Early in the evening, London time, news began to leak that the first of the dozen mutinous European soccer clubs looking to start their own super league was pulling out. A few minutes later, a second decided to follow. A few minutes after that, two more teams were on the fence.
Then Ed Woodward, the longtime vice-chairman of Manchester United and arguably the most powerful administrator in English soccer, quit.
Then came reports that Andrea Agnelli, the principal at Juventus and the heir to the automotive fortune that turned the team into a powerhouse, was out.
That specific news was denied by the team, but panic had set in. Everyone who had fronted the so-called European Super League project was now in danger of being put up against the wall.
By late evening, all six English teams had officially dropped out of the deal.
Seventy-two hours. Though not quite dead, that’s how long the ESL lived. It wasn’t enough time to come up with a logo.
In the end, it was the ferocity of response, rather than any coherent plan to push back, that caught the plutocrats off guard. Politicians were still scrambling for policy remedies, but fans were already in the streets.
As Chelsea arrived at its London stadium on Tuesday to play against Brighton, the club’s own supporters blocked the team bus. Former club great Petr Cech came out to plead with them to let the players in. Presumably, he drew the duty because he is a) Chelsea’s technical director and b) the only person in the club executive the mob was unlikely to tear limb from limb.
As it turns out, the European Super League managed to achieve something that no longer seems possible in the Western world – unite everyone of every political stripe at every level of society in vocal agreement on something. In this case, that the ESL was one cash grab too far.
This isn’t a Disney sports doc. It doesn’t end here. Through their lack of preparation, a lot of very wealthy people have been made to look complete fools. As a general rule, they don’t appreciate that sort of thing.
There will either be some sort of rebalancing of the scales of power in European soccer, some sort of onerous revenge, or first one and then the other and who’s to say in what order? Prepare for a second assault on the established soccer order, the planning of which begins on Wednesday.
Also, this is no victory for the common man. All that’s been proved in the past couple of days is that people really, really care about their soccer teams. That must mean a few more ducats can be wrung from them on the ol’ pay-per-view package.
That a few opportunistic politicians swept in to make the most of this once-in-a-generation grandstanding opportunity, as well as put the boots in on a few superrich, foreign chancers doesn’t indicate that government has turned against sports monopolies. It’s just a reminder to the ultrawealthy that they may enrage the people or their leaders, but not both at once. Everyone will be thinking more carefully about their campaign contributions in the future.
The people who own Manchester United were spectacularly wealthy yesterday, and will be even more so tomorrow. That’s how this works.
What this is instead is a profound failure of imagination on the part of the bush-league Machiavellis who cooked up this scheme. These are the men who exist just underneath the ownership level and spend most of their time convincing each other they are successful because they are smart, rather than just lucky.
These guys dreamed of a world in which people agreed to whatever they wanted because they are rich, and instead found themselves in one where people no longer like being told how things are going to be. Their big mistake was mounting a 1990s coup in the 2020s. Customers talk back now.
What foiled the Super League was an unusual, possibly unique, coming together of the four estates of sports. Fans, players, media and team management (the ones not directly involved in the ESL) were in shrieking agreement that this could not be allowed to stand. They very correctly saw that all their individual interests were in existential danger.
Fans might’ve ended up rooting for clubs forced to move to Dubai in order to play. What is Liverpool if it isn’t in Liverpool? I’m not sure your average fan wants to confront that level of philosophy.
Players would have to make an awful choice between the two things they care about most – money and being admired.
If the media could be sidelined in this way, they would have to ask themselves what purpose they serve. And all the professionals and insiders not involved in the breakaway would have to reckon with a related truth – that they don’t really matter.
Everyone was in danger of losing their purpose in the great continuum of sport. That prompted a feverish level of concerted action.
It does make you wonder if such a thing is possible over here. Is there anything any North American League could do that was so egregious that every single participant in the sports economy would rise up against them? I honestly don’t think so.
Seven or eight years ago, the NFL was being routinely tarred as a corporate slaughterhouse. A month ago, the league signed US$110-billion in new TV deals.
If people will get over the idea that you’ve killed a bunch of your employees, they’ll get over anything.
Which in turn makes you wonder if we do sport right over here. Clearly, we do it well enough for us. That’s why people watch.
But are we getting as much out of our favourite team as the sort of Chelsea supporter who runs down to the stadium on a Tuesday night to make his voice heard in enraged protest? Probably not. Which is also probably for the better. Caring that much about a business – which is by definition something that can’t care back – does not sound like a rewarding apportioning of your emotional capital.