Charlie Stillitano, chairman of a sports company called Relevent Sports, stirred up massive controversy last week, with both his words and deeds. Tom Simmonds has a radical idea to address the ructions caused by his ideas.
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Stillitano held talks with representatives of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs, ostensibly about some pre-season tournament called the International Champions Cup. Also on their agenda was to kick around the idea of “restructuring the Champions League”.
Stillitano’s appalling comments about Manchester United’s history being more valid than Leicester’s, and “the Champions League [being] PSV and Ghent”, as if actually winning your national championship should not be adequate to qualify for an elite club competition, chilled any right-thinking football fan to the bone. Seen alongside Bayern bigwig Karl-Heinz Ruminegge’s comment; “In the future, I can see a tournament consisting of 20 teams from Italy, England, Spain, Germany and France”, the sense that the biggest clubs are making a concerted push for an even bigger slice of the TV pie is inescapable.
It becomes clear that respect for the traditions of the game was not on anybody’s agenda at these talks when you consider two of the English clubs breaking bread with Stillitano – Manchester City and Chelsea – have barged their way to the top table using petrodollars, rather than heritage, as their weapon of choice. Sure, they have impressive histories and identities of their own, but they still have less right than Nottingham Forest to be considered for entry to a manufactured league based on European Champions Cups won.
The time has come to play brinkmanship with the big clubs. Call their bluff. Let them break away if they want to. Tell them that they can go and form a made-for-TV 20 team league that could have been picked just as ably by an eight-year old playing FIFA as a bunch of multi-millionaires.
Not that they should be allowed to have it all their own way; some heavy conditions should be placed on any breakaway these clubs propose. Governing bodies should be strong enough to forever revoke the membership of their domestic leagues for any club opting to break away, and ban any of their players from international football (including the World Cup and European Championships).
This would be harsh on the decent fans of these mega-clubs, sure. Not quite as harsh as the disregard that their clubs would show them by cutting the cord, however. The formation of AFC United by disgruntled former denizens of Old Trafford is one example of what fans can do to preserve the original soul of a club that has forsaken its lifeblood at Mammon’s altar. Given the size of these clubs’ fanbases, I’m sure each will have an energetic element that could seek to create phoenix clubs along similar lines.
Stillitano’s comments were not evocative of magic European nights. In fact, they brought the names Oldham Athletic, Notts County, Luton Town, and Coventry City to my mind. All founder members of the Premier League, all voted to break away from the Football League when the vote to create the Premier League was taken. All have subsequently found themselves cast about as far adrift from the riches they thought they were awarding themselves in the early 1990s as you can get.
Theirs is the lesson that the elite clubs should heed before they are tempted to listen to Stillitano too closely. It is true the likes of Bayern, PSG and Real Madrid will likely never feel the penury that befell those clubs. However, an American-style closed shop of a league, with no relegation limited to the same participants each season is a recipe for a huge amount of dead rubbers. Such a repetitive fixture list would quickly lose its sheen for fans, broadcasters and players alike. Somebody should be brave enough to ask if this is what the big clubs really want, and see who blinks first.
Do you agree with Tom that threatening big clubs with a ‘Year Zero’ scenario is the best way to head off any potential breakaway? Or would you like to see the creation of a European super league?
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