The formation of the new European Super League (ESL) could provoke a ‘football civil war’, with UEFA no longer holding a ‘monopoly’ on the continental competition.
In the wake of the announcement that 12 of Europe’s top teams will breakaway to start up their own tournament, former London Sport CEO and current thinkBeyond Managing Director Pete Fitzboydon explained the potential impacts that the formation of the competition could have on the integrity and the competitiveness of the game as a whole, and the ‘massive’ opportunity that has been missed.
“The repercussions of one move at the top could be massive to the UK game, the European game and possibly the world game,” the sport social impact strategy consultancy’s MD noted.
“Everyone knows commerciality in football has to be huge to fuel itself. Given the scale of investment that owners have made, often making losses for many years, clubs are understandably looking to maximise their revenue. They’re understandably putting their own position first.
“We understand that, and equally there’s no reason that UEFA should have a monopoly – the fundamental principle of football is that it’s a footballing meritocracy and that’s what’s not there.
“In other words, if you’re good enough as a team you can compete on a level playing field. It’s the closed ‘shopness’ of it and the fact that the massive finances involved, just means it’s going to be an accelerated two-tier professional club game.
“You’ll have the best teams soaking up all the best players and all the revenue. The rest of football will be left where it is, if not going backwards.”
He added that the breakaway division could become a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and allow the game to become more ‘polarised’ with the leading teams unable to be knocked off their perches.
“The strength of the Premier League over the last 10 or 20 years has been a resolute determination to distribute funds as equally as possible – emphasis on possible. When you see clubs in the bottom quarter of the Premier League still being able to afford £30 million transfer deals, they probably got it right.
“That’s why the Premier League has been competitive, and people want to watch it, because top versus bottom is still a good game. This is both good for the game and good for TV, and so the rights fees go up too and everyone benefits. It’s a finely balanced virtuous circle they’ve managed to strike, but this blows it out of the water.”
He continued: “From a competitive perspective, I’m sure the fans would love to see the top clubs playing the top clubs, but what they don’t want, and what’s come out loud and clear over the last 12 hours, is the closed shop approach.
“You’re almost setting in stone the world order of club football just through one decision, and that undoes 150 years of football meritocracy.”
Following the announcement, UEFA, FIFA, the FA and the Premier League released a joint statement which threatened bans for players and clubs partaking in the breakaway tournament, whilst some football figureheads have even called for points deductions from teams.
He added: “The football authorities are set up to make sure that there’s a level playing field and be custodians of the game. They need to argue against proposals like this to maintain that and I’m sure they are going to use everything at their disposal to make sure that happens.
“I think it’s fair to say that the threats being bandied around are in nobody’s interest. It really could be a hugely damaging civil war within football and we want to avoid that. But at the end of the day, they need to use whatever is at their disposal to maintain the game.
“If the threats come to fruition, it will be absolutely catastrophic. Not only will you see players and teams banned from certain competitions, but you’ll see a readjustment of media rights because ultimately, some competitions will become less attractive to broadcasters without the best teams and the best players. And media rights don’t just fuel the top of the game, as the money filters right the way down the football pyramid right to the grassroots.”
Fitzboydon further hypothesised that the competition would shatter the ‘fragile peace’ that the European clubs and footballing authorities are living in and ‘expose so many fault lines’ within the game.
“Ultimately, the whole of football is funded by fans, either by going to games, subscribing to the channels or buying the products that sponsor football. It’s a fact quite often lost,” he stated. “If fans don’t want it and don’t support it, it won’t happen. If there’s such a massive uprising against it, I can’t see how they’re going to get the necessary backing from broadcasters, sponsors and fans to make it successful.
He also added that a massive opportunity has been missed by the founding clubs: “The sums talked about and the influence of the game in this proposal really could be harnessed to improve society. In recent months, social media racism in football has really come to the fore, and having a body running football that could be agile, not bureaucratic and actually do something against it would be phenomenal.
🗣 "It's amazing the amount of uproar that comes in to the game when somebody's pockets are getting hurt, it's a shame it's not like that with racism."
Patrick Bamford speaks openly about his thoughts on the prospect of a 'European Super League'
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) April 20, 2021
“If you have a blank slate of paper, you could build a model that does great things for socially, whether it’s the health of young people or environmental sustainability. You could really make a statement, like Formula E or Extreme E.
“The notion of challenging UEFA isn’t necessarily out of hand, but if you do have a blank sheet of paper, you’d probably design it an awful lot differently to be fairer for the sport, and possibly get that all-important fan support.”