The rant of the former Manchester United right-back was heartfelt. Gary Neville saw the seizure of power by the richest clubs as a betrayal of football as a national sport. No, in fact, the secession of British, Spanish and Italian superpowers like Barcelona was nothing short of a ‘crime’ against the fans: all that mattered here was greed.
Also read this article: Top clubs hoist white flag: apologies for Super League
I understood his anger, although I had the feeling that Neville, like many of his generation, made a lot of money from the ‘popular sport’. Anyway, the idea of starting an exclusive tournament of the biggest clubs, the Super League, tells a story about our time. This is about more than football: we see the perverse sides of a world ruled by money.
It seems reassuring: just as quickly as the idea was born, it collapsed again. Presidents like Andrea Agnelli of Juventus and Florentino Pérez of Real Madrid humbly apologize. They hadn’t intended it that way. The plan has failed, the trend continues for the time being: the division between rich and poor has penetrated so deeply into football that separation seems like a logical step.
The British clubs that wanted to participate are in the hands of American, Chinese, Russian or Arab investors. They are out of touch with the traditions that these football clubs have carried with them for a century. Their seizure of power shows that business elites can disrupt the world: the national football leagues no longer have any meaning, only the global television audience still counts.
Actually, it is an incidental fact that the stadiums are empty in corona time. The grandstands are primarily a decor, which can also be filled with background noise. Everything revolves around the television rights: football has become a virtual spectacle in a world where proximity seems to have no meaning. This leaves little of the emotions that sport can trigger.
Anyone who thinks I’m exaggerating should read the conversation with Agnelli in the Corriere dello Sport. He gave an icy summary of the worldview behind the Super League: “Today’s youngsters want to see big events. That is why we create a competition that does what they do on the digital platforms, such as the video game FIFA. Or like the leagues they play with Fortnite on Call of Duty.”
Football holds up a grotesque mirror to us. The football fans who go to ‘their’ stadium in all kinds of weather are useful idiots who figure in clubs’ global plans. Above all, their loyalty is very old-fashioned. They are allowed to buy a season ticket at extortionate prices, watched from above by the owners in their skybox. It smells of the nineteenth century, the time of untamed capitalism.
By making the international competition independent, the national competitions are relegated to a backyard of football where the sun never comes. No club would be able to qualify for European competitions via the championship. Then the time in which Ajax won the European Cup, now more than 25 years ago in Vienna, is a thing of the past. I was there, though.
So we automatically end up on the side of nostalgia. Now that the market is unconcernedly pushing forward, the cherishing of memories remains. More and more people have their backs to a future that is slipping away from them. The angry football fans who gathered in front of Chelsea stadium want something like ‘take back control‘. It didn’t take long for Boris Johnson to show up in the chorus of critics.
I know – luckily there is a world that cares about football. But here we see the signs of the times. Not often do we get such a revealing glimpse. Real Madrid’s Pérez became painfully entangled in his imagery: “It’s a pyramid. The big clubs are going to have more money and can buy players. If we lose money, everything will collapse like a house of cards. ”
It is indeed a pyramid scheme that they play at Real: insane salaries to attract players who then have to generate income. Meanwhile, debts are piling up. Hence this flight forward to keep the house of cards upright. And then there are those who continue to be amazed that globalization causes so much unease.
What remains is a world sport that is slowly bursting at the seams. The national competition is losing importance, while the international competition is reserved for the few. This failed plan symbolizes growing inequality and alienation. You would hope this episode is thought provoking. A stadium ban for Agnelli and Pérez seems to me the least.
Paul Scheffer wrote among other things The country of arrival on The shape of freedom.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of April 23, 2021