War on football: How fans united to help save the beautiful game

April 18, 2021, will forever be remembered as a dark day in the history of football. Ironically, 48 hours later, the clouds hanging above had parted. Yet, what transpired in that time shook the very foundations of the beautiful game.

When twelve elite clubs dropped the news that they were joining a breakaway European Super League (ESL), it sent the footballing world into a fit of rage. From UEFA to your average (or not-so average) Harry, everyone was up in arms about the proposal. Official statements from the founding clubs dropped one after another, and pretty soon, it was a war on football.

For the first time in the sport’s illustrious history, supporting a club came with terms and conditions.

‘Money talks’ is the worst-kept secret in this capitalistic world ever since humanity traded (pardon the pun) the barter system for cold, hard cash.

‘Just a ploy to line pockets’

You only had to look at the preliminary data to see that the ESL was nothing more than a ploy to line pockets. On joining, each club would earn a welcome bonus of $360 million, and eventually, $4.2 billion to support their functioning and infrastructure.

$4.2 billion contains a lot of zeros, an insane amount the non-ESL clubs were set to miss out on. Immediately, you could see why despite their history of being a common man’s club, a debt-ridden Barcelona wanted to take part.

You could even understand why ‘oil-funded’ Manchester City and Chelsea joined. Seeing sporting rivals march in front of you financially can be challenging. Suddenly, football history and sporting spirit seemed to have been discarded for dollar signs.

But, a death blow is what everyone got, and it came in the form of UEFA, FIFA and domestic leagues unanimously condemning the ESL. The organisations warned heavy repercussions for participation, which meant bans from all domestic, European and international competitions.

Players playing for the ESL clubs could never represent their countries if this went ahead. They also couldn’t force moves to other clubs, because ESL teams would be blacklisted in the football transfer market. It would, in many ways, create a mini ecosystem which worked parallel to the traditional structure.

You had to feel sorry for players like Kevin De Bruyne, for example, who just signed a five-year deal with Manchester City. This also meant someone like Neymar, who has been stalling his contract renewal talks for ages, would either have to sign a new deal with the French champions or accept playing for a smaller club.

And while we are at it, the biggest gripe people had with the ESL was how a club qualified as a ‘big club’. The participants were not selected based on merit or club history. It was all about who had the deepest pockets.

Clubs like Arsenal and Tottenham, who have negligible European pedigree, were chosen ahead of European royalty like Ajax simply because they are stronger financially.

The ESL may have only wanted to make the rich richer, but their greedy actions would have hampered revenue for smaller clubs as well. In football, the small clubs make the most money when they host a big team, whether it is in a league or in a cup competition.

If suddenly, the big clubs pull away from all competitions, it would be a classic case of the poor getting poorer as well. So essentially, the owners stopped thinking and nodded their heads when they heard “more money”.

‘No consequences of failure’

There was also the issue of the ESL having no consequences for failure. If you were a founding member, you could play every season regardless of results. So a club could finish dead last, and still would not be relegated. Instead, they would continue to earn money.

That is faintly ridiculous, and an insult to fair and competitive sport. Football is glamorous, but a large chunk of its appeal is also the underdog stories. If the ESL had become a reality, we would never see Cinderella-esque runs like Leicester City winning the league, or Stoke City securing European football despite being relegated.

The whole point of the UEFA Champions League, however flawed it may be, is that we get to see matches rich with stories and narratives, matches that are tough to call. Did you predict Porto knocking Juventus out on away goals? Ajax thrashing Real Madrid away from home? Roma slaying Barcelona en route to their historic semi-final run? Never in a million years.

That’s the drama the ESL could never provide. And of course, if Alpha versus Alpha is what you seek, the Champions League provides that too. And they provide these fixtures occasionally, not multiple times every season like the ESL had planned.

The ESL would have become a reality and killed football were it not for overwhelming fan backlash and legal issues. Clubs started pulling out of the ESL, and now, it has officially been suspended.

However, Real Madrid president and ESL chairman Florentino Perez has issued a warning that the idea is far from dead. He may have convinced himself that such a league is what modern football needs, but he failed to account for the strength in opposition that united fanbases brought.

Initial fear over the league soon made way for a strong reposte. A mere 48 hours later, passion had triumphed over greed, and the clouds had parted.  

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