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Letters from Wiltshire #45
Written by wessex_exile on Wednesday, 21st Apr 2021 17:24

Tonight, Colchester United face Southend United in what may not necessarily be the most important game of our respective histories (though it’s certainly very close), but is almost certainly the most important Essex derby ever. However this season pans out, by the end of it there’ll either be only one team in Essex, or worst case scenario, none at all. If the U’s win, then Southend will be 9pts behind with just three games to go, and a minimum of a -12 goal difference to overturn if they want to overtake us. Certainly mathematically possible, but that would rely on a remarkable turnaround in their form, form that they’ve shown precious little sign of achieving so far this season. The stalking horse is Grimsby, with their game in hand, who have rather belatedly shown an improvement in form, so their match against automatic promotion chasing Morecambe tonight is equally important, particularly if we want to avoid the unthinkable, with both Essex clubs dropping out of the league.

[b]Snouts in the trough – the European Super League[/b]

However, tonight I want Letters from Wiltshire #45 to focus on what is potentially a much bigger issue for the future of football than our Essex-centric parochial concerns – and that is of course the announcement at the weekend that a new European Super League is set to replace the existing Champions League competition. It is difficult to know where to start with this, there are so many issues associated with this announcement, so let us start with who is involved.

There are six Premier League sides involved: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. Across Europe, there are six more: Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, and AC Milan, Juventus and Inter Milan in Italy. As yet, no clubs from France or Germany have shown any interest in joining, which will obviously leave out massive clubs such as PSG and Bayern Munich. The overall intention is for the ESL to comprise 20 clubs, the 12 already mentioned plus three more yet to be announced, and who would remain permanently as members going forward, and an additional variable five to qualify through some form of qualification process (invitation, domestic performance, a one-off event?).

Well, we know the real reason why, the clue is in the title of this blog, but what are the Dirty Dozen saying. Apparently, it is all about money, but specifically it is the financial impact of Covid-19 on their mega-club revenue streams, playing in front of empty stadiums, and with superstar player multi-million pound salary habits to feed. I don’t doubt, it’s a problem far more keenly felt throughout the remainder of the football pyramid, but we don’t have the financial safety net of billionaire owners to fall back on. As a sweetener to entice the founder members, investment bank JP Morgan has promised each a share of a £3bn grant.

Yep, you read that right – investment bank JP Morgan have confirmed they will finance the breakaway ESL, to the tune of £4.3bn in total. If that doesn’t have people concerned, also bear in mind that following their announcement, shares in JP Morgan leapt, as did shares in most of the clubs involved. The world of football may not like the proposal, but plenty out there clearly do recognise an opportunity to get rich when they see one. As I understand it, this isn’t a gift from JP Morgan, but funding secured against the anticipated TV broadcasting rights, presumably therefore a low-interest loan of sorts. As you would expect, JP Morgan have been predictably tight-lipped about the financial arrangements.

Laughingly, ESL founder member and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez would have us believe it was created “[i]to save football[/i]”. That’s right, it’s not about the lucrative pay-outs to finance their debt, it is so they can save football for us all. Apparently, according to Perez, young people are “[i]no longer interested in football[/i]”, citing the poor quality of matches as the reason. I would argue that even if it were true that younger people are turning away from football, it is less to do with quality and more to do with disillusionment about the bare-faced greed and obscene amount of money that is endemic throughout the higher echelons of the game.

That is an interesting question, because in one sense the answer could be never. Some observers believe that this is really just another salvo from the major European clubs directed at Uefa, in an attempt to gain greater control (and financial return) from the existing Champions League competition – you know, blackmail. There is certainly no chance that both competitions could co-exist – both will rely on the same lucrative broadcasting rights from the same sources. However, if it goes ahead, most reckon that will be August 2022 onwards, though Perez has said the ESL want to start this August if possible.

Details released so far show the structure will comprise two mini-leagues of ten clubs each. The ten in each group will play each other home and away in mid-week games, with the top three from each group automatically qualifying for the quarter-finals, whilst 4th and 5th placed teams would play-off for the remaining two qualification slots. From there, it would be a normal two-legged path to the final.

Ironically, this is actually a simpler format than that proposed by Uefa, who announced their plans to revamp the 2024 Champions League competition onwards yesterday – a day too late it would seem. Their proposal is complicated, with 36 clubs qualifying for an expanded 'first phase', where all clubs will play against ten (not all) opponents of varying strengths. This will result in a league table, with the top eight qualifying for the knockout phase and the next 16 going into a play-off for the remaining eight slots. The controversy is that four of the additional qualification slots in the opening group of 36 will be awarded to clubs with the highest Uefa co-efficient who did not qualify for the Champions League but did qualify for another European competition. This will lead to the very real possibility that a team could qualify for the Champions League despite finishing behind teams in their league who did not qualify.

