THE FOOTBALL AND MONEY PHILOSOPHY

European football – or football – is the most popular team sport in the world. Others were far behind. Two reasons for this effect are apparent, namely numbers and simplicity. American football (and rugby), baseball, and cricket can draw as many spectators to stadiums as football, but the rules are elusive for aliens. Basketball is as easy as soccer, but a small court plays against the numbers. Maybe the television levels the odds? It is not. Passion is inherent in large multitudes to feel drawn to elite sport, and real passion needs the number of armies on the ground. Football, in fact, has come to replace the massive armed clashes unleashed on European battlefields since the Wars of Religion. Better a match than a massacre. On Christmas Day 1914, the war ended on the Western Front and the English and Germans played a legendary football match. Rightly, the king of sport is an unofficial pillar of the European Union.

Football, however, is a long-term victim of COVID-19. The followers will come back quickly, but the finances are more difficult. Clubs have invested heavily in public image and reputation, and the ban on supporters crowding stadiums turned the accounts into red. In a frozen market, world-class players have become struggling assets. Clubs either need additional income or reduce player rewards, without losing all stars in market value. Governments will not let flagship clubs sink and taxpayers will bear the burden at the worst time in history. The bill will run into billions of euros – or pounds sterling if you wish – in Britain and the continent.

The Super League has changed that. Twenty major clubs, including fifteen permanent partners to provide guarantees to JP Morgan, the funding provider, plus five others promoted by lower leagues, i.e. national leagues. Twelve big clubs have signed contracts — Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez has revealed. The big clubs would also play in the national leagues to optimize the teams and make a return on a multi-million investment in the players. The sale of television rights would increase income and help overcome the crisis. Minor clubs would also survive if UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) led and implemented similar programs for lower European leagues.

The project failed due to several factors, the main one being the rejection of British hooligans. They feared the Super League would kidnap the Premier League. Whether healthy or foolish, sentiment has been fueled by Brexiters devoted to severing ties with the EU. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed to thwart the project. Six British clubs – as hungry for income as their mainland counterparts – were among the twelve conspirators. They will pay dearly for such a rapture of national pride.

Another factor has been the rapid exclusion by UEFA of clubs involved in the Champions and Europa Leagues project. Many have said that the European Super League is a cartel, but the cartel is UEFA, which prevents clubs from freely engaging in commercial competition. The Dirty Dozen likely escaped punishment from UEFA, but followers in Italy and Spain panicked as they failed to fully understand the plan – a communication gap – while seeing their teams out of known competitions. UEFA is a rather narrow-minded bureaucratic body that manages polls. The reasons for British hooligans and Italian tifosi to reject the project were different, but the mass mood is contagious across national borders. A universal fear was that followers would pay more to watch their favorite teams play. This was unfounded for club members, who would be entitled to watch matches at the stadium relentlessly, while it made sense to followers thanks to pay TV. The latter surpassed the former and shifted the balance against the interests of the clubs.

However, a third factor has been the rejection of the project by Bayern Munich and Paris Saint Germain. It was too obvious a manipulation of sport by politicians. The crushing Franco-German agreement would not yield to an Anglo-Hispano-Italian project of such magnitude. With the British out, soon we will see the Germans and the French come in as new rulers, since the Spaniards and Italians are not so much for fame as for money. Or someone will be hosting a World Super League soon.

(Enrique Viaña is professor of economics, University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain)

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