MONDAY'S BIG STORIES
Super League A Blatant Cash Grab, Prospects Are Atrocious
Confession time: until last night, the Warm-Up had never really taken the prospect of a European Super League seriously. It always made more sense as a threat, as a bargaining chip, something the big clubs could use to reinforce their already comfortable positions. "Give us what we want or we'll go! Don't make us go! Yes, that's right, a couple more zeroes."
The Emirates FA Cup
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Well, don't we look silly now. They've only gone and pushed the button. Two clubs from Madrid, two from Milan, one apiece from Barcelona and Turin. And the Premier League's Big Six, whose current league positions are first, second, fifth, sixth, seventh, and ninth. We note, with mild amusement, that the news came on the same day Atalanta beat Juventus, knocking the defending Serie A champions down into fourth.
But not much amusement, since it's not much of a gotcha. These teams aren't locking themselves away into a gilded cage because they're the best teams: even where that's true, that's beside the point. They are locking themselves away because they are the richest and they want to get even richer. Because they think, frankly, the world's had it too good and too cheap for too long.
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It would be a mistake to characterise this as something entirely out of left field. Indeed, the move sits logically with football's direction of travel over the last few decades: the formation of the Premier League, the reworking of the Champions League, the emergence of the super-clubs.
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This frog's been boiling for a good while. In a sense it's a formalisation of the already extant status quo: them up there, the rest of the world down there, and never shall the latter inconvenience the former. And it's a little hard not to laugh when The Actual Literal Premier League is putting out a statement like:
The Premier League condemns any proposal that attacks the principles of open competition and sporting merit which are at the heart of the domestic and European football pyramid.
But that doesn't mean this isn't a big deal, it doesn't make it any less egregious or any less shameful, and it certainly doesn't mean you should be any less angry. The status quo may be rotten but dedicated and clever people can always find a way to make it worse. And the difference between an outside chance and no chance at all is the difference between sport — however imbalanced, however skewed, however broken — and a closed door.
Well. Let's be fair. An almost closed door. The Super League — yes, they're really calling it that — are planning to let five teams in each season by "a qualifying mechanism". Most gracious. The clubs are also planning to carry on competing in their national leagues at weekends, while Super League-ing it up in midweek. How kind. And they'll be sharing €3.5 billion — yes, that's a "b" — between them, while making solidarity payments to those left behind.
Quite what the word "solidarity" did to deserve such violence is unclear.
You can see the plan, then. A Champions League killer that has enough money flowing out of it, along with these five open places, to persuade the national leagues not to do the decent thing and fling the founding clubs out on their ears. And who knows? It may even work that way. Or it may all collapse and we'll just get this terrible bloated endless Champions League instead. UEFA may ban all the players. UEFA may fold like wet cardboard. The options are all bad options. Most of the institutions complaining are miserable institutions.
But whatever the consequences, short and long term, this is a point of clarification. One that we must remember. And if the underlying sentiment isn't quite a surprise, the timing elevates the whole business into the realm of the grotesque. The owners of these clubs chose this moment, this pandemic moment, this moment of terrifying uncertainty within and outside the game, to pull up the ladder. Then they pointed to the pandemic and claimed it to be the reason. They claimed their plan as necessary, then claimed their plan as good, and they were so transported by its necessity and goodness that they didn't think to check with the fans first.
There are words for people who take advantage of an existential crisis to improve their own position at everybody else's expense. None of them are polite. Few of them are printable here. But for these zombie clubs, these hollowed-out husks of things that used to be worth loving or hating, all of them and more are deserved.
So What Now?
There is a lot left unanswered in the Super League's founding statement, but we have two immediate, practical questions. The first is what this all means for the women's game, which merits just a single vague mention in passing:
As soon as practicable after the start of the men's competition, a corresponding women's league will also be launched, helping to advance and develop the women's game.
As a measure of how interested these movers and shakers are in the women's game, we might note that Real Madrid have had a women's side for just a single season, while mighty money-printing Manchester United launched theirs as recently as 2018. Also we've already got a Women's Super League. The name is literally taken.
