The perverse irony of the Super League-haunted semi-finals

There’s an uncomfortable irony in the way events lined up in the last few weeks. First, we got confirmation of our Champions League semi finalists — Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Chelsea — four teams which, for different reasons, will be desperate to bring home the full thing.

And then — just as the crescendo of every football fan’s treasured anthem “Die Meister! Die Besten! Les grandes équipes! The champions!” was beginning through our brains — the world’s powers finally pushed the button their hands had been hovering over for years.

The breakaway Super League was coming. Unthinkable just as it was inevitable, we got access to the first concrete plans for the next generation. We found out that 12 clubs had signed on to be “founding members” of the new dispensation; the head honchos of their own private club, one in which they may never be asked to leave no matter how tatty their credentials become. 

But in a matter of two days it all unravelled.

If you have access to an internet connection it’s likely you were sprayed with the gushing disgust that poured out of a mortified football world since Sunday. It was so powerful that the orchestrators had to scurry back behind their fortress walls, Super League plans in tow.

Still, when the TV is flicked alive on Tuesday evening, there is likely to be a fresh wave of regret that passes over our collective fandom. A realisation that the current structures of European football remain imperfect.

There is some irony in it being these four clubs that have reached the semis at this inauspicious time. For these have always been not only the villains of the piece, but those who have benefited most obviously from the sport’s inextricable relationship with greed.

Consider Real Madrid — Spanish for Royal Madrid. Historically, the club was the jewel of the repressive Spanish dictatorship. General Francisco Franco, in power from 1939 until his death in 1975,openly supported them and paraded them as nationalistic symbols of excellence and uniformity. There is considerable debate as to just how much influence he had on their success but what is undoubtable, despite modern sportswashing attempts, is that Real have long stood as the team of the establishment.

For added irony, remember it was also legendary club president Santiago Bernabéu that was one of the key figures in setting up the competition we now call the Champions League, lightly massaging the setup to benefit his own outfit. Now, current president Florentino Pérez is the ringleader and would-be first chairperson of the Super League. 

Long after Franco’s death, a Russian oligarch would arrive in England and permanently alter its footballing landscape. Spending sprees were not uncommon when Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, but arguably there had never been one that so dramatically elevated a side from the outskirts of contention right to the very peak.

Critics bemoaned the power of the pound while purists like Arsène Wenger mourned the death of football’s soul. Neither group could do anything to halt progress. 

If the London club nudged the door ajar, Manchester City blew it clean off its hinges. When they struck their own oil money, courtesy of Sheikh Mansour, its negotiators took a punt at every world-class name on the planet. Once again to the disdain of everybody else, they hoarded talent on an unprecedented scale.

Yet there was still scope for PSG to turn the market truly loopy. In 2017 the Qatari-backed side spent roughly €200-million each on Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. For its owners it was a perfect political middle finger to the Middle Eastern power bloc that had just cut diplomatic ties with Qatar.

Incidentally, PSG is the only one of our semifinalists that were not initial co-signers of the Super League. Rather than doing it for the game’s integrity, it’s likely Qatar was petrified of pissing off Fifa lest the toothless organisation actually do something about the global demands to sanction the horrendous human rights record of the 2022 World Cup hosts. (Before praising Bayern Munich either, the other notable admission, note that chairperson  Karl-Heinz Rummenigge reportedly joined Uefa’s executive committee at almost the exact moment of the Super League announcement.)

The concept of a villain in football is inherently subjective but few would disagree that Chelsea, City, Madrid and Paris represented, over time, some of the most loathed perceptions of the beautiful game.

Of course, it is their environment that has allowed them to flourish. As deep a nostalgia trap as the Champions League no doubt will be over the next couple of weeks — featuring incessant pining over what would have been an imminent disfigurement — we should never forget that it has long been a vehicle to protect the interests of the elite. Every year we have deep pockets replenishing deep pockets.

And so we arrive at our final and most perverse irony. Madrid aside, the other three villains at one time were all iconoclasts. The hatred against them stems from their own disruption of the status quo. They were plucky new boys that picked a fight with the old guard that had long grown fat off established legacies.

It was dirty but fair capitalism — if there is such a thing. They were all too happy to salt the path they had sown. With chaotic squabbling as a troubling backdrop, this week promises to be a surreal one for football.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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