With the coming of the television age in the 20th century, all major spectator sports have had to accommodate two different audiences: their loyal fans attending matches in all weathers, and an enthusiastic armchair audience just dying to switch on the TV to be entertained once again by their favourite team. The advent of televised matches also brought more money into sport. Soon the sale of TV rights was bringing in more hard cash than could possibly be earned from paying spectators alone.
But what about all the sports fans who turn up to watch every week, home and away, year after year – the ones who create that special, electric atmosphere? Sometimes it can feel as if they don’t exist!
State of play: Football fills its boots
Football is the most lucrative sport in the world and currently earns twice as much from global TV rights as American football (the next richest sport in terms of TV deals). So, as the recent FIFA/ UEFA scandals have shown, it is perhaps no real surprise to find the modern football world inhabited by so many get-rich-quick investors and executives, club owners, agents, players and managers prepared to compromise on their sporting values just as long as the price is right.
Such thoughts have been aired by disgruntled football fans for many years, but it’s only with the recent emergence of Football Leaks documents, published by the German newspaper ‘Der Spiegel’, that the full extent of the greed and duplicity exercised by some of the top clubs in European football has been revealed in such detail. And now the money men have been ‘outed’, it seems quite clear European football’s elite, money-making teams are poised to take advantage of the dangerous leadership vacuum which exists within European sport now it’s international governing bodies have been critically weakened by the recent exposure of their own dirty dealing.
Foul play exposed by Football Leaks
He calls himself ‘John’, which is not his real name, and he launched the Football Leaks disclosure platform around three years ago. And since 2016, he has been in regular contact with the editor of ‘Der Spiegel’. John has supplied reporters with a vast number of ‘top-secret’ documents about the misdeeds of many who are allowed to flourish on the dark side of football.
One of the most recent Football Leaks revelations concerns concrete plans for a breakaway European Super League. This, it is claimed, would consist of those football clubs who command the largest TV audiences, and could be operational as early as 2021. Such disclosures are often supported by detailed documentary evidence of exceptional quality, and none of the evidence produced by John’s Football Leaks has turned out to be fake news.
John wants it to be made very clear that Football Leaks is not run by thrill-seeking hackers. He is driven by concerns about transparency and justice, and, along with his friends, he believes all fans need to realise football is becoming more and more about business and entertainment. Brought up in Portugal, he himself fell in love with football as a youngster but is now sickened by what money has done to such a beautiful game.
John is convinced football is already completely out of control: secret deals, dodgy contracts, corrupt consultants, dishonest players and officials, tax evasion schemes – the list seems almost endless. And the latest brazen, undercover talks about the formation of a Super League show that football is controlled by business interests – rich investors and top-level clubs who believe they can behave and do exactly as they please and bully everyone else.
Whistle-blowing is risky
John is not naive about the risks he faces running the Football Leaks platform. He knows private investigators are trying to find him, and there is even talk of arrest warrants in some jurisdictions. So John insists on remaining anonymous. He is very hard to contact, travels around a lot and wears clothes which effectively hide his identity.
Nevertheless, John has no intention of giving up on his mission to expose how obscene amounts of football money continue to find their way to those who are already rich. He wants football to ask itself some fundamental questions, such as: Who does the game really belong to? The legions of loyal supporters? The thousands of clubs who keep things running at ground level? Or the governing bodies who are supposed to monitor and support its development?
One great ‘Football Eleven’ to rule them all?
In October 2018, Football Leaks and ‘Der Spiegel’ extensively detailed the elite clubs’ latest breakaway proposals. It seems the bold plan would be for eleven ‘founding’ clubs to set up a top-level European Super League. The proposed list of clubs involved would include Real Madrid, AC Milan, Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Manchester United. These are the original ‘Secret Seven’ clubs who, without informing UEFA, are reported to have been in breakaway discussions among themselves for some considerable time.
The founding clubs would also include Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Paris St-Germain. This group of eleven footballing giants would then be joined by a further five ‘guest’ clubs – documented as Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Marseille and Roma – to give a full super-league complement of 16 clubs.
The eleven founders would be guaranteed members of the league for 20 years, during which time they would not face the prospect of relegation. A further aspect of the new league competition involved a proposal that the clubs should also consider the possibility of leaving their own national league competitions and domestic football associations altogether.
Bayern Munich, for example, are claimed to have even looked into the legal problems associated with any plan to leave the German Bundesliga. The club, it appears, would welcome participation in a Super League which, they have said, would take football to new levels with ‘brands’ competing against each other. ‘Der Spiegel’ has also been shown a ‘binding term sheet’ which all 16 Super League participants would be asked to sign.
