Two events this week alluded to Hemingway’s bell.
In reality, these separate incidents, in different ways, suggest the death knell for the end of the amateur and meritocratic soul of European football.
Overly melodramatic for impact? I don’t think so.
Simply, we are witnessing the ruthless elimination, by stealth, of the financial and sporting uncertainty which has been at the core of Association Football, since it was invented in the 1870s, (a mere 100 years after America became a nation.) More from our American cousins later.
There is a case to argue that we are moving, nae, have moved, to the hated franchise commercial model.
Fans weren’t asked. Probably because we would never have agreed. Indeed, fans and their mega clubs are increasingly uncomfortable bedfellows. But the new reality is here, and most of us were asleep at the wheel. Shame on us.
This amateur sport, the most popular game in the world, grew its DNA and developed its soul from British clubs of deep working-class tradition, like Celtic and Arsenal. So, it is neatly appropriate that the clanging chimes of doom this week came from Parkhead and Highbury.
Yes, this writer still prefers Highbury, and all the Victorian and Georgian tradition of an Upton Park, Craven Cottage, Goodison.
And, I suspect, so do the fans, from the evidence of hilarious angst on exhibition each week around the exterior of the “Emirates” on Arsenal TV. How many West Ham lads would bite your hand off for their old place?
Yes, we all know about the sales pitch of “smart stadia”, Uber-connected with real-time personalized ads, merchandise offers, games, and content bombarding your phone. How about lifting your head and rounded shoulders, and watching the game? Or speaking to your son about the old heroes and what you saw at his age?
Champions League Change
There is more than a sense that things have now gone too far. They’ve messed around too much.
European football on reflection has not been too smart in the last 25 years. Yes, revenues have enjoyed a remarkable hockey stick growth, but, as Sir Alan Sugar pointed out, through the prune juice effect, those cash flows have been squandered to players and agents.
Our American friends considered us stupid. They, who invented sports marketing, were perplexed. “Not even salary caps? You sold your soul for that?”
So to Glasgow, at Celtic Park, where we witnessed the ultra Green Brigade at one of Europe’s most respected post-war clubs unfurl a simple banner.
Self-explanatory really, it lampoons the highest level competition in European football for both its name (half of the participants won’t actually be champions at all) and its tragic unfairness.
As we all know, over the last 20 years, the governing body in Europe, UEFA, has ushered clubs like Celtic, and leagues like Scotland, to the pathetic undercard of the sport, to make space for 20 guaranteed places from the continent's big leagues.
History will show that UEFA, with sugary Swiss politeness, seduced low-quality blazers, with gift bags of Swatches and Lindt chocolate, to sell their soul, like Jonny Favorite in Angel Heart.
And for what?
One could argue that we shouldn’t be so harsh on our leaders and that UEFA was obliged to adapt, to pacify the big clubs, and prevent a rogue breakaway like Kerry Packer in cricket. (In football’s case, the role of the brash Australian was played by Italians close to Berlusconi, under the banner of Media Partners.)
And adapt UEFA did. GCSE level history, however, is unequivocal in teaching us this: appeasement never ever works. Give them an inch and you will concede a mile in the end. And concede they did.
Over the last generation, the pillage of the traditional game and the European Cup has been cheerled by Nyon. Because it was remarkably easy to give concessions when the price was paid by others, whilst you still enjoyed five-star expense accounts.
Small leagues? Who cares!!! Pass the Merlot, Michel.
The price has been paid instead by the glorious clubs of Europe, finding themselves now on the other side of the glass, peering in. Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen, Porto, Benfica, Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV, Anderlecht, Brugges, AEK, Panathinaikos, Galatasaray. Red Star Belgrade, Dukla Prague. You get the idea.
Two dozen top teams, who have contributed to the very fabric of the game, told to basically move along. Acquiesce.
Many of us have tilted at these windmills since 1998. Boring the pants off all and sundry in our countries: “they’re stealing the harvest, stop them, why don’t you listen?"
Listen they did not; too distracted with the local bragging rights of the weekly fare. Distraction has always been the most useful weapon of the illusionist and the thief.
Celtic this year, a previous winner of the tournament, will have to overcome four qualifying rounds to merely get to the start line. The same number of guaranteed places granted to the major leagues, who thus can prosper further with their summer marketing tours in July and August.
