At Old Trafford, where the eerie nature of behind-closed-doors football is felt more keenly than most other stadiums because of its sheer size, the words ‘football is nothing without fans’ are sprawled across one of the coverings for empty seats. It is a quote from Sir Matt Busby, one of the most important and revered men to ever represent Manchester United. As Mason Greenwood, a home-grown talent and product of the club’s youth academy, which is steeped in their history, scored a brace against Burnley on Sunday, that sentiment and the club’s entire ethos was being discredited in offices as news broke of the European Super League across the world.
Over the past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic has raged a war against humanity in every sense, football may not have felt that important in the grand scheme of things. But it has remained as crucial as ever to some, perhaps even more so than before. Football can be many things; a day out, a distraction and a schedule. It can structure people’s lives and offer an outlet for when the every day grind gets too much; it can be a place to laugh and shout and cry; it has to be a place where anyone can lose themselves in their emotions and their surroundings. Without it, some people can really struggle. That can never be forgotten.
With stadia closed off to the masses for health reasons, we have seen the sport stripped back to a cold, clinical existence. Although it may still be entertaining behind a screen, and a way of marking out the days just as it always has been, the rhyme and reason for it quite clear: football is not on right now so players can risk themselves for the morale of a nation, as was rather cheaply suggested in the build up to Project Restart in June.
It is here because of money; fulfilling sponsorship contracts and obliging to the broadcasters is all that matters. The harsh reality is that football can survive without fans; what has emerged more recently is that there are some people in high positions who appear quite intent on testing that further.
It soon became clear that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, alongside four other English teams, were set to announce their commitment to the European Super League – a self-governed competition born out of greed designed to rival the Champions League, nullifying the threat of relegation and giving every founding member a huge slice of the funding put up by external benefactors.
Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and, later, City, would join the biggest clubs in Italy and Spain by signing up. Perhaps most jarring was the insinuation that they would have no problem competing with their new found riches in their domestic leagues, despite some clubs already exerting dominance beyond belief and others failing to prove themselves as currently up to standard.
Quite unsurprisingly, the footballing world has struggled to hide its outrage. Footballing authorities, including the respective countries’ associations and UEFA, have threatened those committed with repercussions including bans from regular competitions. Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s legendary former manager turned non-executive director, is the most high profile individual to voice disapproval, alongside his former defender Gary Neville, who launched an astonishing tirade live on Sky Sports, claiming clubs should be punished immediately with relegation and docked points.
Fans of those clubs involved have been quick to condemn, which is arguably most important if there is to be a concrete opposition to the Super League plans. It is also key to remember that they have nothing to do with the announcement. As has been made abundantly clear, particularly in recent times, the fans are the last to know and certainly the last to be consulted on the goings on at their clubs, despite the fact they stand to gain the least and lose the most from any.
This is a decision based purely on financial prosperity, exclusivity and materialism, all of which are a far-cry from the personal reason an average person gains connection to the club they love. They simply cannot blamed here, and instead must receive widespread sympathy.
The biggest insult is without doubt the suggestion that the existing fan, who has given the most emotionally and financially, is being shelved in search of brand exposure and appealing to a new audience. To assume those most loyal to you will remain so regardless of what you do, or worse, not care either way, is criminal. Community is at the heart of what makes a football club great; growth is to be welcomed, but never in direct contrast to the principles on which clubs are built. This is perhaps most pertinent with regards Manchester United and Liverpool, who have always prided themselves on their heritage.
Hypocrisy is rife in football, there is simply no getting away from it and even those taking a stand are far from innocent. gary Neville has led a ruthless and efficient revolution at Salford City alongside fellow ex-Red Devils and billionaire Peter Lim, while Sky and BT Sport were seen platforming a pro-supporter agenda despite charging people £15 to watch games they couldn’t attend on pay-per-view in their own widely dismissed attempt to profit in difficult times.
It is also rich of UEFA and the Premier League to complain about the Super League and tragically ironic that Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, two clubs with links to Qatar, a state heavily criticised fore ‘sportswashing’ are now being cast in the role of guardians of sporting integrity, having not yet agreed to join the new venture.
There is also the argument that this is just the next step in football’s dance with the devil. The very existence of state-funded sport has seen the essence of the game wash away already. While this is undoubtedly true, it doesn’t excuse this latest elitist power-grab. Football and the route to its summit has long been skewed, but this latest development would block paths and change and reduce the fundamentals of competition irreversibly.
It is the jeopardy of Champions League games and the threat of relegation which makes both domestic and European football so enticing in their current guise, not to mention the reason these clubs and their out of touch owners find themselves in the strong position they do to begin with.
Relevance in football is also fleeting. Were the Super League to be attempted 20 years ago, the line up of clubs would have looked very different . That implies it would be different in another 20 years, too. Atletico Madrid were in the Segunda Division in 2001/02, while Leeds United and Newcastle United were battling for and in Europe. This move preserves a snapshot of footballing history that could dissolve at any moment and that isn’t fair.
For too long, though, fans have been grouped together with the goings on at their clubs. Those ordinary folk who have loved the tradition of the weekend afternoons are not guilty of anything, and cannot be held in such a way. It is unfair to victimise them, even if they refuse to condemn their clubs for fear of not knowing what else to do with themselves.
Morality is difficult to dictate, it never comes in a straight line and there is not always a right and wrong answer. Manchester City and Newcastle fans have wrongly been told to abandon their clubs because of the potential, or reality in the former’s case, of money coming in for political gain. But it is equally unfair to judge anyone in that sense as it is to force this change on them in the first place.
Nobody has lost out more than the fans with the Super League announcement and what they know is being threatened like never before. They should be treated with care.
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