Blowing the whistle on football’s culture of greed

Football was broken long before the European Super League. But the united effort that dismantled this money-grubbing venture has to be sustained to fix the other ills in the beautiful game.

Empty stands are no longer the eyesore they were in 2020, when even Covid-19 couldn’t stop football. But now, in 2030, they aren’t empty because of a pandemic. They are empty because the money supporters paid for season tickets paled in comparison with the millions companies pay to splash their brand over the seats that used to house the soul of the beautiful game. Branding on only the perimeter boards is, as they say, so 2020.

The period during which teams were forced to play behind closed doors to limit the spread of the coronavirus convinced club owners that they didn’t need supporters in the stands. Brands wouldn’t come to matches bearing banners, such as the infamous #GlazersOut and #KroenkeOut, calling for their heads. And so, in front of empty stands, the first player steps up to take the penalty. 

He (women’s football was discontinued long ago as it didn’t fit into this “new world order”) pulls out a mirror first to check if every strand of hair is in place. The day before, video footage surfaced of him killing and dismembering his partner. But there would be no investigation; the owner of the club he plays for also presides over the country in which he committed the crime. The grieving family receives a sympathy card and are told they can dedicate a seat in the stadium to their daughter, somewhere the cameras do not reach because death doesn’t attract sponsors, although it doesn’t deter them either. Satisfied with how he looks, he stares into the camera lens and mentions the haircare brand paying him millions to pretend he uses its products before dispatching the ball into the back of the net. 

There’s no roar, just the sounds of coins clinking. No one cares about the goal, the only scores that matter now are how much each club earns every second. Accountants run the show. The players – whose talent has long since ceased to matter, as long as they keep bringing in money – are walking mannequins and coaches are spoken about like the days when goalkeepers were allowed to handle a back pass. You can barely make out the colour of the teams’ jerseys for all the brands plastered on them. And certainly not their names. Those, too, like the names of stadiums and clubs, have been sold to the highest bidder.

Matches are played in Mars, where thousands of workers died building stadiums and players complained about not being able to breathe. The authorities responded by giving each player a lifetime supply of oxygen. And companies jumped at the chance to brand their oxygen packs. Football runs from January to December. When a player collapses and dies, they are thrown into a pit and another is released from their five-star cage to take their place and entertain the emperor…

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A tad hyperbolic, but at the rate football is going this could be the future of the not-so-beautiful game. The so-called football nuclear war was never a fight, if one can even call it that, between good and evil. It was never about principles or what’s right for the game, players and supporters. It was, plain and simply, greed versus greed. 

It was greed that saw 12 European clubs – England’s Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur; Italy’s AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus; and Spain’s Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid – come together to form the European Super League (ESL), a league that is greed on steroids. 

The entitlement of these 12 teams had them believe that they deserved more than what they currently get. They used the financial losses they incurred as a result of Covid-19 and its lockdowns as their justification, not revealing that most of them were already swimming in debt before the pandemic because of their greed.

“We will help football at every level and take it to its rightful place in the world. Football is the only global sport in the world with more than four billion fans and our responsibility as big clubs is to respond to their desires,” said Florentino Pérez, the president of Real Madrid and the would-be first chairperson of the now collapsed ESL. He said this without any sense of irony and yet fans the world over, including those of the 12 greedy clubs, vociferously opposed the league. 

Fifa and Uefa are no saints 

World and European governing bodies, respectively Fifa and Uefa, as well as the national leagues in which these clubs play, condemned Pérez’s stance. They said they “remain united in our efforts to stop this cynical project, a project that is founded on the self-interest of a few clubs at a time when society needs solidarity more than ever”. The leagues threatened to kick the clubs out of their domestic competitions, while Uefa and Fifa issued the same threats about competitions they manage, which would end the international careers of the players involved. 

But Fifa, Uefa and the leagues didn’t make these threats with the purest of intentions. They were also driven by greed, protecting their interests, because it’s not far-fetched to believe that they’d have been in favour of the venture if they were going to get a cut of the billions.

Uefa did, after all, announce the expansion of the Uefa Champions League a day after the ESL launched on Sunday night, including a third competition in the form of the Uefa Europa Conference League as well as allocating slots in the Champions League for teams based on their recent success and not what they did that season. The expanded Champions League means more games, which translates to more television hours and, ultimately, more broadcasting and advertising revenue. With an already congested fixture list, this decision was not made with the interests of players at heart as professional football is played around the globe in every month of the year, the only sport to do so. 

20 July 2015: Fake dollar bills thrown in protest by British comedian Simon Brodkin rain down on former Fifa president Sepp Blatter during a Fifa press conference in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photograph by Philipp Schmidli/ Getty Images)

When the season ends in May, if there are no international games scheduled, the players rest briefly before travelling to Asia and the United States to play in pre-season tournaments. These have nothing to do with preparing them for the upcoming season, they’re about lining the pockets of club owners who have business interests in those parts. 

This is the same Uefa that fails to take swift action on financial doping. Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) chair Nasser Al-Khelaifi was elected in 2019 to serve on Uefa’s executive committee despite being investigated for bribery, his club under investigation for violating financial fair play rules. Uefa slapped PSG with a €60 million fine in 2014 for breaching these rules, but would refund €40 million of this if the club complied with certain measures. That’s small change for a man who holds the financial power of a country. 

Fifa also came out strongly against the ESL. “Fifa is an organisation which is built on values, the true values of sport,” the president of the world body, Gianni Infantino, said on Tuesday 20 April at the Uefa congress in Switzerland. But this is the same organisation that hasn’t batted an eyelid about the more than 6 500 migrant workers who have died on building sites in the decade since Qatar won the rights in 2010 to stage the World Cup in 2022, according to The Guardian newspaper.

