Why wait for the off-chance that Milan might draw Rangers in the European Cup when a cosy little carve-up could ensure it?

ON SATURDAY
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The Independent Online
First Maurice Watkins, a director of Manchester United, reveals he has recently been wining, dining and negotiating with officials from Milan. Then David Murray, chairman of Rangers, admits his club have been in discussions with a variety of interested parties prior to a meeting of top Uefa brass in Brussels next week. But the thing that really makes you think something is in the air is when Rick Parry, chief executive of the Premier League, starts fuming about "wild speculation". Yes, this week's big cash-printing idea in football is the European Super League.

No more ghastly away days at Dens Park or The Dell, runs the theory: San Siro here we come. You can just imagine the eyes in boardrooms spinning round to jackpot as the salivating prospect was surveyed. What a thought for them as they totted up on their mental calculators the sums that television would be prepared to pay for Manchester United versus Milan, or Milan versus Rangers, or, er, Rangers versus United.

Suggesting to the finance director of a top football club that the European Super League is an idea not worth pursuing, however, is a bit like trying to tell the board of a public utility that privatisation may be a false salvation. When money flaps in front of eyes, it tends to blind. Particularly when, at first superficial glance, the Super League has some attractions above that pound-heavy, lire-laden bottom line. Rangers, for instance, might argue with some justification that they have grown too big for their domestic structure and that their fans have wearied of endless games against St Mirren. And those who administer Manchester United might suggest that they are above the tiresome necessity of qualifying for the European Cup and ought to be allowed to offer their supporters (aka Sky Television) the guarantee of games against the top names in Europe, rather than the inconvenience of being drawn against Rotor Volgograd.

To argue against change in football always casts you as the kind of pitiful Luddite who thinks freezing on terraces is the one true way to watch the game, that ownership of a satellite dish is evidence of a deal cut with Beelzebub and that admission to grounds should be available free to all on prescription. As an idea, however, a European Super League should be forgotten as soon as possible.

You can see how it started. In America, sport, like the rest of the entertainment industry, is now entirely event-driven. The calendar staggers from World Series to Superbowl to the comeback of Magic Johnson to Tyson's big return. Each encounter is whipped by a media feeding frenzy into a curdle of hyperbole; no pre-spat scene-setter is complete without a report on how much touts are charging for front row seats. British sporting salesmanship, lagging years behind its American role model, has just started to catch on. Typical of the mood is Jonathan Pearce, football reporter for Capital Radio, whose commentary style suggests he is on the point of ejaculation through excitement when Wimbledon win a throw midway in their own half 89 minutes into a 0-0 snoreathon with QPR. And if it is the event that sells, why not manufacture it? Why wait for the off-chance that Milan might be drawn against Rangers in the European Cup when a cosy little carve-up could ensure it? Why not have United play Barca every week? What this idea fails to recognise is that the attraction of football is in the mix. Grinding out tough draws in unattractive locations, overcoming feisty lower division opponents on sandpits in the fourth round of the Cup, tonking the mickey mouse outfit who only scraped promotion via a penalty shoot-out in the play-offs, these can mean as much as the big trip abroad. And the big trip abroad is all the better if it has been earned rather than arranged.

All very well, argue the money-lovers, this whingeing on about romance. But it will count as little compared to the prospect of watching the best in the world lining up in your centre circle every other week. Your wallets will soon open when the visitors include Weah, Romario and Del Piero rather than Shipperley, Dowie and Niall Quinn.

Experience, however, suggests otherwise. Take Blackburn Rovers. Rather in the manner British Rail was divided up before sale, the Champions' League has the appearance of a preparatory shadow for a Euro-Super competition. As Blackburn floundered in it last autumn, stumbling from embarrassment to humiliation, their crowds withered: by the end, not even the schoolchildren offered free seats behind the goals could be bothered to turn out. Not much point these games offering the best football in Europe: it was only being played by one side. Better to save your money and lungs for the big ones, the ones which count, against Manchester City and Bolton. Because what the architects of the European Super League fail to recognise is that the victory the fan really wants to see his team achieve is not over some set of fancy pants from the other side of the Continent, but over the plebs from the other side of town. But then, only a pitiful Luddite would ever suggest the fans' preference might carry any weight when it comes to the future of football.

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