Hindustan Times (East UP)

Fans crush football’s money league

- Bhargab Sarmah bhargab.sarmah@htlive.com

In the two-and-ahalf days between the announceme­nt and collapse of the European Super League, the continent’s 12 elite, rebel clubs took a beating in the high-stakes perception war. When England’s “Big 6” with the three biggest clubs from Spain and Italy came together to announce the new competitio­n, some of the world’s most famous clubs hadn’t bargained for backlash from the fans. Or from the European football body, UEFA, other stakeholde­rs like broadcaste­rs Sky, and the UK government that took a particular­ly strong stand.

The pandemic has hit the pockets of European clubs, and some of these 12 clubs are among the hardest hit in terms of revenue loss. A super league on the lines announced on Sunday had been in the works for a few years; the pandemic perhaps expedited it. For years, Europe’s premier competitio­n—Champions League—was being manoeuvred to the wishes of the richest clubs. An expansion announced by UEFA on Monday—the new format will come into effect in 2024—will be even more accommodat­ing of the elite clubs.

Given their collective might, the 12 clubs perhaps assumed it could bully UEFA into accepting the super league. But UEFA and domestic leagues had everything to lose from it. So did Sky and BT Sport, as well as other broadcaste­rs, whose investment­s into TV rights would be significan­tly hurt by the weakening of domestic leagues. Sky didn’t waste time to go on attack when news broke of the league on Sunday. Sky’s pundits like Gary Neville, Roy Keane, Jamie Carragher and Micah Richards tore into the project. Rio Ferdinand did that at BT Sport. On Monday, Sky made its popular show Monday Night Football, featuring Neville and Carragher, free to air around the world. Gary Linekar too joined in.

That Paris St-Germain— expected to join the super league—Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, lent support to the Champions League, didn’t help. UEFA president Alexander Ceferin dubbed the elite 12 Super League conspirato­rs “liars” and “snakes” in a dig at Juventus chairman Andrea

Agnelli, Man United CEO Ed Woodward and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez.

As Liverpool owner John Henry’s apology on Wednesday morning showed, the league proponents may have grossly underestim­ated the wrath from within—their fans and, in some cases, their players and coaches. The first major signs of backlash were visible on Monday when Liverpool visited Leeds in the Premier League. By then, all supporters’ trusts of the “Big 6” had issued statements. “Betrayal” was a common word. Arsenal’s most prominent fan group termed it the “death of Arsenal as a sporting institutio­n”.

At Elland Road, Liverpool fans joined their Leeds counterpar­ts outside the stadium in protest. To make matters worse for Henry & Co, Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp and senior player James Milner criticised the move. Klopp’s voice carried weight—he is arguably the most popular managerial figure at Anfield since Bob Paisely. By Tuesday, the likes of Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and Pep Guardiola too had joined the list of critics.

Chelsea fans turned up outside Stamford Bridge on Tuesday to make their discontent visible. Traffic, including the team bus, was blocked before club legend and technical advisor Petr Cech stepped out to calm the fans. Soon, news broke that Chelsea would pull out. It was clear that Chelsea, like the others in England, had badly lost the public relations game. The only option was to save face. At Old Trafford, Woodward announced he would resign.

Perez’s attempts to portray the new league as the messiah of European football didn’t go down well in Spain. Even Agnelli, who had been firm until Tuesday night, had to concede defeat the next morning. UEFA has emerged victor in this skirmish. Its bosses have accused the rebel clubs of seeing fans as customers. But not many fans are taking such words at face value. AC Milan’s ultras, the Curva Sud, said in a statement on Tuesday: “The Super League is just the latest disgusting step but those who took football to this point are no less grotesque; so save us these ludicrous performanc­es of rhetoric and morality.”

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