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Real and Barça openly crave a closed shop

The Spanish giants are still determined to force a breakaway European Super League on us

Real Madrid’s Éder Militão tussles with Barcelona’s Robert Lewandowski during the Spanish Super Cup final in Riyadh last Sunday. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/ AFP/Getty

The two biggest results of this nascent year were Napoli’s 5-1 thrashing of
Juventus on Friday, and Barcelona’s 3-1 victory over Real Madrid in the Spanish Supercup, played in Saudi Arabia late on Sunday night.

On the face of it, these are momentous results. Napoli have built a fabulous team and under Luciano Spalletti are on course to win the Italian league for the first time since Diego Maradona galvanised that unfashionable southern club to win Lo Scudetto over 30 years ago. As if some Machiavellian justice is afoot, this comes as Juventus are in self-inflicted meltdown. The club’s entire board has disbanded and faces prosecution over false accounting and transfer irregularities.

This might be the fall of the House of Agnelli, the ownership of Juve by Italy’s industrial giant, but it is indicative of the incompetence of club president Andrea Agnelli. A nephew of the great Juventus patrician Gianni
Agnelli, he had positioned himself as leader of the European Club Association which represents teams across the continent.

He imagined himself to be the visionary leading the game towards the Super League. In fact, he was the puppet of the real supremo, Real Madrid’s president Florentino Pérez.

Florentino, 75, knows his business. He doubles as Madrid’s omnipotent construction billionaire and president of the most decorated club in European Cup/Champions League history. Yet Pérez is hell bent on destroying the tournament, or rather on making it a closed shop for privileged invitees only.

The European Court of Justice has just indicated that the breakaway Super League would not be legal without Uefa approval. Madrid, Barcelona and what is left of Juventus still plot to force it upon us. Indeed, despite FC Barcelona sinking in debt, Real’s president helped his club’s major protagonist to survive by adopting Madrid’s own bail-out process of exchanging debt for dollars.

The Spanish football giants have in effect mortgaged their futures to America’s big banks and big bucks. They are in bed with Bank of America, JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, all of whom are willing and able to put hard cash downpayments against the anticipated future earnings of Real and Barça, on and off the pitch.

Venture capitalists have the readies to invest, and not just for impecunious
Spaniards, but Brits and Italians too. This comes from the strength of the
dollar and the retreat of the Chinese conglomerates who were told by Chairman Xi to buy into European clubs.

English fans who railed against the Super League in 2021 might soon have to do it all over again. Rather than nursing his stricken FC Barça, the Catalan club’s president Joan Laporta is now predicting that Europe will have its Super League by 2025.

Meanwhile, his team, led by the precocious 18-year-old Gavi, have just won the Supercopa de España in Saudi. Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the Qatari president and CEO of Paris St Germain has succeeded Agnelli as the European Club Association chairman. But west is where all this is heading.

America, Canada and Mexico will host Fifa’s expanded World Cup in 2026. And Americans, rather than the Arabic owners of Man City and Newcastle United, are the dominant group of Premier League owners.

There are now six Premier League clubs under total American ownership – Arsenal, Bournemouth, Chelsea, Fulham, Liverpool and Manchester United (although the last two are for sale). Three more – Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Everton – are heavily into American patronage.

The oil states bring with them human-rights issues and accusations of sportswashing. But we should also worry about the Americans. The Arabs might change the financial stakes of European soccer, but they have not, so
far, sought to change the fundamental structure of the leagues.

The Americans will do so because everything in their culture makes sport a business. And business has protective restrictions which turn teams into franchises that are not allowed to fail. Or at least not allowed to be dropped from the league, the closed shop.

Merit is of no consequence in the American sporting model. And if the European Super League were to come about, it would have none on this side of the pond either.

The rhetoric of Pérez, and until recently his Juventus acolyte Agnelli, is shamelessly wedded to entitlement through history. Madrid, undoubtedly, are top of any standing on that count and, by pawning parts of the club
infrastructure and its marketing might, Pérez intends to keep it that way. In business that is perfectly understandable.

But if sport is to be more than business, clubs have to earn the right to play in whatever era their teams perform. Otherwise, there is no place for clubs to rise to the top through the pyramid.

City were the poor relations in Manchester until local businesspeople sold up to a dubious Thai billionaire politician, who then sold out to Abu Dhabi United Group. You might not like the owners or their financially enhanced model, but at least City have had to win on the playing field to reach the Champions League, and to stay there. Their place in the elite may have been greatly assisted by money, but it was not guaranteed and it is
not fixed. Not granted in perpetuity. Things can change.

But not under the American model that the Super League would bring. We do not want a closed shop.

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