[b]So what’s the big deal?[/b]
Fair question, because it’s not like Uefa, or Fifa, or even our own Premier League aren’t a bunch of self-serving money-grabbers on their day. So their holier than thou attitude when it comes to defending their cash cow(s) from the ESL does come across as somewhat hypocritical.

But that’s not the thing, the really massive thing is the self-appointed exclusivity they bestow upon themselves – that the founding 12 (plus the unnamed three) will never again have to ‘qualify’ for the competition. That’s it, in for life, you’re part of our mega-club big boy gang, so welcome to the trough. They’ll throw another five a bone each year, have a chance to pat someone on the head and say how well they’ve done, maybe feel good about themselves in the process.

The idiocy and arrogance is just breath-taking, I’m almost speechless in awe. To keep things simple, this basically tears up the fundamental foundation of what football is, and destroys the health and vitality that an effective and functioning football pyramid brings to the sport. Football is a meritocracy – okay, a somewhat dysfunctional one at times, particularly when we consider the already disproportionate distribution of wealth. But still, nothing is technically preventing any team, whether through hard work, expertise, investment or just plain luck, from rising to the top of the pyramid, or particularly pertinent to tonight, to sink to the bottom (hell, it wasn’t that long ago Man City were with us in the third tier).

In terms of rising to the top of the pyramid, what has always been the pinnacle as far as the English leagues are concerned? That fabled expression (ironic in these post-Brexit days) “getting into Europe”. The ESL ostensibly closes that route off – it’s basically going to become a private members club, sharing the proceeds of participation amongst themselves, and apparently because they want to save football!

[b]So who’s for it?[/b]
Errm, no one?

Okay, not technically no one. Obviously the 12 club chairmen are fervently for it. Finance backers JP Morgan are definitely for it, they’ll be earning more than enough interest from the financial support. I’d imagine worldwide there’ll be a huge appetite for the matches from audiences with absolutely no emotional investment in the future of domestic football in Europe, and I’m particularly thinking about the Asian market here. I suppose even some employees of the clubs involved are up for it, including players and management – but certainly not all, and with some already breaking ranks and speaking out against the proposal.

[b]Who’s not for it?[/b]
Pretty much everyone else...

Honestly, browse online, the universal level of opposition to the proposal is stunning, and frankly reassuring too – that’s across not just the UK, or Europe, but the world. There are some cracking headlines out there too. [i]Tuttosport[/i] in Italy probably summed it up best with theirs, which appropriately and simply translates as “[b][i]Are you insane?[/b][/i]”.

Uefa and Fifa in particular are being very bullish, declaring that players involved in the competition will be barred from all other domestic, European and world competitions. The legality of that position may well be challenged I’m sure, but I kind of hope they’re right.

Premier League Rule L9 appears to preclude the English clubs from participating in the ESL:
[b]Except with the prior written approval of the board, during the season a club shall not enter or play its senior men’s first team in any competition other than:
L.9.1 - The UEFA Champions League
L.9.2 - The UEFA Europa League
L.9.3 - The FA Cup
L.9.4 - The FA Community Shield
L.9.5 - The Football League Cup or
L.9.6 - Competitions sanctioned by the County Association of which it is a member.[/b]

I presume that will mean expulsion from the Premier League for any of the six who don’t reconsider? Again, not going to lose any sleep over that.

Otherwise, all of the remaining 14 Premier League clubs, football fans throughout Europe – most notably supporter associations for the Dirty Dozen, our Football Supporters Association, the EFL, Boris Johnson, Eric Cantona, sounds like Klopp and Guardiola at the very least are having their own doubts, even Amazon say they haven’t been consulted and are against the proposal (wtf?).

[b]This is an utterly dreadful proposal, which definitively, finally and unequivocally demonstrates the obscene greed of the clubs involved, that they care not a jot about “[i]saving football[/i]”, and care only about how much of the pie they can carve out and keep for themselves.[/b]

However, this might be where I’m slightly out of step with others. Whilst I’m extremely concerned about the financial impact on clubs if their share of broadcasting money is diverted into the coffers of the ESL…if it removes their cancerous influence from our game, leaving them to go and rattle around in their private members club for the rest of time, I honestly won’t be bothered.

Up the U’s

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When Saturday Comes #14 by wessex_exile
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