As if Covid-19 had not already disrupted football enough, European fans yesterday learnt of potentially the most tectonic shift for the game in decades. Twelve of England, Spain and Italy's biggest clubs announced their intention to form a breakaway continental league.
Presidents of the clubs say that the new European Super League (ESL) will modernise football for the benefit of all who care about the game.
This view is not shared widely, judging by the negative reaction of supporters, commentators, governing bodies and even national governments. In a video that clocked more than one million views within hours, UK expert Gary Neville said fans would be "seething listening to these announcements". British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron have both said that the development will damage the world's most popular sport, and leagues from across Europe have said they are willing to respond with punitive measures.
A central complaint, particularly among fans, is that the move surrenders the game to commercialisation. If it goes ahead, ESL is likely to generate unprecedented profits. But let’s not forget, big business in football did not begin yesterday. The tension between loyalty to the sport's community origins and its increasingly global television audience is nothing new. Knee-jerk sceptics must remember that football's popularity – some estimates claim the total number of fans worldwide to be 4 billion people – would not have been possible without business. Politicians should appreciate the same; the English Premier League is considered one of the UK's most prized exports and a boon for its soft power.
That said, there are good reasons for caution. None of the ESL's founding teams will ever be relegated from the new division, weakening the competitive aspect of the game, a central part of its appeal. This will diminish the achievement of smaller clubs who succeed. Who could forget Leicester City’s against-all-odds 2015-2016 Premier League triumph?
The origin of football's popularity is the hard work of communities, many of them not wealthy, who commit themselves to arguably the most accessible and egalitarian game in the history of team sports. For an entire year, fans have been locked out of stadiums, places many of them have been frequenting for life. There is a danger that some will view this as a betrayal of their loyalty.
On Sunday, the ESL said its new model would help to support and grow the game during a time of crisis. It has committed to preserving the traditional calendar of national leagues, while also fulfilling the growing demand for higher-quality matches. These ambitions are admirable, and they will have to materialise if the body is to win the trust of fans.
The new league is not the first example of commercialisation in the game, but it is a significant one. Its next steps could reveal much about the heart and future of the game. Only time will tell if its ambitions are tenable.
The ESL will need some balls in the back of the net, and fast. As former England player Michael Owen once famously observed, if a team cannot score goals, they are hardly ever going to win.