Biggest clubs feel they need new leagues
One of the best bits in Der Spiegel’s latest tranche of Football Leaks revelations is a line from the correspondence of Manchester City lawyer Simon Cliff, dating from the spring of 2014.
At the time City were arguing with Uefa about the extent to which it was fair to punish the club for breaching Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. As Der Spiegel’s report put it: “Club lawyer Simon Cliff wrote in an email that [City chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak] had told Infantino [head of Fifa] that he rejected the idea of a possible monetary penalty. ‘Khaldoon said he would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years’.”
It is humbling to reflect that Khaldoon al Mubarak represents people so rich that he has about as accurate an idea of how much it might cost to hire the 50 best lawyers in the world as Lucille Bluth does about the price of a banana.
It also reminded you of a line in The Revolution Will Be Digitized – the manifesto written by “John Doe”, the whistleblower behind the Panama Papers. Do you
John Doe observed that criminality on such a scale was only possible due to the simultaneous failure of multiple institutions across society. He blamed banks, financial regulators, tax authorities, courts and the media, but saved his strongest condemnation for the legal profession: “Democratic governance depends upon responsible individuals throughout the entire system who understand and uphold the law, not who understand and exploit it. On average, lawyers have become so deeply corrupt that it is imperative for major changes in the profession to take place... the term “legal ethics”...has become an oxymoron...Those able to pay the most can always find a lawyer to serve their ends...What about the rest of society?”
In theory, the civil legal system exists to settle disputes in a just and peaceful manner. In reality, it feels as though the legal system is more like a club the rich use to batter opposition into submission. Stand up to them and they’ll drag you into a ruinous battle of legal attrition that you cannot afford to lose (though they can).
Are you absolutely sure that your position is secure enough to fend off the world’s scariest legal attack dogs? If not, it might be better to settle. You really don’t want to get stuck with costs.
It seems Uefa had little appetite for punishing City and PSG. Even within Uefa, the FFP system was never universally popular in the first place. Critics of FFP often make two arguments: first, it served to entrench the existing economic hierarchy, preventing new challengers from breaking into the elite; second, if rich people come along and want to pump money into a sport, how can it make sense for that sport’s governing body to block them?
The first argument makes sense. FFP as designed should have the effect of protecting the already-rich against would-be competitors. In this way FFP is itself an example of how regulatory bodies cater to the interests of the rich.
The second argument sounds stronger than it is. The sleight of hand is in the assumption that “money coming into the game” must be good. In practice, “pumping money into the game” merely creates an inflationary spiral in transfer fees and wages. This is good for top players and their agents, but it’s unclear how it benefits the sport as a whole.
Meanwhile, if other clubs want to stay competitive they have to find a way to keep up with the unnatural pace being set by the new rivals. Everyone has to get greedier: higher prices, more sponsorship deals, longer pre-season tours, and ultimately perhaps institutional reform.
This dynamic helps to explain the attitude of the traditional big clubs to the petrodollar giants. In public, FC Bayern’s power-brokers Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge have criticised City’s and PSG’s inflationary spending. We know now that in private Bayern have enthusiastically explored the possibility of joining forces with City and PSG in a European Super League. The leaders at Bayern – and at other big European clubs – evidently recognise that they have more in common with the sheikhs than with the small fry in their own leagues.
The dynamic of commercial competition has always been part of football – most obviously in market-oriented England, where clubs are owned privately rather than by large groups of fan-members, but also in Italy, where magnates like Silvio Berlusconi and the Agnellis bought success for decades. The desire of rich clubs to take a greater share of growing revenues underlay structural reforms like the 1992 Premier League breakaway and the formation of the Champions League, and the saturation-commercialisation of the game is driven by the same imperative.
City and PSG are not doing anything really new; it’s only the level to which they have driven things that is new. Berlusconi was talking about a European league as long ago as the late 1980s, but it took the involvement of clubs that are owned and funded by oil states to accelerate the process to the point where the biggest clubs feel they have outgrown their national leagues and must expand internationally.
If the thirst of the big clubs for ever greater revenues does lead to a new Super League, will the fans buy it? So far, the clubs don’t seem to have given it much thought. “What do you notice when you read the cartel’s documents?” the Football Leaks whistleblower “John” asks Der Spiegel. “The clubs are constantly talking about the Super League and how they can market all this shit even better and make even more money. But there’s one thing they never talk about: the fans. About the people who made this sport great.”
Yet, looking at the reactions on social media and forums of some Manchester City supporters to the weekend’s reports, you suspect the clubs won’t have much difficulty getting fans to believe in the new League. You’ll see how often City fans discuss the affair using words like “we” and “us” – “we’ve been shafted”, “Uefa f***ked us over”, etc. Apparently, they think that there is a “we” that includes both them and the millionaire functionaries who run Manchester City on behalf of Sheikh Mansour. If they can believe that they’ll believe anything.
The leaders at Bayern – and at other big European clubs – recognise that they have more in common with the sheikhs than with the small fry in their own leagues