For those humiliated billionaires, the ESL was mistake after mistake. For the rest, the problem was in ceding power to an out of touch elite.
How many scandals end with a group of humiliated billionaires ducking for cover, shelving their botched masterplan and shamefacedly apologising to a jeering public? For that if nothing else, Tuesday night’s collapse of the European Super League, 48 hours after its grand announcement, was certainly a moment to cherish.
That the backlash caused such a hasty capitulation shows that the men behind the breakaway league were utterly unprepared for it. And the response to their idea was entirely unanimous: it’s impressive enough to hatch a plan that unites Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage and James Corden in their contempt; it’s even more impressive to dream up something that brings together fans across the full spectrum of English football, where tribalism prevails and battles are fought along the fervidly partizan lines of club allegiance. And yet they managed it, with a plan whose sheer unpopularity was majestic, violent, all-encompassing. How did these guys fail so spectacularly to read the room?
There has been a lot of talk of “out of touch elites” over the last few years. Indeed, the out of touch elite has become one of the cartoon villains of public life. The problem is, it tends to be something of an invention, a convenient archetype put forward by someone trying to advance their own interests. As such, the identity of this elite is a moveable feast depending on the interests in question. The rightwing press, BBC executives, Westminster politicians, Premier League footballers, liberal suburbanites, hedge fund managers, Oxbridge academics – all are well used to being cast in the role. Which isn’t to say they don’t fit the description, but that the idea has been used so broadly as to undermine its own definition. If the out of touch elite is everywhere we turn, does it even exist at all?
It turns out that, yes, it absolutely does. During a whirlwind 48 hours, these billionaires’ sole success was to demonstrate their own spectacular ignorance of the fans they claimed to serve. Manchester City announced the news with a statement from Joel Glazer, the loathed chairman of their loathed local rivals. Then a website for the new league emerged, roundly mocked for its amateurishness. One of the few details put forward was a ruse to placate the clubs left out of this lucrative new world with “solidarity payments” and maybe, if they played well enough, the chance to join the league for a year or two. Immediately the 14 “other” Premier League clubs had called a meeting and came away galvanised by their joint disgust.
Then the chairman of the Super League Florentino Perez, 74, appeared on TV to explain how to market the sport to today’s youth (his big idea: make matches shorter to suit dwindling attention spans).
The blundering did not end there. The following days’ press conferences and matchday interviews made clear that the managers and players – which is to say, the fans’ real idols – had not only been blindsided by their bosses but didn’t much like the idea themselves. Pep Guardiola spoke out against the league, followed by the entire Liverpool squad. Soon Chelsea’s team coach was being halted on its way to the stadium by the club’s own disgusted fans.
Throughout it all, there was a bizarre refusal from the men involved to come out and champion their idea. And it’s not as if there was a shortage of arguments they could have put forward, even for a project as venal as this: European football is in need of a radical restructuring. A tournament run by the clubs is a compelling proposition. The institutions being broken away from are dysfunctional: Uefa’s former president is currently banned for corruption. Uefa is also despised by Manchester City fans, who feel the governing body has picked on their club. None of this was used to mobilise people in the project’s favour. Instead a stony and desperately unconvincing silence, broken only by the craven apologies that followed the mass-surrender.
The central point of those statements was that the owners had, belatedly, listened to the fans (“We hear you,” as John Henry gravely recited to camera on Monday night), an idea belied by a top-secret project whose blindness to public opinion was matched only by the belated desperation to appease it.
Contrary to the popular idea, not all elites are as tone deaf as you’d think – the financiers behind Brexit, for instance, succeeded precisely because they were able to capture a certain public mood – and the ones that are tend to be smart enough to hide it. But here was the archetype in all its glory: a small handful of ageing billionaires, tottering to the palace gates to show off their new jewels only to be baffled at the lack of a hero’s welcome.
The immediate question that came to mind while watching this Dr Evil-style display of inept villainy was how on earth the so-called “people’s game” sold itself to group that are so astonishingly out of touch. The real question is how football can keep them out of reach.
Alex Hess is on Twitter