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The Spanish billionaire and the battle for football’s soul

Fans of Chelsea Football Club protest against the European Super League outside Stamford Bridge - Credit: Getty Images

The Super League farce may be over, but the conflicting interests of owners and fans mean more trouble ahead.

Not even Niccolò Machiavelli, the grandmaster of deception, could have foreseen the manner in which English, Spanish and Italian clubs attempted to carve up European football.

“I’m not interested in preserving the status quo,” Machiavelli wrote over 500 years ago in Il Principe (The Prince). “I want to overthrow it.”

Super League architect Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid – Credit: Photo by Mateo Villalba/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

The 12 clubs who announced their intention to join a new European Super League – six English, three Spanish and three Italian – were motivated by two things: self preservation, and money. But just because English fans came out onto the streets, and because the foreign owners so quickly, almost comically capitulated on Tuesday night, we should not consider that greed and self-interest is expunged – or that this foul Americanisation of the European game is over.

Their plot was not even original. Thirty years ago Silvio Berlusconi, the scoundrel who once ran Italy and AC Milan, hired Saatchi and Saatchi to redesign a breakaway European league that smelled very like this week’s doomed proposals. Berlusconi’s Milan had been a beautiful mesh of Dutch creativity and Italian suppression, but the marketing agency’s best idea was founded, just like today’s, on the American concept of franchise sport dividing the spoils not on merit but on the closed shop principle of ownership.

The NFL, America’s game, has no promotion or relegation. It is financed by television, but despite its best efforts has nothing like the global appeal, the marketability of football around 200 countries. It is no coincidence that a New York entrepreneur of Italian lineage, Charlie Stillitano, years ago wooed Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Manchester United and City to travel in what he called the “off-season” to play televised games to burgeon their global merchandising reach.

And, again, it is no coincidence that five of the six English clubs involved in the treachery of the proposed new European Super League are no longer in British hands. Arsenal, Liverpool and United are American-owned. Chelsea is Russian, Man City the property of the sheikh of Abu Dhabi.

Juventus’ president Andrea Agnelli with Cristiano Ronaldo and a special shirt created to celebrate 770 goals scored in his career – Credit: Photo by Daniele Badolato/Juventus FC via Getty Images

And Tottenham? Majority shareholder Joe Lewis was born above an East London pub but makes his billions trading currencies from tax exile in the Bahamas. Old Joe probably once loved the Spurs, but he is now 84 and interested in selling a club that is unprofitable, uncompetitive, and about to pay off its latest fired manager, José Mourinho.

But this was no British heist. And now, because fans took to the streets, and because all six English clubs reneged overnight from the binding contract they had signed last Saturday, there will be an ugly legal fight concerning reputational damage to JP Morgan, the American bank persuaded to put up the money (against anticipated global TV rights) the legal ramifications might only just be beginning. It is the end game of the entrepreneurs who know the price of everything, but do not value the umbilical chord of intergenerational support from fans who literally follow their team from cradle to grave.

The three Italian clubs involved were AC Milan (now under American ownership), Inter Milan (Chinese) and Juventus (run by the third generation of the Agnelli family).

Gianni Agnelli, God rest his soul, paid millions of the family fortune to, as he put it, indulge himself by signing global superstars to play in his stripes. His nephew Andrea Agnelli exhibits none of the true understanding of what makes football so intriguing an affair of heart, mind and soul. 

Badges of the original 12 Super League clubs – Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Yet it was on Andrea Agnelli’s watch as chairman of the European Club Association that the Super League breakaway was announced. By Monday, he was called a barefaced liar by his erstwhile friend, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, who claimed that Agnelli and the likes of United executive director Ed Woodward, who has since fallen on his sword, had deceived him like no-one else had done in Ceferin’s 24 years as a criminal lawyer in his native Slovenia.

