Time to take back OUR beautiful game

Image courtesy the Daily Mirror and Reuters

I was a fortnight away from my 11th birthday when I watched the Heysel Stadium tragedy unfold on television. In many ways, it marked the end of childhood, and triggered the bouts of melancholy that punctuate my life to this day. But I was too young then to feel a sense of shame, or the crippling guilt that goes with knowing that people who supported the same football club as you were at least partly responsible for what happened that appalling evening.

Now, nearly 36 years later, I feel immense shame, even if no lives have been lost. Liverpool Football Club’s support for the breakaway European Super League is not just a Covid-infected spit in the direction of a storied past, but a resounding slap in the face for fans who literally walked through a storm for so many years.

Nearly 15 years ago, when rumours started swirling that Dubai Investment Capital (DIC) or an American consortium might be in the market to buy Liverpool, I remember some fans being excited by the development. The logic was that richer owners would allow the club to compete with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, who were fast disappearing over the horizon both in terms of success on the field and commercial deals off it.

I remember telling a friend then that such largesse always comes with a cost. Liverpool found that out the hard way with Tom Hicks and George Gillett. They took over a club that was on the verge of reaching a second Champions League final in three seasons, and left behind a ruin overloaded with debt, a stadium plan more fairy tale than fact, and a team so denuded of talent that it wouldn’t finish in the top four for another four years.

The Fenway Sports Group which succeeded them managed the finances far better. Appointing Jurgen Klopp was a masterstroke — Hicks and Gillett were so football savvy that they wanted to replace Rafael Benitez with Jurgen Klinsmann! — and progress on the field went hand in hand with an increasingly robust revenue model. That was until the pandemic hit.

Given the completeness of the proposed plan — JP Morgan Chase are apparently prepared to bankroll it to the tune of 6 billion dollars — it’s highly unlikely that it was envisaged only after the Coronavirus-enforced penny-pinching. The owners are likely to have discussed it and its variants for the best part of half a decade, if not longer. And given that three of the six owners of the English clubs slated to be part of the new league are American, it should come as no surprise that the new project is modelled on the largely recession-proof NFL and NBA, with their mammoth TV deals, and no threat of relegation or loss of revenue.

If you’re not especially invested in football, you might well ask why this is such a bad thing. It’s the economics of the market after all. But football was never intended as just a commercial activity, and football clubs aren’t mere ‘investments’. They mean so much more to so many. Ander Herrera, once of Manchester United and now with Paris Saint-Germain — one of the few cash-rich clubs not to sign up (yet) — put it beautifully when he wrote: “I fell in love with popular football, with the football of the fans, with the dream of seeing the team of my heart compete against the greatest.

In Herrera’s case, despite being born in the Basque country in Bilbao, the team of his heart is Real Zaragoza, where he started his career. Zaragoza now play in Spain’s Segunda Division, and have never won La Liga. You have to go back to 2004 for the last of their six Copa del Rey triumphs. And though they famously beat Arsenal in the final of the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup in 1995 — Nayim, once of Tottenham, scoring the winner with an audacious 40-yard lob — no one would ever class Zaragoza as European football aristocracy.

If this proposed Super League happens, those kind of glorious upsets will be erased from the European football narrative. Instead, we’ll see the same cast enacting the same hackneyed drama over and over. In more than 65 years of European competition, Real Madrid and Liverpool have played each other just eight times. Those encounters were something to savour because they weren’t mundane, everyday affairs. If it eventually became that, would the real fan even want to watch?

Ultimately, it comes down to our appetite for change, and also the identity of those behind the attempt to switch goalposts. It’s surely no coincidence that you can’t find too many former footballers or genuine fans who think this is a good idea. The last time I checked a poll on the BBC Sport website, 53,500 people were against the idea of a Super League, while only 3,724 gave it the thumbs up. Presumably, they were either employees of JP Morgan Chase, the various owners or bots — in short, the kind of folk who don’t really give a **** about football.

The fact that Liverpool FC have thrown their hat into this sordid ring is a matter of eternal shame. More than any other club, it should have been a no-brainer for Liverpool to stay away. Whatever the club is today is because of a Scottish socialist, Bill Shankly, who would have been apoplectic if such an idea had been mentioned to him. Kenny Dalglish, who was at the forefront of another golden age in the late 1970s and ’80s, also put the fans first, especially in the harrowing aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. Klopp is so loved by the fans partly because he evokes memories of Shankly. He has also never been shy of expressing his political beliefs.

In an interview with Kicker in 2019, Klopp said: “I hope there will never be this Super League. With the way the Champions League is now running, football has a really great product.

“For me, the Champions League is the Super League in which you don’t always have to play the same teams. I also don’t feel like my club has to be seeded. Of course, it’s economically important, but why should we create a system where Liverpool can play against Real Madrid for 10 years in a row? Who wants to see this every year?”

For men like him and Pep Guardiola, whose footballing philosophy is so enmeshed with the culture around FC Barcelona, this is a horrible situation to be in. They understand better than most that football is nothing without the communion between players and fans. They also know that fans care far more about local rivalries than European excursions. Manchester United against Barcelona will never replace El Clásico, and it’s absurd to expect Liverpool fans to look forward to a season that doesn’t include the Merseyside derby against Everton. A football person would know this, but sadly, most of these decisions are taken by bean-counters who know the value of absolutely nothing.

Jock Stein won the European Cup for Glasgow Celtic with a team of players all born within a 30-mile radius of the city. Brian Clough built his two-time European-Cup-winning Nottingham Forest sides with players few ‘big clubs’ wanted. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen — with a population of less than 200,000 people — beat mighty Real Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1983. If these kind of storylines don’t fit the Netflix script you have in mind for football, then you can shove that narrative where the sun don’t shine.

Of course, given the damage that big financial corporations have done to the global economy in just this century alone, and the general ineptitude of those running football clubs, we can be cautiously optimistic that this exercise in avarice will fail miserably. Take a look at the accounts at Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United. They don’t make for pretty reading. And if they’ve made such a mess of things in a system almost solely geared to the benefit of the big clubs, good luck striking out on their own.

The only way to stop this atrocity is for fans the world over to unite and hit these greedy men where it really hurts. Stop your online subscriptions for games, stop buying the shirts and other merchandise, and switch off even as it will feel like a knife in the gut to do so.

I left England in 1986, a few months after Dalglish led Liverpool to the league-and-cup double. For the next decade, there was no Liverpoll on television. But I never missed a game, even if that meant sitting on the footboard of a train with a pocket radio searching for a Sports Round Up signal. Apart from a couple of occasions when I was travelling — and yes, I’ve even paid for cutthroat-expensive WIFi on flights to get score updates — I’ve never missed a match.

Tonight’s game, against Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds, was one I’ve been looking forward to for months. But I won’t be watching. And neither should you. It’s time to take back our game — and it is OUR game — from these leeches who have had their way for far too long.

Liverpool, Wilderness and the Promised Land

How Barcelona became Rendició FC

Atalanta and the myth of fairy tales