Will football ever have its own LIV Golf? It’s already here

European football is caught between American capitalism chasing profit and Middle Eastern sportswashing chasing political aims, and its historical powers are struggling to win back control

<p>PSG have the financial muscle to dominate European football’s player market </p>

PSG have the financial muscle to dominate European football’s player market

Given the number of football people that are still obsessed with golf, many have naturally been messaging friends on the tour about the LIV controversy. The responses have been as varied as they have been predictable. Some are aghast at golf’s august institutions being ravaged, some think it’s fair enough to take the money. A core of the game’s officials fear something similar again for football, others are sensing more opportunity.

Many are describing it as “golf’s European Super League moment”, and it is why the threat of that project is still so pertinent. Its next steps will dictate the future of the game, and decide whether anything even worse – such as LIV Soccer – is yet possible in football.

As regards to something so overt, everything depends on the court hearing being brought by the ESL to the European Court of Justice over 11-12 July. That will decide whether the rebel clubs have a justifiable case that Uefa is abusing a monopoly position as a competition organiser. If that were to be taken forward, and the ESL were to win, it would open the way for the clubs – or any other interests – to set up their own events. Football would be in a whole new world, which could eventually resemble a “wild west” of different competitions.

Your traditional club season feeding into the Champions League and then European Championships and World Cup? You can forget that.

Uefa, for its part, is supremely confident that its role as the game’s safeguard will see an institution as “political” as the ECJ rule on its side. The view is that football has too much social value, and the effect would be too great.

Against that, though, the ESL is going to produce a lot of evidence arguing Uefa instead operates as a monopoly.

Much will depend on whether the case is overseen on a primarily commercial basis or sociopolitical. If the former, and it’s about pure competition, the ESL has a decent chance of winning. That would remove one of the old football world’s few remaining protections.

A LIV Soccer would at least be feasibly possible.

It wouldn’t yet be completely open season, but that in itself would almost open a new world of complications.

In the event of an ESL victory, any new competition would still need a licence from either Uefa or Fifa, which is where this story brings together all of modern football’s main themes and driving forces.

Uefa wouldn’t dream of such a licence, but it is still in a stand-off with Fifa over the future of the club game and an expanded Club World Cup. That hasn’t been resolved, only delayed, due to the ongoing effects of Covid on the calendar.

It is why so many in football firmly believe Fifa would have been willing to give the ESL a licence. In this case, from a situation where Uefa has politically outmanoeuvred Fifa through its relationship with Conmebol, a new competition could suddenly give the global body new power. It would be a game-changer in so many ways.

So much of this stems from the game’s new power bases and the 2018 discussions that Fifa president Gianni Infantino had with SoftBank, which was willing to financially back that expanded Club World Cup. The conglomerate has deep Saudi Arabian ties, and it was around this time that Mohammed bin Salman’s hierarchy was making overtures to try and get the 2022 World Cup spread across the entire Middle East. A purely Qatari tournament was too much for the Saudis to bear at the height of the Gulf blockade.

It points to how football, and all of its own august institutions, are caught between much greater tensions. The game’s two major driving forces in 2022, transforming it and distorting it, are American capitalism, seeking return on investment, and Middle Eastern sportswashing, pursuing political aims.

In a different way to golf, football’s old world is still figuring out how to adapt to all this. The game’s institutions don’t actually have the same power they used to, but then they don’t view all this in the same way, either.

It is historically ironic, given how such interests used to be perceived, that the effect of American capitalism is seen as more “organic” for the sport. You only have to look at how La Liga has entered into a deal with a private equity group like CVC, while competition president Javier Tebas so frequently lambasts the influence of state-owned clubs.

An important caveat there, mind, comes from the words of FairSquare’s Nicholas McGeehan about Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabian owners: capitalist investors “aren’t bombing Yemen”.

Whereas football has meanwhile had to react to Middle Eastern interest, it has proactively courted the US as the biggest growth market in the world.

Hence the super clubs returning to American cities this summer. Hence those same clubs and the federations falling over themselves for US media interest. It is a potential audience of over 300 million people, after all, among whom football is only growing in fevered popularity.

That is a situation that has made Steve Ross, the billionaire who owns the Miami Dolphins, one of the most influential figures in the game. His company, Relevant, has won the Champions League broadcasting rights for the US market between 2024 and 2027.

