Uefa rally troops as football’s ‘nuclear war’ over European Super League begins

The breakaway 12 may well have forced football into a lengthy trench war but Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin is not prepared to cede any ground

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
@MiguelDelaney
Monday 19 April 2021 17:56
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Six English clubs join breakaway to form new European Super League

Aleksander Ceferin’s words have already struck a chord with Premier League players at “the breakaway six”.

The Independent has been told that a number are “deeply concerned” about the possibility of being denied the chance to play at a World Cup. It has been the subject of many a Whatsapp debate.

It also reflects how, amid all of Ceferin’s extraordinary barbs, he also drew the first weapon in what many football figures are describing as “the game’s nuclear war”. That is the announcement that any player who participates in ‘The Super League’ will be banned from playing for their national side. It the first tangible effect of this deep fissure in the game.

It gives players an immensely difficult decision, that is almost unfair on them. To go right to the top, are Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi really going to forsake another chance at a World Cup for club football?

The agonising over this only begins to hint at the ructions to come, and the many legal challenges that are now starting. Some in Uefa are similarly pushing for Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester City to be kicked out of this Champions League semi-finals. It is going to be, in the words of repeated sources, a “mess”. Maybe for years.

The breakaway 12 - Ceferin said he did not want to call them “the dirty dozen” - may well have forced football into a lengthy trench war, whatever about a nuclear war. It isn’t completely impossible that this even stops elite games being played for a time.

The Uefa president made it clear there will be no give from the federation, no compromise. How can there be when you have basically called the other side’s generals “snakes” and “liars”?

When asked whether there could ever be a situation where the Champions League feeds into “The Super League”, Ceferin just declared: “never”.

It was difficult to pick out a line that best marked the stance. They were all quite powerful.

“The disgraceful, self-serving proposal.”

“Nonsense of a project.”

“A spit in the face of all football lovers.”

Ceferin also went into minute detail about how Manchester United’s Ed Woodward and Juventus’ Andrea Agnelli had outright misdirected and deceived him.

“He called me last Thursday evening saying he’s very satisfied with and fully supports the reforms,” Ceferin said of Woodward. “The only thing he wanted to talk about was [Financial Fair Play], when obviously he had already signed something else.”

Ed Woodward has been central to discussions

Ceferin then revealed that it was as late as Saturday that he had called Agnelli, who was insisting it was “all rumours”. These were much more words from Ceferin, though. They went much deeper.

He spoke with such passion that he was essentially rallying people to the cause, invoking the spirit of the European game. It was as fiery and as inspirational as a press conference about competition structure is ever going to be. Football administration, bloody hell.

This shouldn’t really be underestimated, though.

For all the problems of the modern Champions League, every moment of the competition is enriched by the prestige and emotion of 66 years of history.

That is almost seven decades of memories, of the sort of events that make history, legacies and lives. This is what people remember and look back to. This, to echo Ceferin, is what has made football the greatest sport in the world.

It is something to buy into and protect, that ignites passion.

It is why it was something of a sick joke when one report said the Old Trafford hierarchy feel it will end up being seen like “Matt Busby taking United into the European Cup against the FA’s wishes”.

That is so ludicrous as to be an insult. The initial European Cup was about bringing the continent together and deciding its champions in a spirit of sporting merit. This Super League, to quote Ceferin, is “fuelled purely by greed above all else”. It isn’t about unity but division, and a closed-off elite.

The figures responsible for this just don’t understand the spirit Busby was striving for. They don’t understand the community spirit of the game, that has made it the world’s universal sport.

“I am angry,” Ceferin added. “They write in their press release about solidarity, they don't know ’S’ about solidarity.”

There is a deeper point there, too.

Ceferin may not be flawless, but everyone who knows him says he has the solidarity of the game at heart. Some have even accused him of being too parochial, too concerned with the smaller parts of the sport.

Critics may point to the monstrosity the Champions League has become under his watch - not to mention the very changes that were announced on Monday - but that was all the behest of the big clubs, specifically to try and preserve the unity of European football and ward off a development like this.

It has all been loaded against him from the start of his tenure. The mechanisms have been in place for far too long.

The power has all been with the super clubs. They held all the cards, and then just moved the table anyway.

It is why there is an overriding feeling of frustration, futility and - yes - powerlessness right through the game.

To illustrate, one figure on Sunday suggested the clubs be banished from one of the competitions affected, only to realise it would completely compromise a crucial broadcasting contract. This is what the super clubs have been banking on. They know this will work through hundreds of millions of viewers. Tuesday morning’s Premier League meeting, that only involves “the 14”, will be instructive. “Nothing will be off the table,” according to one source.

There is a sense that the history and future of the game have just been obliterated by a group of businessmen who just happen to be in charge of the most popular clubs at this point in time.

That can be seen in the futile protestations of so many supporters. It was telling that some of the clubs did not put the announcement on their twitter accounts, such was the wrath in the responses.

One view, that has been articulated in the absurd phrasing of “legacy fans” - or Agnelli ideas like paywalling the final 15 minutes of games - is that the super clubs are just getting ahead of the game here, in advance of a new generation of fans. They are appealing to a tech-savvy age, that will be the primary source of football income of the future.

Andrea Agnelli has led the way with the Super League proposal

The Super League will not just be matches, but will be endless super club content all the time.

And yet these same hierarchies are confident they can “win the argument”, just as they are bullishly certain the Super League will win out. It will take a lot of convincing.

Sources in Germany say both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were “blindsided” by Sunday’s announcement. As with Porto, once initial approaches were firmly rejected, the super clubs just pressed ahead without them. There is now talk a time limit has been set to answer the invitation, although Bayern have intially publicly come out against it.

This is the true benefit to having proper member-owned clubs. This is something the Premier League sacrificed in pursuit of money.

Money is now one of the primary concerns of the rest of the sport. There is deep fear the wider game could face “fiancial collapse over the next 12 months”. This is where the pressure and the problems really like.

As Ceferin also made a point of stating, 90 per cent of Uefa’s revenues goes outside the elite to the grassroots and the wider football pyramid. It helps fund your local clubs. That is what solidarity really is.

The sources of this money are, primarily, the Champions League and European Championships.

Any break or disruption to that will cause huge problems for the grassroots, even if a Super League manages to convince governments their solidarity payments can eventually make up for that.

That is what this “war” now threatens. It should be so needless.

But then this doesn’t come down to need, really, other than that which stems from the self-inflicted mismanagement of clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid. It comes down to want.

The Super League might just find, however, that some of its "stakeholders" want very different things.

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