The triumph of fan power over the European Super League
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
Amid the immediate, impassioned and unrestrained outrage that greeted plans for soccer’s European Super League, a fascinating article found its way to social media.
It was from a venerable and iconic British sports columnist, and it gave a sensible and thoughtful account of soccer’s position, namely the need to balance athletic functionality with the realities of commerce.
The headline of the article read: "Economic Reality Will Force (A) European League."
It was written 57 years ago.
Brian Glanville penned a piece in the February 1964 edition of "World Soccer Magazine."
That’s right. The owners of 12 of the wealthiest teams in soccer might have thought they’d come up with something fresh and revolutionary with the bold proposal that would have set up a continental league guaranteeing ongoing membership (with no relegation possible) to each of the founders.
In truth, as Brian Glanville’s piece from the February 1964 edition of "World Soccer Magazine" shows, this is a concept that might as well be older than time, dating to a period when everyone wore leather cleats with metal studs and when pro players routinely dropped by the local pub after training.
Given that such an idea has been in the works for so long, how is it possible that when it was finally put into place – last weekend – it was done with such apparent haste and dismal execution?
Within moments of the teams putting out the same statement revealing a breakaway from the existing structures of domestic soccer, the reaction was furious.
The media hated it, with column after column attacking the blindness and greed of the ownership groups, which included Americans Stan Kroenke (Arsenal), the Glazer family (Manchester United) and John W. Henry (Liverpool).
Head coaches broke ranks, with Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola blasting the ESL’s closed shop nature.
"It is not fair when one team fights, fights, fights, arrives at the top and cannot qualify because success is already guaranteed just for a few teams," Guardiola said. "This is not sport."
But more than anything, what broke the ESL was that the fans detested all it stood for.
John Ley, a former "London Daily Telegraph" journalist, is a lifelong Arsenal fan who watched his first game in 1966 and was born just more than a mile from the club’s former Highbury Stadium. This week, Ley was due to have the club’s crest tattooed on his right arm. As a result of his disgust at the ESL proposal, he canceled his appointment.
"A tattoo is a lifetime commitment," Ley told me via telephone. "If they can’t commit to their fans, why should we commit to them?"
Most telling of all was that the greatest sense of loathing came from fans of the clubs involved, rather than those teams that would have been excluded.
Protests from Chelsea die-hards blocked the roads around Stanford Bridge Stadium before a match against Brighton, and supporter groups from each of the clubs involved released strongly worded statements.
Just like that, the ESL was dead in the water. One by one, the clubs withdrew, mostly in the same way they had announced the league in the first place: with a brief news release.
Which was, perhaps, their biggest mistake.
If they had reached out to fan groups, explained the situation to players, gotten supporters on board and then made the announcement with clarity, transparency and explanation, maybe this thing could have gotten off the ground.
Instead, they hid behind PR spin and paid the price for it.
As of early Wednesday, only Liverpool’s Henry, whose Fenway Sports Group also owns the Boston Red Sox, had shown his face while taking individual responsibility.
"I want to apologize to all the fans and supporters of Liverpool Football Club for the disruption I caused over the past 48 hours," Henry said via video address. "It goes without saying but should be said that the project put forward was never going to stand without the support of the fans. No one ever thought differently in England. Over these 48 hours, you were very clear that it would not stand. We heard you. I heard you."
It all capped an extraordinary few days, culminating in the ultimate underdog triumph. It was a resounding and spectacular victory for fan culture, so often underrated and forgotten in the pursuit of ever-increasing profit.
The strength of the collective fan reaction won the day. That was the only thing that could have caused this.
Just think about what happened for a moment.
A dozen clubs, each worth billions of dollars, owned by individuals worth more than that, ripped up elaborate plans to upturn the structure of modern soccer all because the supporters showed that they still have a voice and that it’s a loud and powerful one.
"Gradually, hastening slowly, we are approaching that mirage, a European League," Glanville wrote all those decades ago. "If we get it, it will be largely because the cold blasts of European reality force it on us."
Such an enterprise came, finally. And thanks to poor organization and fan backlash, it disappeared again, back into myth. May it remain there for another 57 years.
I have a personal element, if you’ll indulge me, to the Glanville column, a photograph of which was posted on the Facebook feed of British journalist Mike Collett. On the same page of World Soccer, there was a story by my father, whose name I share. He worked for the publication writing book reviews as a then-20-year-old reporter.
Martin Rogers' father, who shares the same name, wrote book reviews as a then-20-year-old reporter for World Soccer Magazine.
That's proof, for me at least, that even as times change, some things, thankfully, remain the same. It looked for a troubled couple of days like the fans had become irrelevant in the minds of those who control soccer.
After the masses spoke strongly enough, however, the fans proved, by the force of their own conviction, that’s not the case.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.