Uefa and Fifa’s hypocrisy is astonishing – their greed ruined this game long ago…
The Super League plans may be crumbling but the basic concept will re-emerge in another form soon enough, writes Matthew Syed
Wednesday April 21 2021, The Times
One day, a comedy sketch will be written about the hysterical response to proposals for the now doomed European Super League. I was against the concept, by the way, and think there were always overwhelming objections. I certainly wasn’t surprised when Chelsea belatedly withdrew, triggering the defections of all the English clubs.
But listening to Aleksander Ceferin, the Uefa president, thundering about “greed”, Gianni Infantino, his Fifa counterpart, citing “self-interest” and former players wailing on Sky Sports about an assault on football as a “community asset”, I couldn’t help but giggle. When we look back on this incident in months and years to come, we will marvel at mankind’s capacity for hypocrisy.
I mean, what planet have the critics been on? This proposal was never a watershed so much as a continuation of a trend that many have actively contributed to. The Premier League severed the umbilical link with the rest of the game in 1992, the covert demise of Rule 34 turned clubs from community assets into profit-making companies, while the introduction of the Champions League and its various “innovations” have obliterated the notion that any club can dream of making it to the top.
Did these critics not notice that the financial distribution of the Champions League favoured lavish payments to top clubs over solidarity payments to the rest of the game? Did they miss that the financial fair play proposals in 2011 were so nobbled that they handed yet more commercial advantages to the elite? Did they not notice that the Premier League abolished the founding distribution model in 2018, with foreign-rights income now disproportionately paid to clubs who already enjoy cash from Europe?
Did they not notice that Uefa altered their own formula less than three years ago, with higher win bonuses and new “heritage payments” based on performances over the past ten years, thus handing yet more to the giants? Did they not see that the proportion allotted to solidarity payments had declined again? And, more generally, did they not notice that many of the greatest clubs have become the playthings of dubious oligarchs, the projects of billionaire capitalists and the strategic assets of Arab microstates?
Oh, and didn’t they notice how European domestic leagues have become increasingly unbalanced, notwithstanding the occasional Leicester City fairytale? An analysis in 2020 by Miguel Delaney of The Independent revealed that in the past decade, there has been a first German treble, a first Italian treble, a first English domestic treble, three French domestic trebles in four years, a first European Cup three-in-a-row in 42 years, the first 100-point seasons in Spain, Italy and England, and “Invincible” seasons in Italy, Portugal, Scotland and seven other European leagues. Pundits talk about how the ESL would have ruined competitive balance — but what balance?
Perhaps we might also look at the words of Infantino when he rails against the scourge of “self-interest”. The boss of Fifa is under criminal investigation for his role in the corruption scandal being undertaken by Swiss prosecutors. He was implicated in the Panama Papers and was found to have billed Fifa for personal expenses such as £8,795 for mattresses at his home, £6,829 for a stepper exercise machine, £1,086 for a tuxedo, £677 on flowers and £132 on personal laundry. He says, in all cases, that he has done nothing wrong, but we can safely say, nonetheless, that he heads the most corrupt governing body in the history of sport.
Although perhaps that description is unfair to Uefa, the other body vying for that dubious title. You might remember that Michel Platini, their previous president, was banned from football from accepting a $2 million bung from, you guessed it, Sepp Blatter, and whose appeals were rejected by the courts. A man who plumped for the corrupt Qatar 2022 bid, despite objections from almost every neutral observer; a vote that coincided with Qatar pouring money into France’s top club (Paris Saint-Germain) and his son securing a lucrative job at Burrda Sport, a clothing company owned by Qataris.
When these guys talk about “greed”, what they mean, I think, is they object to greed that cuts them out of the pie. When they condemn “financial self-interest”, they are condemning lucrative decisions over which they have no control and can therefore gain no benefits. When they talk about the “betrayal” of football, what they mean is that it is reprehensible that these putative betrayals were being perpetrated by the owners of the clubs. I mean, isn’t this the traditional preserve of governing bodies?
In truth, many within football have been on the gravy train for years. Top players have gained vast wealth, their agents have become multi-millionaires, TV companies have ballooned in equity value, presenters have enjoyed lucrative contracts, governing bodies have gained kickbacks and governments have secured tax revenue. This proposal was not about changing the underlying value system of football but tweaking its beneficiaries and controllers. This is perhaps why the outrage was so frenzied. It amounted to a howl of “how dare you siphon off money from this great sport! That’s our job!”
To be clear, I was profoundly against the Super League proposals. It would have made the game even more unbalanced, created a closed shop, and undermined community values that still have meaning to millions of fans. But even on the subject of fans, don’t we need to state a few home truths here, too? Most Chelsea supporters were ecstatic about the millions of Roman Abramovich rolling into the club. City fans loved the glory bankrolled by a Sunni monarchy with a dubious human-rights record.
So, let’s not be naive about all this. Let’s not delude ourselves. Let’s not pretend that we haven’t played along when things were going our way.
The Super League has been arriving by stealth and increment for years, with football reshaped in ways that have disenfranchised most fans while being welcomed by many of the insiders who are now screaming blue murder.
And this is why it is likely that the ESL proposal will re-emerge in amended form soon enough — if not with razzmatazz and controversy, then via a more slippery process with the governing bodies onside.
For isn’t this what sport has become in a globalised age? And I, for one, don’t see any obvious appetite for change from those who run the game.