A sleepy spring Sunday was rudely interrupted by the news that Europe’s biggest clubs are considering breaking away and forming their own 12-team Super League, and somehow people were surprised.
The charge to the barricades set up to defend the game was led by none other than Gary Neville, a man who became a millionaire thanks to his ability to kick a ball while advertising products to fans in Indonesia.
Seemingly completely without irony Neville, who never thought to question why he found himself on pre-season tours of Asia as a player, built his barricade on the platform of Sky Sports, the organisation which, perhaps more than any other, sent us hurtling into the vortex of hyper-capitalism that is now inevitably consuming the last vestiges of a once-lovable sport.
This has happened before, and when it did, it was called the Premier League and the Champions League – this time it will be called the Super League, and if you think for one second that the billionaire owners of your favourite team care what you think, think again.
For almost a century the most important people in the professional game were the fans who came through the turnstiles every Saturday. There were no betting firms paying millions to have their logos on the front of the club’s shirt; at best a wealthy local businessman would pump money into the team as a gesture of goodwill, a way of rewarding those who worked in his factory or mine by providing them with a bit of entertainment on a Saturday.
For those who couldn’t get into the grounds, radio and newspapers reigned. Live games on TV were few and far between, and men sat in smokey pubs in deep discussions about the merits of Di Stefano and Duncan Edwards, Stanley Matthews and John Giles, in many cases without ever having actually seen them play.
The FA Cup in England brought about the possibility of a giant being slain, and the World Cup brought together the best players from all over the globe in a glorious celebration of the game.
That all changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the advent of multi-channel and cable TV. Clubs and fledgling satellite broadcasters realised that there were huge sums to be made from televising as many games as possible; in doing so, the players and their shirts could become walking billboards, generating ever-more revenue as fans around the globe tuned in to watch.
The top English clubs threatened to break away, and the Premier League was born. Europe followed soon after, and the European Cup was restructured into a lucrative league format, eventually gerrymandered into the current virtually closed structure that strangles the chances of any smaller club establishing themselves without the largesse of a new billionaire owner.
All of a sudden, the terraces – whose collected expenditure on tickets and pies and Bovril had previously kept clubs afloat for decades – no longer mattered. Standing on the Kop or in the Stretford End went from being a working-class pastime to something only Norwegian tourists could afford to do on a regular basis.
More and more billionaires with no local ties came into the game, leveraging their cash in return for respectability and laundering their reputations, and fans turned a blind eye, like happy frogs content to give these wealthy scorpions a ride across the river, confident they would never be stung.
But on a Sunday in mid-April, they were stung, and there’s no going back. What these fans have yet to realise is that they ceased to matter a long time ago.
The moment we realise we are past it is a tough one for all of us, and many of us don’t even notice until it’s long past. Thus it is with football.
If you’re over 40, football’s billionaires no longer care about you. You are the past. You have bought into the hype and paid your money. You’ve spent upwards of €100 on a t-shirt produced for pennies in the Far East, and they’ve made you into a walking advertising hoarding in the process.
They’ve sold you the lie that West Brom against Burnley is worth watching, and even if you haven’t fully bought it, you still paid for it.
The truth is that, in the modern game, an awful lot of top-flight games are completely irrelevant. No-one cares about Brighton against Fulham, or Sheffield United against anybody, even the big teams. The viewing figures around the globe are pathetic, and the top clubs have finally realised that they no longer want to share either the revenue or the limelight with the minnows.
Added to this is the change of demographics. Just as the Yuppies weren’t prepared to stand on a terrace and risk some docker or factory worker pissing their lunchtime pints down their leg, the next generation don’t want to watch football the way previous generations did.
They want to see highlights, action, skill, excitement. They want to see one top-rank brand taking on another in an exciting game with the best players in the world doing things the rest of us can only dream of.
They want to see 90 seconds of a game, not 90 minutes. And they definitely don’t want to see Burnley.
The Super League will give them all this. a select few global brands playing meaningful games week in, week out, the live rights sold for a king’s ransom, the near-live rights almost equally valuable and sold to banks or mobile phone operators or betting companies for use in their social media channels.
Fans will pay subscriptions to over-the-top TV streaming services that pretend to give them insight into the club and its machinations, all the while marketing everything from airlines to dictatorships to them.
At the highest level, football is no longer a game, and it hasn’t been since Lennart Johansson came up with the idea of the Champions League to keep the greed of Europe’s giants in check. These clubs – once founded and supported by members – are now financial giants in their own right, huge corporations whose primary purpose is to generate revenues and profits, not joy or victory.
You don’t like it, but you’re not the target market. The target market is people looking for a quick thrill and who don’t mind watching a pre-roll ad or seeing a logo plastered all over whatever viral clip it is they are trying to watch.
If your’e a fan of the laughably-titled “Big Six” in England, your love of your club is not important any more. All that is important is money, and the endless pursuit of it and control of how it is made by clubs and governing bodies.
Consumed by capitalism and greed, football has been a zombie for three decades – the Super League is simply the logical conclusion of what the cancer of greed has done to the game, and try as we might, it cannot be stopped.