Why you shouldn't blame American owners for the European Super League
Background image, Philippe LeRoyer, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Having been on a year-long hiatus from blogging, you can imagine my groan when news of the European Super League broke just as I was excitedly preparing to return. While no hand was raised in anger and no shot fired, the rebellion against the established football order by a dozen of the world’s largest clubs was a brutal assault on virtually every fan of the game. Thankfully, like the vast majority of violent revolutions, it was quickly put down.
Still, writing about the hostile takeover in my first article after returning to It's Round and It's White presented a problem. I was born and currently reside in the United States. While there were sizable interludes between, during which I ventured out and happily discovered an entire world that somehow existed independently from the US, living distinctly unique yet successful lives, no reader was to know that. Because guilt by association is a thing much like innocent until proven guilty isn’t, all they would see is a Yank blindly defending other Yanks. So I put off my intended return for a week or so, giving tempers time to cool lest my appearance invoke the Imperial March in former reader’s minds rather than the ebullient greetings one enjoys when entering the local pub.
If I’m being honest, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United chairmen John Henry, Stan Kroenke and Joel Glazer were easy targets even before the Manc don put himself forth as the anointed boss of bosses in this short lived venture into organized crime. Every argument to eliminate promotion and relegation begins and ends with ‘that’s how it’s done in America and, along with the Reds, Gunners and Red Devils, each of the despised trio owns at least one franchise in various competitions on this side of the pond. Kroenke married into the Walmart fortune, lenabling him to lead the way with controlling interest in the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, NBA’s Denver Nuggets and MLS’ Colorado Rapids. Comparatively poor billionaires, his two countrymen each scrape by with a single team. John Henry owns Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox and the Glazer family lay claim to the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Without promotion and relegation in any of those competitions, the three Yanks’ domestic sport holdings are far more secure than their Premier League investments. If bad luck or poor management lead to a horrendous campaign stateside, they can always sigh and tell themselves there’s always next year.
Moreover, playoff qualification and championship trophies don’t translate into cash prizes for American teams as they do in the Premier League and UEFA. While players receive bonuses commensurate with their progression in the postseason, ownership does not.
Why is that important? United fans will recall breathing a sigh of relief when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer guided the squad to a Champions League return last season, avoiding a £75 million shortfall for failing to qualify for Europe’s top competition in consecutive campaigns. If they can get past their initial outrage, which admittedly is akin to asking Boris Johnson to run a comb through his hair just this once, Old Trafford denizens might feel a pang [just a pang, mind] of empathy for those reviled executives who saw the European Super League as a mechanism to permanently eliminate the potential for such devastating losses.
Of course, United faithful as well as their Scouse and North London rivals, believe they are already immune to relegation, unlike ownership who, especially in the midst of a pandemic, are aware that disasters occur and the English FA won't change the rules at the last minute to accommodate them as their notoriously corrupt Argentine counterparts have been known to do. The Glazers feel the need to ensure their cash cow stands on firm ground rather than above a trap door even though the club hasn’t found itself outside the top flight in nearly a half century, last going down following the 1973/74 campaign and returning to the old[e] First Division at the initial asking. Most of its supporters weren’t alive at the time. Personally, I was eleven and growing up in Canada, as yet blissfully unaware the Reds existed and entirely preoccupied with the struggles of the mightily fallen Toronto Maple Leafs and their equally despised owner, Harold Ballard.
If there is one commonality between the long-deceased Leafs owner and the Glazers, it’s that both were/are the type of overlords even the most obnoxious Yank abhors. That is to say they bring to mind King George III, against whom America’s founding fathers fought that rare thing, a successful revolution, because they opposed taxation without representation.
To lesser degrees, Gooners and the Kop share similar feelings regarding their colonial despots, believing that Henry and Kroenke care not a whit for the fans, do not respect let alone represent their interests and are in it exclusively for the money. Relegation is even less of a threat to them. The Anfield mob last went down in 1953/54, returning in ‘61/62, and the Gunners haven’t been outside the first tier since before WW1.
Given the attitudes and sense of entitlement on both sides, each believing they own the club whereas the other merely underwrites the operation, it’s easy to see why supporters and press alike immediately adopted a ‘J’accuse!’ attitude toward the American billionaires. It isn’t a stretch to imagine the trio spinning tales to fellow Premier League and and ECA chairpersons regarding the riches to be had in an isolated league immunized from promotion and relegation. Why not blame them?
That said, the manner in which the ESL imploded like a SpaceX rocket even before a successful test flight plainly illustrates that Messrs Glazer, Kroenke and Henry were neither the originators nor prime movers of this insidious coup d’etat, however much they attempted to exploit it. Rather, all three were among the scurrying rats deserting the burning ship when the timid protests they anticipated due to COVID-emptied stadia developed into a thundering stampede across social media and training facilities.
When the dust cleared, a meagre three clubs remained of the cabal’s original twelve conspirators and none were fronted by Americans. Only Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus clung to the shattered dream of an unassailable football fortress. Shortly afterward, Juve chairman Andrea Agnelli also abandoned ship, leaving only the oddly coupled Castilian and Catalan, Florentino Perez and Joan Laporta.
In an amazing twist of irony, Los Blancos and Blaugranas’ jefes comprise the sole proprietors among the dirty dozen elected by fans rather than appointed by a detached board of directors. Given that dependence on the consent of the governed, it seems unlikely they would be the last, most defiant holdouts.
Yet it isn’t difficult to understand why the duo clung more desperately to the ESL concept than their less steadfast cohorts. Real Madrid and Barcelona are on the cusp of major upgrades to their grounds. While the Camp Nou refit remains in the planning stages, work has already begun on the Santiago Bernabeu. Combined costs for the two projects may hit €1.5 billion with the Bernabeu works earmarked at just under €800 million in late December 2020 and the Nou Camp budgeted at €685 million in August. Those daunting figures won't go down. Nevertheless, fans expect their clubs to maintain their status as perennial Champions League favourites regardless of the fact that such investment inevitably and severely limits transfer funds.
Premier League fans need only look to Arsenal. The Spanish giants have always operated on a larger budget and greater revenues than the Gunners but that only adds to the burden. Their ambitious renovations far outdo the €450 million Kroenke spent to build the Emirates Stadium and you can bet dollars to donuts that both clubs are aware and wish to avoid the malaise that has afflicted Arsenal in the wake of Arsene Wenger’s austere management during and following construction of the English side’s new digs. Neither can afford to be a mid-table side for a single campaign, let alone a decade.
Factor in the millions lost to the CovID-19 pandemic and you can see why Florentino Perez and Joan Laporta desperately attempted to hold together the crumbling dream that was the European Super League. The sting of debt from the recently christened Juventus Stadium also caused Agnelli to linger longer than they other deserters. Nor is that the end of the matter. You can expect Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus to try again and to have the support of each and every one of their Premier League brethren, not just the three Americans. All have either undergone or hope to undergo major stadium upgrades and, unlike the United States, European club owners cannot expect local governments to fund their lavish construction projects.
So yes, be outraged at Joel Glazer, John Henry and Stan Kroenke for their audacity but don’t view them as the prime suspects in this conspiracy. In this instance, Kaiser Soze speaks Spanish and Catalan, not bastardized English.