It’s raining outside, so I guess I’m not jogging tonight. Perhaps I’ll do some writing instead. But it’s tricky; has there been anything worth writing about in the world of Football recently?
Of course I’m being facetious. The European Super League proposal involving 12 big names in European club Football breaking away from their national Football associations and UEFA entirely that was pitched early last week was so outrageous that it even got people who don’t usually talk about Football talking about Football. Yet as quickly as the idea raised its head, it got shot in the neck by a horde of arrows fired from several million bows disguised as Social Media platforms. So quick, so clear and so vociferous was the public reaction at this concept that one by one the 6 English-based clubs implicated in the cartel (the appropriate name for this posse) all announced their subsequent withdrawal from the league in the matter of days. Now, the concept hangs as limp as a used piñata.
You know that, and I know you know that. This isn’t news to anybody who is even mildly interested in Football, so this post does not intend to share this story with you once again. Instead, with the dust now settling, it’s perhaps the right time to analyse media coverage of this flop more critically and see if we can spot some trends. Amid so much finger pointing at the bad guys, it can be sometimes be very difficult to spot who the actual good guys are….
Needless to say, the entire fiasco has catapulted several giant eggs straight onto the faces of the PR and marketing execs of the clubs involved – particularly those from the United Kingdom of England, England and England. Of the 14 clubs that seem to have been invited to the party, 2 objected to the idea. They are of course FC Bayern, the darling of all Football purists and nostalgists across planet Earth, and Paris Saint-Germain FC, the effective Qatar B team and a club that one would not normally hold up as the paragon of ethics in team sports. FC Barcelona, Real Madrid CF, Club Atlético de Madrid, Internazionale, AC Milan and Juventus FC have spent a modest amount of time in the burning spotlight. But principally Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and the other one have been subject to a firestorm of bad press in the past week. The dominant response is one of anger at the perceived prioritisation of advertising dollars ahead of local fan interests and tradition – that most cardinal of values to diehard supporters. The directors, marketing managers and PR heads of these clubs must be held accountable. A fair point by all measures.
There is one group that has emerged from this story smelling of roses. And it is both surprising and amusing that it is the one group of people related to professional Football most accustomed to media criticism – the Footballers themselves. That’s right; media-conditioned, monosyllabic, verbally predictable professional Football players who typically give the worst interviews of any profession you can imagine bar none have spoken out en masse against the proposal, and in some cases, even against their own employers – which really does take some balls (low quality pun intended). Raheem Stirling was extremely quick to reply dismissively to Manchester City’s tweet confirming their involvement in the project, and Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson’s perhaps more considered reaction trended on social media as well. The two England stars are just a couple notable names that have done the unthinkable and voiced an opinion spontaneously and independently of their agents and/or club employees, but many have done what they feel is “there bit” in the story. Love them or loathe them – it is quite a sight to see.
Amid the torrent of torrid criticism, many other Football clubs have expressed disapproval of their counterparts decision to desert domestic competition in favour of this European Super League – but this is where the picture begins to get blurry. The 14 other professional Football clubs that are currently competing in the English Premier League have allegedly agreed to ask their players to wear t-shirts with the words “EARN IT” splashed across the front whenever they warm up for games against the 6 that originally signed up to the ESL. In particular, that old chestnut Leeds United FC seem to have been very vocal in their objection to the actions of their (more successful) counterparts from Merseyside, Manchester and London.
But how much of this is genuine care or commitment to the ideals on the part of the people responsible for external communications and press releases of these clubs, and how much of it is virtue signaling? It is easy to gain a few brownie points by sharing a few social media posts and claiming to have your supporters’ interests at heart when there is no evidence that you would have behaved any differently if you had been offered the chance to compete in this new league. In this instance, it’s not self-evident that you’re benevolent.
Finally, put aside the players, the fans, the money makers and deal brokers for just one second. The final group involved in the European Super League fiasco is by far and away the most interesting to consider. In the modern era, the professional life of the average journalist is a constant balancing act between entertainment and information. It sure isn’t easy, and people outside the profession would be well served to appreciate this from time to time. I personally think journalists spend too much time trying to entertain, but I know it is not an easy job and mistakes are made very frequently in one of the most dynamic professions there is. They make mistakes. They get things wrong. But with this in mind, certain media outlets could certainly do more to help themselves.
Sky Sports has been lapping up this story. From podcasts to Social Media protests to almost hourly text articles, the media juggernaut has worked overtime (by its already high standards) to bring as many updates to our screens as frequently as possible. It has been dependably relentless – nothing short of what we would expect from Sky. The first post from an individual related to Sky Sports that caught my eye was Jeff Sterling’s tweet where he admitted he felt “sorry for the fans of those six clubs who are viewed as worthless by their owners”. But my favourite moment of Sky’s coverage of the European Super League saga so far has without doubt been Gary Neville’s impassioned piece to camera. I really liked it; he comes across as sincere and invested, and he does not appear to be reading a script;
“Honestly, we have to wrestle back the power in this country from the clubs at the top of this league and that includes my club. I’ve been calling for 12 months as part of another group for an independent regulator to bring checks and balances in place to stop this happening. It’s pure greed. They’re imposters”Gary Neville, 2021
Inspiring stuff. But why are Sky Sports going in for the kill so much? To keep us up to date on what exactly is happening in and outside of the 12 clubs in question? Sure. To entertain millions of English-speaking Football fans whenever they tune in? Absolutely. To try and bandwagon on the emotion caught up in this story for branding purposes? There is no doubt in my mind that this is true.
Yes – the family does not own the business any more. But given the history of Murdoch media empire and some of its affiliates, it is difficult to listen to an employee of a company like Sky Sports take the moral high ground. It doesn’t matter how outspoken you are; your morals are no cleaner than the organisation you voluntarily enter into employment with.