Reverting to type It has not taken long for the ESL clubs to regain their power and operate with wanton disregard for the rest of the game
Football crowds are back for the first time since March and many old routines are being resumed. For clubs at the top end of the Premier League, returning to normal has meant spending huge sums of money. Manchester City paid £ million for Jack Grealish and Chelsea just a little less on buying back Romelu Lukaku. Meanwhile, Arsenal’s bid to avoid a sixth season finishing outside the top four has led to them spending to date just under £ m on five players. It’s four months since these clubs and nine others signed up for a new competition, the European Super League (ESL).
Run independently of UEFA, the ESL would have guaranteed massive revenues for the founders and a handful of other clubs. At its launch the plotters claimed to have been spurred into action by losses incurred during the pandemic. Such was the excuse offered by this summer’s biggest spenders, Arsenal, for laying off club staff in August last year; another two ESL enthusiasts, Spurs and Liverpool, had previously asked for government furlough payments to pay non-football employees’ wages before backing down after criticism. The big six clubs’ subsequent involvement with the ESL generated an outcry among their fanbases that extended to protest outside stadiums. Club officials’ apologies sounded hollow then and the revival of heavy spending by some, with its likely inflationary effects, does not suggest concern for the game’s collective interests.
Certain Premier League boardrooms will now be paying close attention to manoeuvrings elsewhere. Three clubs, facing financial crises brought about by their calamitous overspending, have steadfastly refused to give up on the ESL. In late July, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus hailed a European court’s ruling that UEFA can’t sanction clubs for planning the breakaway league and insisted that “elements of our proposal can be improved through dialogue and consensus”. The Spanish pair are
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Arsenal fans protest after the club announced it was to join the European Super League
also pursuing their sense of exceptionalism closer to home. This involves another legal dispute, with the country’s football authorities, over a deal supported by the majority of La Liga clubs that would give a private equity firm a percentage of the league’s future TV rights.
Given the recent court battles, UEFA would not be expected to formally settle their differences with the recalcitrant trio any time soon. But another governing body, the European Clubs Association (ECA), has shown a surprising eagerness to forgive the other plotters. The nine clubs who resigned their ECA membership when the breakaway league was announced have
The revival of heavy spending, with its likely inflationary effects, does not suggest concern for the game’s collective interests
been readmitted already, having agreed to give up a measly five per cent of their revenues from one season in Europe, while a fine of £ m will be imposed on any clubs joining an unauthorised league. One of the post- Champions League reforms that would have been in these clubs’ favour, that two group places should be awarded on “historical record”, is now being reconsidered by UEFA. But they are not expected to drop the planned expansion of the Champions League group stages that would involve participants playing ten matches before the end of each calendar year. Strongly opposed by many leagues, this was only adopted to deter major clubs from fomenting breakaway plans and clearly failed in its objective.
The token punishments imposed by UEFA mirrored the approach previously taken by the Premier League who fined the breakaway six around £ . m each. If a similar project was revived, participants would face larger punishments of around £ m. But as with the UEFA fine, the amount would surely not deter any clubs persuaded by the financial benefits of a new exclusive tournament.
UEFA are now in discussions with global banks about a pandemic relief fund that would offer loans to clubs in need. But with repayment rates reportedly connected to future income from the three European club competitions, the bailout looks to be designed for a select few only. The upheavals faced by some of the Champions League elite have had tangible effects, with Barcelona’s debts triggering Lionel Messi’s departure for PSG. But no elected government in Spain or Italy would allow their countries’ most popular football clubs to fold.
For all their public grandstanding, the ESL holdouts will never have to confront the existential risks faced by thousands of ordinary clubs around Europe. The ones for whom paying staff, rather than £ m transfer fees, is a daily struggle – not that they can expect much support from the authorities any time soon.