Spectator sport

Why all the outrage over the European Super League?

1 May 2021

9:00 AM

1 May 2021

9:00 AM

Anything been happening in football in the past couple of weeks? No? Moving on then… Hang about though. The doomed relegation-free European Super League may have had a shorter life than the average mayfly but it generated the level of fury produced by poking a stick in a hornets’ nest. How justified was all the outrage?

The idea that clubs such as City, Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and the rest of the ‘Shameful Six’ are friendly neighbourhood outfits where you could run into Chopper Harris down the pub has long gone. These are huge international businesses run by Arab rulers, Russian billionaires and US hedge funds. They might have backed down for now, but the reasons why the ESL was dreamed up haven’t gone away: the poor quality of a lot of football and the fact that young people are turning away from the game.

My friend the Chelsea fan switched off the dreary match against Brighton the night the ESL story broke. Nothing would persuade him to bother with a game like Aston Villa vs West Brom. Real Madrid vs Bayern Munich he would watch. ‘You’ve got the Champions League for that,’ I said. But even there you couldn’t guarantee it: one of them could be knocked out by AZK Schnapps or somewhere because that’s the random nature of knockout football. Whereas the ESL would guarantee Real vs Bayern twice a season. Why wouldn’t you want that?

There was an ominous story in the Sunday Times at the weekend. Millfield, the Somerset public school renowned for producing elite sports stars, is joining a computer games league. Other schools in the esports league include Gordonstoun and Bryanston. So when the ESL made the point that young people were turning away from football they weren’t far wrong. Not least because of the cost.

And the quality of a lot of football is pretty dire. Traditional classics like United vs Leeds or Arsenal vs Everton last week were virtually unwatchable — unlike Bristol’s top-table rugby Premiership clash with Exeter last Friday, which was breathtakingly open and exciting. (The Premiership is one of those ring-fenced competitions like the Indian Premier League or the Six Nations that is without relegation. It doesn’t seem to have done the quality of the games much harm.)

It wasn’t fan power that stopped the ESL, it was players, managers and pundits. A word from Klopp or Guardiola or Gary Neville has much more effect than a noisy fan outside the stadium. Furious Arsenal supporters demanding ‘Kroenke out’ at the Emirates wouldn’t be wanting the owner out if Arsenal were ten points clear at the top of the table. Fans like winning and want owners to put money into their clubs to buy players. Fans have the same business model as the owners, only it’s not their money.

Meanwhile, the noise about the ESL has diverted us from celebrating a genuine English world superstar. England has produced very good players before — Lineker, Beckham, Rooney — but no proper nonpareils since the Bobbys Moore and Charlton. But Manchester City’s Phil Foden looks the real thing. He’s a titch like Messi, Maradona and Ardiles and is still only 20, but this is one of the best players we are ever going to see.

Back in July 2019 his manager, Pep Guardiola, said that Foden was the ‘most talented player I have ever seen as a footballer or manager’. Two of the best games of football this year were City’s two-leg victory over Borussia Dortmund. Foden scored the winning goal in both games and outshone one of Europe’s most gifted strikers, Erling Haaland, also only 20. Just enjoy the genius of Foden, brilliantly shepherded by Guardiola over the years, while you can.

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