In a few days soured by the ridiculous European Super League proposal, Leeds’ game against Liverpool came at a particularly interesting moment. While Klopp and the gang were facing unfair scrutiny over decisions made by their employers (and seemingly found out about the club’s intent to splinter off into the ESL at the same time the general public did), they had a game to prepare for. Leeds were able to – once again – take the moral high ground; taking to the pitch to warm-up in shirts declaring that football is for the fans and that European football must be earned.
I think that’s where I object the most to the ESL too. I’m offended by the “rich get richer” core value, of course I am. Countless clubs are circling the financial drain, hovering over oblivion and furloughing players. Even outside of COVID it’s fair to say that football is broken – the majority of clubs outside of the Premier League lose huge sums of money and only survive if they can develop players enough to sell them to clubs in higher divisions (or maybe get a lucky FA Cup draw and pull in a bumper crowd).
But what offends me most is the anti-competition premise that the ESL is founding itself upon. The founder clubs buy their way into the league and retain their status there in perpetuity. There is no relegation and therefore no promotion into it. It isn’t like the much-touted Phoenix league that argued top 1-2 clubs from each of the major leagues would get promoted into an “ultimate” league of winners, who would then compete for a trophy. Clubs enrolled in the ESL would be there and face zero consequence for failing to perform. They get billions of pounds in payouts for being there (presumably money from broadcasting globally) and little consequence if you finish 1st or 14th.
The footballing pyramid is one built upon fair competition (though perhaps money has distorted this over the last 20 years, it is still fundamentally true). Wealdstone FC could, with enough time, talent and resources, get to the Premier League. There is a pathway for them to do that. Clubs like Leeds and Southampton have been as low as League One in recent memory and have managed to climb back to the top flight of English football. Equally, sad stories like Portsmouth show how the pyramid works in the opposite direction. But the main point here is that competition matters. If you win you can climb, if you lose you can fall. It matters. Enormously.
The ESL is predicated on money and money alone. It’s disgraceful.
I think there’s a gross underestimation of how limited the appeal would be for these “halo” fixtures that they think would drive huge audiences. Liverpool vs. Real Madrid is touted as an exciting fixture, but that’s because (before their recent game) they’d last played in 2018, 2014 and 2009. Those are fairly large gaps. Man Utd vs. Barcelona would be another exciting game, but that’s because it’s rare. If these were games we could just watch multiple times every season – I think fans would get fatigued by it. Especially when nothing is at stake. Imagine games like Liverpool vs. Man Utd if nothing were at stake beyond pride? If the result didn’t make either club any closer to winning a trophy? You’re getting into pre-season spectacle.
And then imagine what it does to the rest of the game. These splinter clubs still intend to compete in their respective domestic leagues – but how? If the ESL is meant to be the media showcase for the hottest and greatest talent in the sport, those players surely can’t play domestically too – they’ll burn out. So the Premier League is where the second-string players get fielded. Everyone loses.
It got me thinking that last night’s impressively resilient performance against Liverpool (where we arguably deserved to win, comfortably exceeding them on xG and clear-cut chances) along with last week’s astonishing win against Man City go to show how enthralling true competition is. The ability to go toe-to-toe with the best and knock their crown off. Champions-elect Man City sitting atop an incredible streak (winning 27 of 28 games) and Liverpool as reigning champions, both getting their nose bloodied by newly promoted Leeds. It’s brilliant. It’s what football is about.
What football isn’t about is 9th placed Arsenal making 55 redundancies while also buying their way into a “super” league. West Ham have comfortably outperformed Liverpool this season, but it’d be Liverpool who get into this elite league. Leicester have been better than most, but would also be excluded. It isn’t based on competition, it’s based on International audience appeal and money.
That isn’t football. That isn’t what football is or should be. I hope it gets squashed and the clubs pushing for it appropriated punished. I doubt that anything particularly uncomfortable will happen to them though; what would La Liga be without its big 2? What would Serie A be without Juve and Milan? The situation speaks to a bigger problem in the sport; too few clubs hold too many cards.
But if you look at what can be controlled, Leeds are still a top-half Premier League side in their first season back in the top flight after 16 years. It’s absolutely remarkable and I’m so in-love with Bielsa that I’m Googling if you can adopt 65 year old Argentinian men without them necessarily consenting to it.