HERE’S an old joke. Question: What is the quickest way for a billionaire to become a millionaire? Answer: Buy a football club. In the not-so-distant past, the truth of this was all too obvious. Football was a pit into which endless amounts of cash could be poured with little or no prospect of much of it being returned. The idea that you might actually make a profit from investment was laughable. To put money into “the beautiful game” was then a perverse form of philanthropy. It was never clear what the motives were of those who practised it. For the most part, they were fans who, while not being able to header a ball, could associate with those blessed with brains in their feet.
These days, however, billionaires view owning a football club as a means to becoming zillionaires. This was the overwhelming consensus of the critics to the recently proposed European Super League, in which a dozen so-called elite clubs were eager to take part. What these clubs would be competing for was not spelled out. They would play each other, accumulate points and at the end of the cycle one of them would emerge top of the heap. Meanwhile, the team at the bottom would lie there unloved, like sediment in a wine bottle. Ignominious as this undoubtedly might be, it would not result in the financially punitive and psychologically humiliating penalty of demotion to a lower league inhabited by football’s pond life. No, it would survive to fight again with other elite opponents in a never-ending competition without consequences.
Of the twelve clubs who initially agreed to join the super league, six were English. Debate raged over how “elite” the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham are, given their frequent inability to beat apparently less stellar opposition such as Leicester City. The remaining six clubs included three apiece from Spain and Italy. Conspicuous by their absence was any representation from Germany, France, Holland, Portugal, Sweden and, dare one say it, Scotland. Gary Neville, the former Manchester United player, described the proposed new league as “a criminal act”, implored fans to rise against it and railed against the Glazers, United’s American owners. “It will change football in this country forever, forever,” Neville raged, “and we have to now mobilise, organise, it’s difficult not to get emotional and feel sick.” Others, including Boris Johnson and Prince William, rallied to the call and the u-turns followed swifter than a Jamie Vardy counter-attack. First Chelsea, then Manchester City, withdrew from the Super League, until all that was left were two of the Spanish clubs – Real Madrid and Barcelona – and Juventus in Italy. Unwilling to accept defeat graciously despite having scored numerous own goals, Florentino Perez, Real’s president, insisted: “The project is on standby.”
We shall see. Meanwhile, fans, players and managers have been left wondering where it leaves the game in which they have invested large parts of their lives and incomes. The essence of football as it is played in much of the world resides in the word ‘hope’. In the heart of every fan is the sense that one day their club, more likely than not a minnow among sharks, will overcome the odds and perform a miracle. It is the triumph of the little over the big, of David over Goliath, and the sweetness of that moment is what sustains fans from one trophy-free season to the next. Football’s enduring appeal lies in its unpredictability. We know how Hamlet and Macbeth end but we cannot be sure that Liverpool will turf Colchester United out of the FA Cup. Every weekend, it seems, there are results which confound predictions and make a mockery of pundits.
The advent of the Super League was the antithesis of this. Its ideology was American in origin, its intent to reduce jeopardy, its aim to create a monopoly. And greed, of course, was its overarching motive. My knee-jerk reaction to these developments was one of dismay but tempered with the acknowledgement that football’s progress has been that of a crazed prospector driven by the lure of gold. Money is at the root of the game’s venality and it has infected its soul, from betting scams to bungs for agents and managers. At organisational level, FIFA and EUFA, its most influential governing bodies, have been riven with scandal, and the latter’s protestations about the Super League rang distinctly hollow. As the game has burgeoned into a global brand, its concern for its grassroots, from whence spring the Messis and Ronaldos of tomorrow, were increasingly sidelined and ignored, like a once-loyal stalwart sent to train with the apprentices. The sums that changed hands became obscene and the money earned by players, agents, managers and less conspicuous hangers-on made the eyes water. It is not uncommon, for example, for a one-footed player to sign, say, a five-year contract at £50,000 a week, only for him to fall precipitously from favour and be left to kick his heels until the club can send him elsewhere “on loan”.
It is the fans – without whom, as the legendary Jock Stein of Celtic said, football is nothing – I feel most aggrieved for. They turn up through good times and bad, in fair weather and foul. The same cannot be said of the many contemporary owners who, when they do attend games, look as if they derive as much pleasure from being there as they do a trip down a mine shaft. But, as recent events have shown, they ignore the fans at their peril. As Dennis Bergkamp, the legendary Arsenal player, said: “When you start supporting a football club you don’t support it because of the trophies, or a player, or history. You support it because you have found somewhere you belong.”
(Alan Taylor was deputy editor and managing editor of the Scotsman newspaper. He was a Booker Prize judge in 1994. His latest book is Appointment in Arezzo, an account of his friendship with the novelist Muriel Spark.)
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