In my children’s novel Future Friend, which I began writing in January 2020, the future is imagined as a dystopian universe where the presence of mutant viruses infecting the air mean that no one goes out. When it was published, in the midst of lockdown, I was therefore congratulated by some for my previously unacknowledged psychic powers. A not so noticed feature of the Future Friend world, however, is that football is still played there: but only in one stadium, above the clouds, and only the super-rich can go and watch games there. So, given Sunday’s Super League news, I say, just call me Nostradavidmus.
Or don’t bother. Because of course we all knew this was coming. We all knew that eventually, money and corporate interest would mutate the game at the top level, beyond what it already in so many ways has, into something approaching Rollerball.
It may not be worth doing, as I doubt either JP Morgan or Florentino Pérez or the Glazers are concerned with the actual logic of the sport, but let’s pause briefly and examine how, using their own statement, the ESL would work in relation to the rest of the game. “Midweek fixtures,” the football equivalent of Chamberlain’s piece of paper promises, “with all participating clubs continuing to compete in their respective national leagues, preserving the traditional domestic match calendar which remains at the heart of the club game.” Because if there’s one thing the European Super League is clearly all about, it’s heart and tradition.
But weirdly, it’s almost as if they don’t care about these things, because clearly, that just wouldn’t work. Presently, the narrative of top-flight domestic competition is all about reaching the top placements, in order to get into the Champions League. Which would not exist anymore. Aha, say the not-at-all villainous masterminds behind the ESL, we will – our generosity to the smaller football species knows no bounds – offer five qualifying places to, presumably, the winners of the English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian leagues. Except these winners could be the big clubs that are already in it. Or more likely, those big clubs would lose interest in the domestic leagues very quickly, and just play their reserves there. Which would lead to the laughable situation of Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal knocking about the bottom half of the Premiership, whilst the other clubs battle it out to join a league with Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal in it.
Another issue is the lack of jeopardy. There’s no relegation in the ESL for the founding members. So if halfway through the – lets call it a season, although possibly there might be a better, more corporate word – third quarter? – it becomes clear that say, Arsenal aren’t going to win, then they have nothing to play for, or rather, as there is when relegation threatens, against. It doesn’t matter how glamorous a game against Barcelona is, if there’s nothing to play for, it’s an exhibition game.
But these are, as I say, logical problems thrown up by its own format. The ethical ones – well, one hardly knows where to start. The fact that the ESL is slanted towards fans rich enough to fly to half the games (and that’s without knowing how absurdly high ticket prices will be – or how much flying is going to be possible or a good idea by August – I guess the ESL might assume most of its paying clientele own private jets); that it isn’t slanted towards fans at all, but only towards advertising, satellite rights and corporate interests; the eradication it means of the romance of the European Cup, a competition which once, in another world, could be won by Nottingham Forest three seasons after they were in the second division (and was still won by lowly Porto in 2004); its weird Western-centric notion of European excellence, which seems to have involved no invitation to great Eastern European clubs with proud histories – no Dynamo Kyiv, Red Star Belgrade, Sparta Prague – and indeed, no Celtic, no Benfica; and the possibility, clear from the reaction of the football authorities, that what it will do is simply destroy football as we know it, leading the best players out of their domestic leagues and out of all our deeply-looked-forward-to international competitions.
It’s hard not to suspect that there’s something American here. Americans have never quite taken to football, because it is a sport that requires a certain tolerance of boredom. As far as sport goes, Americans just want all the top action, all of the time. Which is why they satirised soccer in The Simpsons episode The Cartridge Family, by having a commentator’s voice saying “This match will determine once and for all which nation is the greatest on earth – Mexico or Portugal!” And then the match starts, and it’s very dull.
Sometimes football is dull. Some football matches are not mouth-watering fixtures. It’s what makes the glorious moments more glorious. The problem with every game being the biggest game ever – which seems to me the dream of the European Super League – is that it means no game is the biggest game ever. To return to children’s sci-fi, I’m wondering in fact, if the ESL isn’t the secret brainchild of Syndrome, the teenage villain in The Incredibles, whose most famous line is, said with desperate sad mocking bitterness: “Once everyone is super, nobody is.”