Playing the long game
For those who are concerned about the future of football as a game enjoyed by billions of people it is important to understand that these latest moves are more than just an event. The plans for teams to defect from national competitions and set up a private league are all part of a long campaign by monied interests to tilt the balance ever more in their favour. This strategy involves teams of corporate lawyers examining contracts, devising schemes and troubleshooting solutions.
Above all it relies upon the tactic of keeping regulatory and representative bodies at national and international level as much in the dark as possible about developments. And if and when information is disclosed, this culture of secrecy means it’s generally on a ‘need to know’ basis, or to exert pressure for the benefit of the biggest clubs. Some say that the threat to create a super league is really all about getting UEFA to promise bigger clubs a larger share of TV revenues in a vain effort to preserve the unity of club football in Europe. But any changes to the present arrangements for sharing out TV revenues would have a disastrous impact upon clubs lower down the European pecking order. They would be further weakened financially and thus would find it harder to survive, let alone compete. And if eleven clubs did walk away from the present European competitions, they would take all significant TV revenues with them. That would impoverish present clubs and competitions (in every way) and could well spell the end for some.
One consequence of such financial dominance is that it creates a symbiotic relationship between investment and sporting success: The richest clubs can afford to buy the most talented squads of players, and the best players generally win the most games, that in turn wins trophies and thus secures a greater share of revenues. So, barring luck and the sudden emergence of prodigious talent, national and international competitions are increasingly dominated by a handful of super-rich clubs who sweep up all the major trophies.
If you want the evidence, just look to continental Europe: Bayern Munich have now won the Bundesliga for six consecutive years; Juventus have taken the Serie A title seven times in succession; and either Barcelona or Real Madrid’s ‘galacticos’ have run off with La Liga honours in all but one of the past 14 seasons! And the English Premier League is hardly any better, with one of the ‘top three’ clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea – winning the title in all but two of the past 16 years.
Clearing away the obstacles
Modern football lawyers are, of course, extremely well-versed in finding loopholes and devising work-arounds for inconvenient regulations. So in that context, some of the ‘Der Spiegel’ revelations concerning the activities of these legal ‘fixers’ and the advice they offer makes interesting reading.
Legal opinion offered to Bayern Munich in 2016, for instance, suggested that the EU’s competition law could be used to deter both UEFA and FIFA (under its new president Gianni Infantino) from trying to impose serious penalties on any clubs wishing to withdraw from the Bundesliga in favour of more attractive options. And turning to a further point concerning a Memorandum of Understanding between the European Club Association (ECA) and UEFA, lawyers felt it could be successfully argued that this was not a binding commitment for clubs because a signature from ECA, as an organisational entity, could not be used against individual clubs who were not themselves signatories to the agreement.
As regards national football associations, legal advice seemed to be that clubs would still be obliged to release players chosen to represent their national teams. This is because national competitions such as the World Cup and the European Championship provide an opportunity for footballers to increase their market value and boost their earning capacity. So restricting any players right to do so would most likely invite legal action against such a restraint.
However, the situation in Germany’s own Bundesliga presented a further difficulty. Here, club contracts were designed to commit players exclusively to the Bundesliga itself. So Bayern were advised that if they should take the club out of the top German league, this clause might well allow players to simply cancel their contracts and join another team without the payment of any transfer fees. This doomsday scenario would result in any top club suffering catastrophic losses which they would surely be unable to withstand.
Even so, the Munich club remain interested in Super League developments, which suggests that lawyers are still troubleshooting such snags, or that the losses involved could be written off against the potential profits they would expect to gain from a prolonged spell in such a stellar environment.
Winners and losers
The Super League concept is all about wealth and gains for the few. But for the football world in general it may be more about a fatal loss of confidence and credibility. Once upon a time, the problems were just rogue sports betting and match fixing, but we may now find spectators questioning the values of football itself. If this Super League no one wants (except club presidents and CEOs) materialises, we will find ourselves faced with a whole new level of TV revenue income alongside sky-high transfer fees, stinging travel costs and punishing admission prices. This alone will accelerate football’s drift away from its traditional supporters as the sport nakedly pursues profit at the expense of what its real fans actually value the most. The kind of guarantees of transparency and credibility we take for granted in our online casino games would simply not exist in the brave new world of 21st-century competitive football. We’ll soon find ourselves wondering if they ever did.