It has only been seven days since one of the most monumental events in world football history took place: the collapse of the European Super League (ESL). In a series of events that showed the so called ‘elite clubs’ (minus Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Paris Saint-Germain) and their billionaire owners and majority investors their place in the global football scene, fans got what they wanted: after facing huge backlash, the proposition crumbled before it could gain any momentum.
Granted, this was a huge slap in the face for Florentino Perez and Co., who wanted to distance themselves further from smaller clubs through better television deals, bigger sponsors and more high-profile games in the pretense of “saving football” (nobody fell for that). However, now that the clouds have cleared, do we believe that the fans are the true winners? Is this the “win for global football” that many are advertising it to be?
New UCL reforms
UEFA, who were undoubtedly relieved after ESL debacle, have announced some big reforms and changes to the Champions League format that is currently being followed. The proposed changes are set to take effect from the 2024/2025 season, and I must say, I was shocked after going through them.
First, the 8x4 group stage is set to be abolished. We will instead have a single league comprising of the 36 competing clubs. As a result, all participating teams will play 4 (!!!!) more games than in the current format. Each club would have to face 10 other clubs once (half home, half away), after which the top 8 clubs from the ‘league’ qualify for the quarterfinals, while the rest are picked from a playoff-draw (yaaay, more games!) between the 9th to the 24th placed teams.
And there’s more. Out of the four extra teams in the ‘league of 36’, one would be the 3rd placed team in Europe’s 5th ranked league, one would be a domestic champion outside those already qualified, and two would be clubs with the highest UEFA club coefficient outside that of the top four from any of the top four leagues in Europe. So more games, an even more congested schedule and lower chances of minnows progressing to the knockout stages. But guess what? They make more money, so it won’t matter to them.
We can expect at least 90% of the clubs that make it to the knockout stages to be big, wealthy and in possession of the best squads. That’s how these reforms have been designed. So all those stories about this being “better for the smaller clubs” or “bridging the gap between the elite and not-so elite” are just that — stories. But then, you might say — “fans get more games, so shouldn’t this be better for them?”
My answer to that is: NOPE, it certainly isn’t better for fans. Not unless you have a bucket-load of cash to spend every year to watch the games of your club.
It is common knowledge that football ticket prices are on the rise every year. Be it in the Premier League or the UCL. Bundesliga fans are not used to such ridiculously high ticket prices. You can watch all Bayern home games at the Allianz for just €150 (season ticket!), while season tickets in the Premier league cost more than twice that, even for clubs like Burnley and West Brom.
Ticket prices in the UCL have been rising every year, and many Bayern fans would be able to recall the infamous ‘Anderlecht fleecing’ which saw the Belgian club charging €100 for each ticket. UEFA had to intervene and take action after all the fan protests and complaints, but this hasn’t been a standalone incident. UEFA introduced an away game price cap in 2019 to lessen the problem.
Many clubs charge high rates for UCL games, not least because UEFA also gets a significant share of the proceeds. With ticket prices on the rise season after season, it is getting extremely difficult for the average fan to keep up with the prices and pay for the games. UCL and UEL games are slowly but surely starting to restrict football entertainment for the people who are better-off financially. And for the fans who like watching the games from the comfort of their home, things aren’t looking much better.
TV programs like Sky Sports and BT Sport are also costing quite a bit these days. Champions League and Europa League football in particular cost more on TV and streaming platforms. Yes, they are still largely affordable, but when you have monopolies, like ESPN/CB Sports in the USA, Sky Sports in Germany, etc. the pricing can be controlled and the platforms can make a lot more money.
Regardless of the mode of match viewership, UEFA will rake in a lot of moolah. Another win for UEFA at the expense of the fans.
Did the ‘elite clubs’ really lose anything?
UEFA was quite vocal in expressing its disappointment and disgust at the owners and management of some European heavyweights being “snakes” and planning the creation of a Super League behind their backs. Despite all this, none of the said clubs have been penalized or punished in any way. For all we know, this might just be a win for the ‘European elite’.
It is not uncommon for clubs to use harsh negotiating tactics to force their demands and get their wishes granted, and this might just have been another such case. With clubs wanting a larger share of the payday, this could’ve been the big, headline-grabbing move that would squeeze more money out of UEFA. This would mean that the clubs benefitted from the fiasco, and could do press for something like this again. This may not be the end.
So yeah, these clubs lost nothing but respect, something that supposedly has no value to the investors and oligarchs behind these clubs. After all, respect doesn’t earn you money, and money is all that matters, right?
Football romanticism under threat
For many, football isn’t just a sport. Besides its huge cultural and historical significance, numerous football fans the world over are emotionally attached to their club, and the sport in general. The euphoria, the passion, the excitement and the love for their club (many of the fans having an attachment spanning generations) is what drives them.
I have had the pleasure of knowing such romantics — some of my friends from back in the day, colleagues at BFW like Marcus and Samrin and even even myself (albeit not to the same extent). We all love the sport with a passion that cannot be expressed in words. The beautiful sport and the adrenaline associated with it, the ultras and their creative banners, raucous stadium atmospheres and glorious pitches are just some of the things that keep us going.
With the growing commercialization of the sport, evasions of financial fair play and increasing control in the hands of billionaires, football isn’t what it used to be two-to-three decades ago. From things as trivial as league games on Mondays to wholesale changes to competitions like the Champions League, the opinion and the choices of the fans should matter more. Their say should carry more importance.
Agreed, changes are inevitable with the passage of time and constantly evolving global economics and politics, but one thing is certain: football is for the fans, and fans are the life of football. Take fans, their say and their experience away and football dies.