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The UK government and football’s authorities launched a furious counter-offensive on Monday against plans for a European Super League that threaten the entire structure of the club game.
The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, supported by Downing Street, vowed to do “whatever it takes” to thwart the plans which feature 12 “founding members” including six leading clubs from England. European football’s governing body, Uefa, also threatened to ban any players involved from next year’s World Cup.
Prince William, the president of the Football Association, said he shared the concerns of fans and warned that the move by the breakaway clubs – Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur – “risked damaging the game we love”. In a rare invention he added: “Now, more than ever, we must protect the entire football community – from the top level to the grassroots – and the values of competition and fairness at its core.”
The proposals, unveiled late on Sunday, would see the Champions League supplanted as the dominant European competition. The “founder members” would be included automatically in the new super league, regardless of results. The football pyramid, which sees clubs rise and fall on merit, would be compromised. The other founder members are Spanish giants Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, and the Italian clubs Juventus, Internazionale and AC Milan.
Addressing parliament, Dowden said the government would consider using competition laws and changes to club ownership structures to stop the Super League, which would see 15 founding members – with three more expected to join – share a £200-£300m “golden hello”, with five other clubs invited to take part every year.
“It was a tone-deaf proposal, but the owners of those clubs won’t have been able to ignore the near universal roar of outrage from all parts of the football community over the past 24 hours,” said Dowden. “This is a sport where a team like Leicester City can ascend from League One to the Premier League title in under a decade, earning the right to go toe-to-toe against European heavyweights in the Champions League.
“Instead, a small handful of owners want to create a closed shop of elite clubs at the top of the game – a league based on wealth and brand recognition rather than upon merit. We will not stand by and watch football be cravenly stripped of the things that make millions across the country love it.”
Asked by Julian Knight, the Conservative MP who chairs the culture, media and sport committee, what specific actions might be taken, Dowden replied: “What does the government do to facilitate matches, and facilitate those clubs, and looking at whether we should continue to provide that support.” He gave no more details, but possible avenues could be to restrict work permits for overseas players or to make it harder for clubs to have travel exemptions during the pandemic.
Dowden added that he knew “from my conversations with the Premier League they’re already proposing to take some pretty draconian steps to stop this”. A DCMS source, meanwhile, insisted that “everything is on the table”.
The government’s intervention came on another extraordinary day during which:
• A YouGov poll found that 79% of football fans opposed the creation of the European Super League, with just 14% supporting it – while 51% wanted the breakaway clubs to be kicked out of the Premier League.
• The Liverpool manager, Jürgen Klopp, voiced his opposition to the breakaway. “I understand the fans’ anger because of the Super League,” he said. “I don’t know exactly why the 12 clubs did it. But … it’s always ‘more games, more games’. It’s about more money, nothing else”.
• Wayne Rooney, Manchester United’s all-time top scorer who is now the Derby manager, said he wanted the English pyramid to be “protected and rewarded” and called the timing of the announcement “strange”.
• In a briefing document revealed by the Guardian, the Super League founders said the new league will give fans “what they want” and claimed it would offer “a sustainable and competitive environment for the whole football pyramid”.
• Aleksander Ceferin, the president of Uefa, made an astonishing personal attack on the architects of the Super League, including Manchester United chief executive, Ed Woodward, accusing them of being “snakes” and “liars”.
Ceferin has also insisted that players who join the new Super League will be banned from World Cups and European Championships if the breakaway materialises, but he admitted that it was unlikely that such a ban would come into effect in time for Euro 2020, which starts in June.
However, he made clear his anger at the breakaway, which he called a “disgraceful and self-serving proposal from clubs motivated by greed”.
“The players who will play in teams that might play in the closed league will be banned from playing in the World Cup and Euros, so they will not be able to represent their national teams at any matches,” he said.
“These cynical plans are completely against what football should be. This idea is a spit in the face of all football lovers and society as well. I’m not going to call them the Dirty Dozen, but …” He added: “They write in their press release about solidarity, they don’t know ‘S’ about solidarity. They want to be famous. They will be famous in the wrong way.”
On Tuesday the 14 Premier League clubs not involved in the breakaway will meet Premier League officials to discuss how best to respond, and the potential sanctions that could be imposed on the six breakaway clubs.
A handful of leading clubs in Germany and France, including Bayern Munich and Champions League semi-finalists Paris Saint-Germain, signalled their opposition.
However with Fifa, the game’s governing body, sounding more conciliatory in its statement on the proposals, there may still be hints of a compromise in the air. Uefa is understood to be attempting to source more finances for its revamped 36-team Champions League competition in 2024, in the hope of persuading some of the breakaway clubs to perform a U-turn.
One well-placed source said that Uefa was working on a better financial package in the hope it might trump the €3.25bn raised by the US investment bank JP Morgan, so that there would be far less incentive for clubs to break away.
Dowden also announced the immediate start of a wider, fan-led review into the governance of English football, to be headed by Tracey Crouch, the Tory MP and former sports minister.
This was promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, and Dowden said the plan had been to wait until Covid restrictions were over. But since the six clubs had “decided to put money before fans”, the timetable had moved, he said.
He castigated the decision of the six clubs to unveil the plan unilaterally on Sunday evening. “These six clubs announced this decision without any consultation with football authorities or with the government. Worst of all, they did it without any dialogue whatsoever with their own fans,” he said.
“If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that football is nothing without its fans,” he added. “And these owners should remember that they are only temporary custodians of their clubs, and they forget at their peril.”