And it's not as if the women's game simply mirrors the men's. Liverpool were relegated from the WSL last season and aren't coming back this. The 12 founding clubs that we know of have just one Champions League between them: Arsenal, in 2007. Lyon won't be winning that tournament this year, but they've won seven of the last 10, interrupted only by Wolfsburg and Frankfurt. None of those clubs seem to be on the list.
Which brings us to the other trumpeting elephant in the room. Abstractly, a European Super League without Germany or France feels inherently ridiculous. Also, Bayern Munich and PSG are quite good sides. We are promised three more founding clubs in short order, and we can probably assume that two of those places are being kept warm for last season's Champions League finalists on the men's side.
But say Bayern's hierarchy do decide, for whatever reason, that they're not interested. A point of principle, perhaps, or the impossibility of getting such a move past the 50+1 ownership rules. What then? Do they also refuse to take up one of these five merit-based places? Do they carry on as this small group of clubs, now magnitudes richer, trail contracts in front of their squad? It's not just that a Super League without Bayern seems conceptually ridiculous: it also seems wholly dysfunctional.
And also, let's face it: a world where Bayern are the good guys? That's not something anybody can be comfortable with.
There's Still A Sport Over Here, Just About
In amongst all the news about football's imminent demise, we also had a spot of football. The FA Cup, no less: that competition noted for involving absolutely everybody, from every level. Bit on the nose, lads.
Over on the Big Six breakaway side of the draw, treacherous splitters Chelsea beat traitorous snakes Manchester City, and so became favourites to lift the trophy in May. Viewers were treated to a decent performance from Chelsea and a profoundly fatigued one from City, who certainly proved their manager's point. The quadruple really does look very difficult. Better set up your own tournament, just to be on the safe side.
Meanwhile, over on the side of the draw reserved for ordinary football clubs, Leicester City beat Southampton. Obviously we'll be crowning the Foxes as de facto league champions come the end of the season, but in the meantime, it was good to see Brendan Rodgers given the chance to enjoy himself as the coach that educates, the educator that coaches.
Firstly, I’m delighted for the players. They’ve shown that they’re constantly learning. I said to them last year after the semi-final loss [in the League Cup] that failure is an actual real, integral part of succeeding and, even though it’s tough and it’s difficult, we’ve got to take it and learn from it. I think you’ve seen today the performance was very composed and mature and we got the goal that counted.
Football doesn't hand out medals to the deserving and it always feels a little odd to even make the case. But Rodgers is one of the game's most consistent improvers of players: it's not a coincidence that the winner at Wembley was scored by Kelechi Iheanacho, one of the stories of the season, finally alchemising all that talent into performances. Circumstances will make them the neutral's favourite come the final, but even beyond that, there's a lot to like.
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IN OTHER NEWS
Big fan of the goalkeeping here. The quick look from one side to the other as it hits the post, the "Gosh, darn it" slap of the gloves, the little skip, the total and complete failure to, you know, actually dive…
HAT TIP (1)
First a little background. Here's Tony Evans and Miguel Delaney over at the Independent looking at the political currents behind the push for the Super League. Apparently the Premier League is stagnating and "approaching catastrophe".
Current negotiations about new [television] deals are already said to be "in chaos". The Premier League, as an example, was expected to go to clubs with a new Sky deal last month. Some feel the fact it didn’t happen "spooked" the big six. Either way, there are now said to be huge trust issues within the Premier League, and sources feel it is fanciful that all 20 clubs could be brought around the same table any time soon.
HAT TIP (2)
And now a little polemic. Here's Jonathan Liew, in off the long run for the Guardian.
Make no mistake: this is an idea that could only have been devised by someone who truly hates football to its bones. Who hates football so much that they want to prune it, gut it, dismember it, from the grassroots game to the World Cup. Who finds the very idea of competitive sport offensive, an unhealthy distraction from the main objective, which in a way has always been capitalism’s main objective.
Leeds host Liverpool. A mere football club against a member of the Super League. And hey, won't it be nice for the lads from Yorkshire to finally be the darlings of the nation?
Tomorrow's dose of Super League fallout with a hint of football will be brought to you by Ben Snowball.
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