In 1954, the Hungarian football masters of Honvéd were invited by Wolverhampton Wanderers to play a novel international friendly at the club’s Molineux stadium. Featuring the famous Ferenc Puskas, Honvéd were beaten 3-2, and the Daily Mail promptly anointed Wolves “champions of the world”. The watching editor of the French sports paper L’Équipe disagreed: “Before we declare that Wolverhampton are invincible,” wrote Gabriel Hanot, “let them go to Moscow and Budapest”.
Within a year the European Cup was up and running, fulfilling Hanot’s romantic vision of new horizons for the winners of national leagues. The competition, later re-branding as the Champions League, made sporting institutions such as Manchester United and Liverpool world-famous. But its ethos has just been comprehensively trashed by those clubs’ current owners, along with the directors of 10 other leading teams from England, Italy and Spain. Their threat to establish a closed Super League of 20 teams, unveiled at the weekend by Joel Glazer, the American owner of Manchester United, has struck at the integrity of the game.
According to the outline presented, at a time when fans are unable to protest in stadiums, 15 members of the breakaway Super League will be granted membership in perpetuity. Each participant would receive over £300m on joining up and access to a multibillion-pound infrastructure fund. For supporters, the sense of jeopardy on which meaningful sport depends will be removed, turning elite football into a soulless series of repeat episodes. For those clubs and fans outside the gilded aristocracy, national competitions and more than a century of tradition would be devalued.
This venal, self-serving plan has not come out of the blue. Ever since England’s Premier League was formed in 1992 – itself the result of an elite breakaway – laissez-faire ownership rules, spiralling player salaries and booming broadcasting fees have distorted competition and corrupted the values of the game. The top clubs have become rapacious, profiteering institutions. From inconvenient kick-off times to ramped-up ticket prices, supporters have paid the price, their interests often being treated with flagrant disregard. Protests and half-hearted government inquiries have done little to change the direction of travel. As football has replicated growing inequalities in the wider economy, a damaging gulf between the “big six” English clubs and the rest has emerged.
It is possible that the breakaway clubs have made their threat hoping for more lucrative concessions from Uefa, European football’s governing body, which runs the current Champions League format. Loss of income during the pandemic is leading to an unpalatable combination of avarice and desperation. But whatever strong-arm tactics now unfold, it must be hoped that the brazen effrontery of this attempt to stifle sporting competition will prove a case of overreach – and a turning point. The wider football world has united to condemn the plan. The government is exploring legislative possibilities to scupper it, and on Monday announced a fan-led review into the governance of the game. In a way that the promoters of this schism failed to take into account, the year of Covid has foregrounded the protective obligations of national authorities and fostered a sense of civic solidarity at odds with unfettered market values. In plotting a way forward, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, should learn from the example of Germany, where elite clubs are majority-controlled by their fans and thus protected from exploitative owners. Not one German team has signed up to the new Super League. After decades of money-grabbing at the top of the game, a new settlement for football is indeed required. But it is not the one envisaged by Joel Glazer and his unscrupulous allies.