Liverpool supporters should have spent Sunday pondering the potential impact of the following day’s Premier League trip to Leeds United on their club’s hopes of Champions League qualification.
Instead, they were debating whether such an emotional investment will be a worthwhile use of energy in the future.
Such has been the reaction to the news the Reds are one of 12 clubs to pledge their support for a breakaway European Super League.
A total of six Premier League clubs have given their backing to a proposal that would revolutionise competition among the Europe’s supposed leading lights and tear apart established norms.
Of course, plans of this sort are nothing new. Every few years, Europe’s leading clubs rattle their sabres and kick up a bit of a fuss in an attempt to have their voice heard before backing down after earning concessions – almost always financial – from UEFA.
Usually, as with now, it coincides with the governing body planning an overhaul of their biggest and most lucrative jewel – the Champions League.
This time, though, feels different. And for good reason.
The ongoing financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic – and the absence of supporters inside stadia – has alarmed clubs whose huge losses over the past 13 months are now beginning to become apparent.
Put bluntly, they need the money. And opportunity has knocked at exactly the right moment.
In their mind, it is understandable why Liverpool owners Fenway Sports Group wouldn’t want to be left behind by the prospect of such a breakaway league.
If the initiative gets off the ground and proves a financial success, anyone club on the outside would stand to miss out on a fortune and leave them with little say among the European powerbrokers.
FSG don’t want that. They will believe that lessens chance of success for Liverpool, not improve it.
The flip side is what they are experiencing now – a huge backlash from the sizeable majority of Liverpool fans, let alone those from clubs not involved in the breakaway.
Of course, the initiative is as much about politics as business or sport, those involved wanting to control their own destiny and, yes, the distribution of funds. The 12 ‘founding clubs’ – as they call themselves – come from England, Spain and Italy, with those from France and Germany siding with UEFA. For now.
Opportunist? No doubt. Cynical? 100%. But a surprise? Nope.
Change, though, is inevitable. Indeed, the Champions League came into being almost 30 years ago because UEFA were looking to see off the threat of European Super League, the name of the rejigged competition somewhat ignoring the fact that it was now open to non-title winners.
But at least participation was based on sporting merit. The most alarming aspect of the proposed breakaway is that the founding members would always be there, with around five or six places open through qualification.
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It’s happening in part anyway. The most controversial aspect of UEFA’s proposals to expand the Champions League to 36 teams from 2024 is that two places will go to the clubs who historically have done best in Europe, but had only qualified for the Europa League or Europa Conference League – basically because they aren’t good enough.
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Overlooked in all of this are two groups of people – the players, who undoubtedly won’t have been consulted, and the fans.
The instant reaction from Liverpool supporters, at least the regular matchgoers, is vehement disapproval.
Very few want a closed shop in European football, where playing the same teams year after year would soon see supposed glamour fixtures quickly lose their sheen.
And there is almost universal alarm that the domestic game – the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup – is eroded as a consequence, their integrity endangered. Why get worked up, like Reds fans are now, at a battle for the top four when you already know your club has qualified regardless? Why bother getting worked up at all?
Yes, Liverpool fans want to win. They want their team to be among Europe’s best. They want to be the world’s best again.
But they want that to be achieved in a competition that is fair and doesn’t offer the Reds, along with the 11 other teams, a huge advantage on top of those they have already gathered over more than 125 years of existence.
Having walked out over a proposed increase in season ticket prices five years ago, it will be interesting to see what reaction is mobilised by supporters should the breakaway edge nearer fruition.
But with fans still locked out of stadium – and what a convenience that is for the clubs who know quite well the resistance with which the proposal will be met – that isn’t an immediate concern.
Regardless of what happens over the coming days and months of a tale that is only just getting started – the leading European leagues and UEFA have already condemned the proposal and threatened action – there is an undeniable truth.
Change is coming. And, whether it’s a breakaway league or a shift of power in UEFA, Liverpool owners FSG want to be part of it.
But while money is important – it has been claimed clubs will be offered £310million just to join the breakaway league – so too is sporting integrity. The desire for the former cannot come at the expense of the latter, otherwise accusations of pure greed will be wholly justified.
The rich get richer. The smaller become marginalised. Competition becomes limited. Interest recedes. And the short-term financial gain will soon make way for a long-term devastating blow entirely of the own making of those 12 clubs.
It may just be a remarkable show of brinkmanship to negotiate greater financial rewards from UEFA. Let’s hope so. But that can only be taken so far without any repercussions. Liverpool, and the 11 others, have moved right to the very limit.
With the creeping influence of technology and having to watch from their own homes, supporters’ love of the game has been tested like never before over the last year.
Even if Liverpool are part of it, a breakaway closed-shop European Super League predominantly for the richest clubs goes against the ethos, the very essence of many Reds fans and will surely see many walk away from the game for good.
And has been witnessed in the last 10 months, if there’s nobody inside watching, is it really football any more?
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