Robin Sainty: Where on earth is our beautiful game heading?
- Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd
It will be nice to get back to club football today, although two developments over the last week have done little to alleviate my concerns over where the game is heading.
The first of these is the announcement that the influential European Club Association has approved changes to the Champions League which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Subject to almost certain approval from Uefa, from 2024/25 two of the 36 Champions League group places will be reserved for teams who would otherwise have played in the Europa League, but have a high-ranking coefficient based on their previous continental performance. These two places would be awarded in addition to those based on league performance, with a maximum of six clubs entering the Champions League from any one national association.
While this removes the threat of a big club “leapfrogging “a smaller one that reaches a qualifying place in its domestic league, I don’t see it as progress.
The phrase “Champions League” itself has long been an oxymoron, because it’s not a league and many of its competitors aren’t champions and this move will make the competition even more bloated with 36 teams initially instead of the current 32.
With 10 group games being played under the new system rather than the current six, it’s easy to predict that there will be more moans from the likes of Jurgen Klopp about fixture congestion, although his club has happily approved a change that will ensure it.
While that may be seen to head off attempts to revive the European Super League concept, with Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona currently isolated in their enthusiasm for that, it does so at the cost of further diluting what was originally (in the form of the European Cup) a premium competition for the very best teams from each country.
Once again it appears that money making seems to have won out over integrity of competition as fans are relieved of more of their hard-earned cash and will see the European fixture list impinging even more than currently on that of the Premier League.
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The second worrying development is the news that the Raine Group, which is overseeing the sale of Chelsea, have come up with a shortlist of four consortiums, all backed by American investment.
Assuming that one of them succeeds it will mean that nine of 20 Premier League clubs will be owned either completely or in part by Americans.
I’m not opposed to American ownership per se, because while the Glazers have made a total mess of Manchester United, the Fenway Sports Group have done an impressive job of developing Liverpool’s facilities and squad, but what concerns me is the fact that all major American sport is based on a relegation-free closed shop which is total anathema to the pyramid system on which English football has always been based.
The Washington Post nailed the zeitgeist of American sports philosophy when it referred to the Super League idea as “a shift from the nostalgic idea of the people’s game being organised for the pleasure of the fans towards a profit-maximisation approach, in which clubs are viewed as franchises and fans perceived as customers”.
That, of course, is exactly the mindset that saw the fans who actually attend games rather than support their chosen team from the comfort of their sofa being categorised as “legacy fans”, a phrase reportedly used by a source close to the proposed Super League at the time of the attempted breakaway.
Sadly, I fear that both of these developments are further steps towards a future where football continues to treat match-going fans as second-class citizens to be inconvenienced as it pleases while it concentrates on selling its product to the lucrative TV markets around the world with power increasingly concentrated in the hands of the very biggest clubs.
And don’t even get me started on five substitutes….