Big­gest clubs feel they need new leagues

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Soccer -

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

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