The Independent has been told that discussions in the build-up to that decision featured repeated mention of the Champions League final being held in New York in the near future, opening the way for further showpieces to be staged across American cities.

The fiasco in Paris will have meanwhile only bolstered the case, as there is an increasing argument that the Champions League final is too big an event for all but a handful of European cities.

For now, the idea remains unpalatable to most in football. It is still very much in the thinking of stakeholders, though, and a compromise could be a four-team summer tournament in the US.

These are ideas that would find favour with the sport’s increasing band of American owners, both in the Premier League and abroad. It runs alongside plans such as multi-club empires run by Crystal Palace part-owner David Blitzer, Project Big Picture, and of course the Super League itself. That, ironically enough given everything happening in golf, was a direct response to the increasing dominance of state-owned clubs.

Against that, someone even more powerful than Ross as well as the owners of Liverpool and Manchester United is Nasser Al-Khelaifi. It is at moments like this it is worth considering just what a confluence of interests the former tennis player oversees.

As chairman of Qatar Sports Investments, Al-Khelaifi became president of Paris Saint-Germain, which eventually saw him rise to chairman of the European Club Association and a member of the Uefa executive committee. He is at the same time chairman of the Qatari state broadcaster beIN Media Group, which shows the Champions League in the Middle East and north Africa region as well as France and many other countries, influencing the media market for the competition.

Little wonder Tebas recently criticised Al-Khelaifi.

“He wears a lot of hats,” the Liga president said. “There are too many conflicts of interest and this cannot be. It can’t happen in football in 2022.”

All of this comes in the context of a meeting in 2010 – as revealed in Football Leaks – where Nicolas Sarkozy told the emir of Qatar that if he bought PSG and launched a sports channel in France, he would instruct Michel Platini to give the state his vote for the 2022 World Cup.

This is all so relevant for what comes next in golf, football and sport as a whole.

The PGA Tour has taken the admirable step of banning all current and future LIV players, but there is a view within football that such a hardline approach is “unsustainable”.

One figure in a prominent federation confides their belief that “it’s ultimately better to work with these interests rather than have them working against you”.

Otherwise, as the PGA might yet find, it’s “total destruction”.

Because, for all the social value of sport and how much income it generates, it will never have as much money or political leverage as these states.

It just doesn’t have the institutional protection, which is why this ECJ case is such a “checkpoint”. It’s why so many look to Germany as an example.

That kind of state protection for sport is so lacking in Britain and abroad.

It often works the opposite way, as the Saudi Arabian takeover of Newcastle United illustrated.

It has now been widely reported, initially by The Guardian, that Boris Johnson “worked for months to encourage the Premier League to approve” the deal.

So it was that one of England’s great clubs, as well as its football institutions, have been left subject to the political interests of one of the most criticised states on earth. This does not feel like it is for the wider health of the sport.

It nevertheless naturally follows from the government’s strategic and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia, as well as the increasing dependence on Gulf oil.

The fact there’s not going to be Russian energy for a long time means very few politicians are going to be properly speaking out against the so-called petrostates involved in football.

Many sources insist the effect is already being seen in the build-up to the Qatar World Cup, one admitting: “If it wasn’t for Ukraine, there would have been a juggernaut of negative publicity and massive pressure. Now, if you compare it to the Super League, you’re not going to see that kind of pile-on. You’re very unlikely to get cabinet ministers involved.”

By the time lawyers and judges get involved in any possible legal cases over rules – such as sponsorship – or even competitions, the sporting federations simply don’t have the money to put up the same legal fight as these states. It is why the quote about Uefa from Manchester City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak, relating to the club’s Financial Fair Play case, has such resonance: “I would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years.”

Many in football have found similar. Before you even get to winning a case, the best lawyers can slow things down.

Now, you only have to see how Uefa has moved on from FFP.

All of this shows how and why these interests have been “institutionalised” in football, and a LIV Soccer would largely be unnecessary.

It is how PSG and City are winning the majority of their competitions, and signing the majority of the game’s best players.

It is why one of football’s biggest golf fans, Harry Kane, was so willing to take Abu Dhabi money last summer. It is why Eddie Howe has been asked about Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi capital punishment more than Westwood and Lee Poulter.

It has left the American owners, primarily, trying to figure out self-enriching ways to get around all this.

It is all why football probably doesn’t have to fear a future LIV Soccer. It’s already here.

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