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It’s reported that some of those workers died because of the extremely hot conditions in the country, the same heat that will make it challenging for players to play at an optimum level. Qatar’s human rights violations are well documented. But Fifa is an “organisation built on values”. This is the same organisation that saw fit to allow a match to be staged in 1973 at the Estadio Nacional in Chile, which was used as a prison and torture camp after General Augusto Pinochet took over the country in a coup. In 1978, the World Cup was held in Argentina, which was under military dictatorship. 

The most recent World Cup was held in Russia, a country that waged war with Ukraine to annex Crimea and did so without repercussion from the international community. This is just one example of its long list of human rights violations under Vladimir Putin.

If Fifa cared about values, such regimes wouldn’t host the world’s biggest football tournament. They wouldn’t award a World Cup to countries where playing football poses so many health risks. Their World Cup and Club World Cup expansion is based on nothing but greed as it will earn them more money while pushing players even harder. The same Fifa is also alleged to be in favour of a Super League in Africa, which is surprising considering its reaction to the one in Europe. 

When fans act 

The united response of supporters worldwide, disgust at the Super League, should be celebrated. It has shown that the game still belongs to supporters, despite broadcasters and sponsors bastardising it for profit, and turning the beautiful game into “content” and the heart and soul of it into “consumers”. 

Supporters didn’t only voice their frustration, they acted. From messages of disapproval outside the stadiums of the greedy 12 to the Chelsea fans’ protest on 20 April delaying the kick-off of their match against Brighton & Hove Albion at Stamford Bridge. 

The six English clubs pulled out of the league first, leading to its collapse in under three days. But as much as this move was a cause for celebration, the clubs’ initial intentions should be remembered because greed doesn’t rest. What should continue is supporters using their immense power for good. 

Disgust for the Super League was amplified on Sky Sports in the United Kingdom, from supporters to pundits. But this is the same company to which fans have to fork out a small fortune to watch live sport. And it doesn’t end at subscription fees. Broadcasters schedule matches at hours and on days that aren’t practical for supporters who have to work the following day, overlooking the travelling fans undertake to get to and from stadiums. As long as it’s good for television, they’re happy. But this needs to change. The safety and convenience of fans should be at the heart of these decisions, not corporate greed. 

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In South Africa, a large majority is now unable to watch key football fixtures, with MultiChoice and its SuperSport pay television channels not only holding the broadcasting rights but also the sponsors of the league and owner of one of the 16 clubs in the premier division. Unable to go to stadiums during the Covid-19 lockdown, fans who relied on the public broadcaster have been left out in the cold. And there has been no effort to meet these supporters, most of whom cannot afford the expensive subscription service, halfway. 

Supporters have to realise that they have only themselves. Broadcasters, Fifa, Uefa, the government and the leagues in which the greedy 12 play are not their allies. They were simply protecting their interests when they criticised the Super League. Such a tournament will happen in the future, as long as the “right” people benefit. Pérez and Barcelona insist that the venture isn’t dead, and that’s alarming. 

The British government has refused to cut ties with Saudi Arabia, to which it sells billions of pounds worth of arms, despite what the Gulf nation is doing to Yemen. The same British government took the moral high ground when a Saudi consortium wanted to purchase Newcastle United with the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi still fresh in the mind of the public. That same government heavily criticised the Super League and called for more scrutiny on ownership and with whom British clubs do business. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

Saudi Arabia has been on an intensive sports drive, investing almost $2 billion to bring the best in sport to the country. From Formula 1 and WWE – women weren’t allowed to participate in the first of the 10-year contract – to boxing, golf and the Dakar Rally. In years to come, the country will be known as the home of sport rather than the place where those with dissenting voices are killed and women were denied basic rights for the longest time. 

20 April 2021: A quote from former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly sits alongside banners and scarves tied to the fences around Anfield Stadium in protest at the club joining the European Super League. (Photograph by Christopher Furlong/ Getty Images)

The power of supporters

Supporters who back such conduct are normalising it. A number don’t care who owns their club, as long as their team keep winning trophies. But then those same supporters are up in arms when those same owners show their true colours.

Supporters have to harness their energy and unity to make a stand against the ills of the game. Fans are the problem and the solution to some of the challenges facing the sport. Protests against the Super League shouldn’t end now, they should be the start of resetting football. They should be a springboard for the interests of supporters being put ahead of broadcasting in match scheduling, more money in the women’s game, greater efforts to overcome racism and bigotry, investment in development and addressing the escalating ticket prices that are making watching live football an expensive exercise for fans. 

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It’s worth noting that German clubs refused to be part of the Super League. Their business model might have its flaws, such as permitting Red Bull to flaunt its marketing scheme through RB Leipzig. But allowing fans to own a majority stake in their club is a revolutionary move when problematic regimes are buying clubs around the world to sportwash their image. This model has allowed the Bundesliga to keep ticket prices affordable. And yet this on its own will not fix football: supporters technically own Madrid but it was nonetheless Pérez who spearheaded the ESL. 

A stronger players’ union needs to be vocal, empowered and independent of any sporting body to properly represent player interests. Footballers were not consulted about this new venture. Their health and other concerns are not taken into consideration when decisions are made about kick-off times or where matches will be played. If the Super League had materialised, they would have been forced to play in a league they possibly didn’t want or ask for, and banned from international football for honouring their club contracts. 

The beautiful game can be restored to its glory from the ashes of the Super League. The hyperbolic scenario above will not happen if supporters remain unified and continue to be vocal about what threatens their game. And if that doesn’t work, withdraw their support from immoral tournaments. If there are no supporters in Qatar for the World Cup, Fifa and other sporting bodies will think twice about where they stage events in future.

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