Tommy Martin: Are we the bad guys for tolerating the 'ambition' of Champions League superclubs?

Do the sharp-suited gentlemen ever realise that they are the baddies? Of course not. No-one ever does
Tommy Martin: Are we the bad guys for tolerating the 'ambition' of Champions League superclubs?

Liverpool's manager Jurgen Klopp gives instructions to Mohamed Salah during their Champions League match against Ajax at the Johan Cruyff ArenA. Liverpool and Manchester United have been pushing plans to restructure English and European football, according to reports. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

One of the best routines in That Mitchell and Webb Look, the BBC sketch show starring the Peep Show’s David Mitchell and Robert Webb, is set in a Nazi bunker on the Eastern Front during World War II.

A bunch of SS officers are readying themselves for a Russian advance.

“Now we’ll see how these Russians deal with a crack SS division,” says Webb’s steely commander.

—“Hans?” interrupts a perturbed Mitchell. “Hans, I’ve just noticed something.”

“These communists are ALL cowards,” says Webb, gazing into the night through binoculars.

— “Hans, have you looked at our caps recently? The badges on our caps?”

“What? No?”

—“They’ve got skulls on them.”

“Huh?”

—“Have you noticed our caps have actually got little pictures of skulls on them?”

“I don’t…uh...?”

— “Hans… Are we the baddies?”

I like to think of this sketch whenever I hear about people doing bad things. 

It’s fun to imagine the board of a giant corporation burning down a rainforest, or some tech giant devising sinister mind-controlling algorithms, or a property company building high-end apartments on a kiddies playground, and think of it dawning on some mid-level henchman that we might be the baddies here.

I especially like to think of the sharp-suited gentlemen who populate the elite boardrooms of club football doing that. I wonder — when they are concocting their plans to tear up the time-worn structures of the game, to rig the system even more so in their favour, to gorge themselves further — do they ever realise that they are the baddies?

Of course not. No-one ever does. To people in those situations, it always just seems to be going that way. Just following orders. This is going to happen anyway. It’s just business.

In soccer, these are busy times for the baddies. No sooner had Project Big Picture been binned than the latest plans for a European Super League were dutifully leaked.

Project Big Picture was the attempt by the Premier League’s so-called Big Six to capitalise on the financial carnage caused by Covid-19 and tilt the power structures in the English game further in their favour.

The rich would throw crumbs to the poor, who, in gratitude, would vote to allow them to do whatever they wanted in perpetuity. It would be like going into business with Tony Soprano. Sure, let me take care of those cashflow problems. Then I’ll torch your restaurant for the insurance payoff.

One of the things they wanted was to be able to fiddle with the domestic game — get rid of the cups, decrease the numbers in the Premier League — so that they would have the freedom to make merry with their fellow continental plutocrats in a European super league.

And lo, just days after Project Big Picture was rejected ‘unanimously’, Sky Sports managed to get their hands on details of talks about establishing an elite competition called, wait for it, the European Premier League.

“Liverpool and Manchester United are in talks about a bombshell plot involving Europe’s biggest football clubs,” wheezed the story on Sky’s website, “to join a new Fifa-backed tournament that would reshape the sport’s global landscape.”

Details include the fact that only clubs from Europe’s big five leagues would be invited, hence the likes of Club Brugge, Ferencvaros, and Midtjylland and other actual champions of their domestic leagues wouldn’t be getting in the way.

The story also mentioned that JP Morgan bank would raise $6bn of capital for the project. Yes, JP Morgan! Ha! They’ve literally gone for the bank named after a 19th century US robber baron, famous for industrial monopolisation, wage-suppression and anti-competitive practices! He also twice bailed out the US economy, in what was Project Big Picture, 1890s-style.

Of course, it’s not a bombshell plot at all. Stories about high level talks to form a European super league have been getting leaked to breathless media outlets for the last 30 years. They are what led to the Champions League in first place.

In the late 1980s, Silvio Berlusconi got distracted from ogling showgirls for long enough to notice that his AC Milan team weren’t playing Real Madrid every second week. The rich guys got to talking and hey, presto! The Chaaaampioooons!!

Since then the same rich guys have been leaking stories about a breakaway European super league every six months or so, in order to pressurise Uefa into giving them more money, power, and privilege.

Right now, Uefa are planning what their flagship competitions will look like after 2024, hence the latest, well-timed leak.

Uefa have poo-poohed the story, dismissing it as a negotiating tactic. They claim their structures which champion solidarity and open leagues are the only way to go, and that the proposed Super League would become ‘boring’.

Thing is, they will eventually concede what the clubs want, or most of it.

Indeed, they are more than half way there. Every club in the last 16 of last season’s Champions League came from one of Europe’s top five leagues. The privileges of cash and guaranteed group stage access that the rich guy baddies pushed for already guarantee their success.

They just want more. They always want more. It’s just business.

Remember what we said about the baddies? How, unlike David Mitchell’s SS officer, they never realise they’re the baddies? How things are just kind of going that way?

Ultimately they know that while people will give out about the greed and arrogance of the superclubs, most of us will tune in to watch the games in this European Premier League, or whatever they decide to call it, even as the concentration of power within a small elite lays waste to the long-established ecology of the game.

They know they are just giving us what we want, that by stockpiling the money and the talent and weeding out the poor their product gets bigger and better and shinier. We’ll get sucked in and watch it because it’s on, because things are just going that way.

Hans, maybe we are the baddies.

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