There is currently a banner placed in Manchester United’s Stretford End which carries a quote from arguably the club’s most important manager, Sir Matt Busby.
“Football is nothing without fans,” adorned to a big red piece of tarpaulin, a work of simple art so recognisable that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might even mistake it for the red of his player’s home shirts – or so he suggested last week.
It was under the guidance of the legendary Busby this great club began its love affair with European cup competition in the 1950s, winning their first European Cup under the Scot a decade after tragedy befell his Babes.
“To even contemplate walking away from that competition would be a betrayal of everything this club has ever stood for,” a statement from the official independent Manchester United Supporters Trust read on Sunday. Walk away they are ready to do.
While the modern United might be a glamorous corporate business with multi-million pound sponsorships and enormous global appeal, this is still a club with the same rich history and working class ethos which saw it established in the first place.
However, official confirmation of the European Super League late on Sunday evening was a reminder that such humble intentions remain firmly in the past. This is a global behemoth not operating in the interest of fans anymore, but that in the interest of pure capital gain.
There were a few on social media who quickly pointed this out. From a business point of view the ESL represents clear financial incentive, from the eyes of American owners who have never stood freezing on an away terrace and ingested the smell of Bovril and fried onions it certainly seems like a no brainer.
In the hours after the announcement it was revealed Italian side Juventus’ stock prices had shot up by six per cent, United will no doubt be hoping for a similar reaction on the New York Stock Exchange.
Warnings signs have been around for a long time. It was only back in October controversial talk of Project Big Picture looked to strengthen the hands of ‘big teams’ and protect their future interests, while the fact United glamorise App downloads and Tik Tok impressions as genuine achievements is regular reaffirmation that football is secondary on the list of priorities at Old Trafford.
Yet, surely. there must be a line drawn between pure selfish business intentions and the footballing interest of those you serve and represent by investing in the clubs they established in the first place. That is being ruthlessly neglected at this moment in time.
The real tragedy is that the ESL announcement has not come as a surprise. The suggestion has been touted for years to come and finally in the wake of a global pandemic the ring leaders have pushed ahead with plans to make the rich richer and further cement their cosy futures at the top of European football.
However, to play devil’s advocate for a second – while the ESL is a landmark case in terms of financial greed, there is no way Fifa, Uefa, the Premier League and broadcasters should be viewed as the victims in all of this. The only victims are those who care and support their clubs, those who would be standing on the terraces through thick and thin, long before money was in the game and long after it has gone.
A World Cup in Qatar next summer, an attempt to implement a pay-per-view model in English football last year, the writing has been on the wall for a long time.
An extra element of hypocrisy is how so many big teams have devalued ‘lesser cup competitions’. Moaning about hectic fixture schedules which see them playing in domestic tournaments, but always finding resource and time to complete matches in those which deliver the biggest financial returns.
United might as well unfurl a new banner in the Stretford End this week which reads ‘football is nothing without money’ such is the chasm between their on field activities and the true intentions of the football club as a money making business.
Yet the biggest worry is that such ‘elite clubs’ – although four of them have never won the European Cup as many times as Aston Villa, Steaua Bucharest or Celtic – will actually get away with this.
Extra financial investment gives those 12 self-indulgent clubs an even stronger grip on football landscape, the only way to challenge it would be with seismic supporter retaliation.
Even if the hardcore United fans were to stop going to matches there would be others happy to take their place, even if English television banned coverage of the Super League there would be millions of others across the globe still happy to subscribe in order to watch such a sporting product.
Instead loyal supporters are being punished by owners they didn’t ask for as the humble origins of their clubs are cashed in on by shallow marketing campaigns which insist fans are the beating heart of elite sport – it’s simply not true anymore.
Something has to change, but it seems like it is now too late.
Matt Busby was right all along, football is nothing without fans. But what we’re witnessing right now isn’t football, it’s self-indulgent greed.