Ceferin was thought to lack the gravitas to face down the plotters the way that former UEFA president Lennart Johansson personally did Berlusconi decades ago. The price of Johannson’s deal, however, traduced the original knockout formula of the European Cup into the so-called Champions League. And the price of the current imbroglio is that UEFA will end up giving more games, more big pay nights to the giant clubs.Greed is nakedly the prime mover in what is taking place. 

UEFA and FIFA, themselves exposed by the Joao Havelange, Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini years of corruption for personal gain, are almost impotent to prevent the clubs from effective self-rule, and certainly self-help.

By Monday night, the Real Madrid president Florentino Perez seemed to have overtaken Agnelli as the breakaway league’s prime spokesperson. In part, this was because Agnelli is gauche. 

He was sold Cristiano Ronaldo by Madrid for 100million euros because Real had had the prime of Cristiano, and because Juve felt it could market the ageing Cristiano for more and more worldly franchise profit. However, with Agnelli chopping and changing coaches and hiring Andrea Pirlo – a playing God but an inexperienced coach – Juve is now in grave danger of failing to qualify for the Champions League on merit. 

Moreover, Agnelli makes ludicrous proposals such as offering younger viewers subscriptions for the last 15 minutes of games only. “The attention span of today’s kids, and tomorrow’s spenders,” he reasoned, “is completely different to when I was their age. Take golf, if it’s interesting at all, it’s only the last six holes of the final day. You are not going to watch the whole thing on TV unless you are a hardcore fan.”

An Arsenal fan protests against the proposed European Super League – Credit: Photo by Charlotte Wilson/Offside via Getty Images

Perez, a much more worldly-wise veteran of the power game, would surely never say such a thing. Would he? Well on Monday on Spanish TV, he said: “If young people say football matches are too long, maybe it’s because that match isn’t so interesting – or maybe we have to shorten the length of matches.”

Billionaire Perez, 74, mixes careers in construction and politics alongside running the club his parents signed him up for at birth through five of the 13 times Real has won the Champions League. I have sat beside him through hours of his tenure and know that his appreciation of football is complete and real. But it is an aristocrat’s appreciation. Señor Perez neither knows nor cares for the root and branch of the sport. His club won the first five seasons of the old European Cup from 1955, and has grandeur written through its history the way that General Charles de Gaulle imagined France to represent grandeur in the world.

Perez blamed the Covid pandemic for the urgency to launch the new Super League. “Real Madrid, in two seasons, have lost more than 400 million euros,” he claimed on Monday on the TV programme El Chiringuito. “And that’s just Real Madrid! Football is beginning to lose interest. Audiences are going down and TV rights too. Something had to be done and the pandemic accelerated this process. Without change, we are ruined.”

Then, reiterating the Agnelli line, Perez stated: “Teenagers are more interested in playing video games than in football, and we have to do something to bring them back.

We had to adapt. The same thing happened in the 1950s, UEFA and FIFA were opposed to Bernabéu (the elitist founder of Real Madrid) and the European Cup.”

Perez made assurances to everyone who had signed up to the new league that FIFA and UEFA were powerless to oppose it, or to prevent players from representing their clubs and their countries. He also claimed the new cartel had not invited Paris St Germain to join their privileged elite, nor had they offered a place to any German club.

The reason for the latter was Germany’s powerful commitment to fan participation in ownership. But the arrogance in side-stepping Bayern Munich, the current Champions League and Club World Cup holder, and PSG, the 2020 Champions League finalist, and a semi-finalist in 2021 was breathtaking.

Perez, however, regarded them as irrelevant. The old Europe is dead, bring on the new, on his terms. “This isn’t a battle for money,” the Spaniard said on Monday. “This is a battle for football. We’re trying to save football, and some people don’t care because it’s not in their financial interest.”

Some people, señor, care very much. They care deep down to the roots of the sport, much deeper and more worldly than anyone in the boardrooms of the self-appointed elite or the corridors where power is again more interested in profit than passion.

Perez will not save football. He and his now rapidly disbanding clique were not interested in preserving the status quo. They wanted to overthrow it.

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