And they then have the brass neck to talk about the family of football. A Cain and Abel family maybe.
So this week, with that banner, it felt to this scribe, that the penny finally dropped. A whole stadium complaining, like Matthew’s five sleeping virgins, about having missed the big moment. Don’t sleep then, where were you all over the last 20 years? Did you not see the #brutalpolarisation? It’s a bit late now mate. It’s over. Les jeux sont faits.
Meanwhile, 400 miles south in the capital, a very brash but successful American was at work. Stanley Kroenke is a Midwest hard-nosed real estate guy, who very “conveniently” married the daughter of Sam Walton (Walmart). As the club’s bare trophy cabinet shows, he doesn’t have titles as a priority, but he, like few others, understands sustainable asset value. Much to the chagrin of ex-players and fans.
This week, his own bell tolled loudly, as he legally swept up the third of the club he doesn’t currently own, mainly through debt. Buying out sundry small shareholders likely with the certificate framed on the wall.
He will take the club private, and in so doing, deprive fans and commentators of a significant amount of transparency and accountability. No more AGM.
This operation, even in its financial structuring, is similar to the Glazers’ purchase of Manchester United. An American raider, using the techniques of a leveraged buyout. This isn’t new.
The real question is: why now? Why is it telling?
To answer that we must reflect on the fact that almost none of England’s great clubs remain with British owners who would have a feeling for the game.
The answer is not homogenous: The Arabs and Chinese like trophy assets and soft power. The Russians like profile overseas that perhaps protects them from Putin. The dictators like to money launder and get capital out of their country. The agents like Mendes, need a vehicle to replicate the Championship Manager transfer window in real life, and for real money. Good luck to them all.
But the Americans are different. For them, it’s all about the Benjamins. They see sport differently and always have. For them, it starts and ends as a business.
They now own United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Roma, and smaller clubs like Portsmouth.
So why now for Kroenke?
Is it because that the one impediment to the financial business model, funded by debt, has been eliminated? Volatility: the uncertainty of cash flows arising from relegation, and non-qualification to the riches of UEFA.
The revenues of the big sports franchises in America are pretty stable. This is the fertile terrain for capital investment in football; especially financed by debt. No bank or investor likes volatility.
So they have eliminated it. Piece by piece. Quietly.
Relegation is the most unlikely of black swans for these big clubs by now, and they have last year strong-armed UEFA on the four guaranteed Champions League spots.
The English Franchises
So while the Gooners may complain about big bad Stan from Missouri, and lament Herbert Chapman, at least they remain fans of a “franchise” in the VIP reserved area of the big boys’ club.
At the expense of the guys with the banner at Parkhead. And as Stan himself may say, “one guy wins, the other schmuck loses”.
So quietly, the dreaded word “franchise” makes its appearance. An anathema to all European fans, it is now impossible to argue that the new Champions League format is NOT a franchise system, of the most self-perpetuating type.
It’s a closed shop. Chapeau!
This process will likely continue. Richard Scudamore will step down in December.
I knew Richard up close for four years. He represented the biggest and richest league, but is a Bristol City fan. He not only understood the soul of the game, he had the influence to protect it.
Whether that be the priority of football debts around insolvency, the 3pm kick-off closed period, the resistance to the European super league, the solidarity payments to the grassroots.
In many ways he was the finger in the dike, managing, with force of personality, to hold back his foreign-owned mega clubs from their most basic instincts of “franchise”.
We are now, with him gone, entering the Quickening.
So as people always ask, where to now?
Most likely scenarios:
- Those glorious clubs from smaller leagues must revisit some sort of alternative Atlantic League, as the status quo of four qualifying rounds is actually humiliating. It can’t hold.
- The big five leagues will struggle to justify and market Juve v Chievo, City v Huddersfield to a global audience. It's a celebrity and brand based sport at the mega clubs. No time for journeymen clubs and their “nobody” players in Jakarta.
- The mega clubs will seek to play in 16 team leagues that allows enough fixture dates for their marketing tours in Asia and the States.
- The sport will polarize totally.
None of this is new. Some people saw it coming in 1998. This week a lot more had the same vision.