranteed success, but it would have given the Super League a better chance of existing for more than the unhappy 48-hours it managed as a kind of sporting Elephant Man.
As it is, and despite vast media coverage, most of us know precious little about what the Super League would actually have entailed, other than that the founding clubs would be permanent fixtures. Had a concession been made here – around relegation and qualification – might the medicine not have tasted so bad? Now we’ll never know.
What we do know unequivocally is that the older of the Neville brothers is a significant political force. Successfully saving football from itself by leading the charge against some of the most powerful men in the world – ‘bottle jobs’ as he described them – is the kind of campaign any aspiring politician would kill for on their CV.
The former Manchester United defender, who employs hundreds of people across his portfolio of businesses around Manchester, has previously expressed interest in a political career, and it’s hard to see what could stand in his way now should he choose to pursue it.
Predictably, it was the clubs that needed the money the least that pulled out of the Super League first. The owners of Manchester City could toss a coin with the owners of the other clubs many times over for their fortunes – and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is also not in the game for the lucre. One imagines the clubs that need the cash most – latest figures show Barcelona’s net debt stands at £420m, Real Madrid’s at £305m, Manchester United’s at £455m and Tottenham’s at £605m – must be spitting feathers. Will their owners now sell up? It’s hard to believe they became billionaires so they could spend their time recording apology videos, but we’ll see.
Yesterday I wrote that the Super League seemed to share many of the characteristics Leavers associate with the European Union. I pointed out the proposed league would be unaccountable, corporate and anti-democratic, that it seemed to want to undercut irreversibly the sovereignty of national leagues in favour of a permanent European super-structure, and that it seemed protectionist and anti-competitive. I still believe the analogy stands, but it no longer matters. Like Brexit, with Neville in the role of Nigel Farage, the little people have spoken and we are mercifully Out. One hopes the campaign to re-join won’t start any time soon.