Sunday night/Monday morning: It was 5 a.m. and 12 clubs finally stumbled out of the bar into the breaking day, drunk on selfishness and a lack of solidarity. That was the cartoonish portrait painted by Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga who had been waiting for this moment for a long time. You couldn’t help thinking he was enjoying this, too. He would certainly enjoy the way it played out, which in the end was pretty perfect from his point of view.
Tebas had always tried to present the game’s super clubs — Spain’s three giants, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid were all involved — as people who had no idea what they were doing, living in a fantasy world, a plan for world domination scrawled on the back of a cigarette packet. What happened next helped him drive home that idea.
Now, at last, the conspirators were out into the open. Well, sort of. Most of the men involved hid behind standard statements announcing that 12 of the biggest football clubs in Europe — “of the” is important there — were going to leave UEFA and set up a Super League all of their own. At that early stage, only one of them appeared publicly: Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who would also preside over the new league. It is, in short, a coup. “They’ll get a response,” Tebas threatened. But even he couldn’t have expected one like this.
Monday: Everyone went mad. Just not in Spain, for the most part. There were protests and outbursts in England; in Spain, there was some critical media reaction and some furious fans, but much more muted. It was hard to judge what the balance of opinion was, but Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico fans were not really revolting. At least, not in that way. There was no popular uprising, no unanimous rejection.
There was, however, an institutional reaction from La Liga, as every club released statements rejecting the plan. A banner was put up at the Camp Nou, and a handful of Atletico supporters’ groups put out statements. But, at least in the case of Madrid fans, it felt like most didn’t care much for what they might be leaving behind and weren’t that bothered by the impact it would have on smaller clubs, which really aren’t their concern and never really have been. If anything, they were actually quite looking forward to playing in a better competition and one that they could run.
That night, Perez appeared on a TV show called “El Chiringuito,” which wasn’t a great way to sell the project, and which you will have seen by now. He is short on detail, long on superiority and saviour complex, yet he’s vulnerable with it too. He is on his own, for a start. On a late night, cheap show with a cheap set on a lesser TV channel, he said that football was in free fall, ruined and broke.
“We can’t wait until 2024,” he said, “we’ll be dead by then.” If this project didn’t happen, they were in big, big trouble. Hold that thought.
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Tuesday evening: In an interview with French newspaper L’Equipe, Perez was asked if he feared any of the other clubs pulling out. “No,” he said. But a few hours later, they already were. He would later say that he never really trusted that one of them — Manchester City — was fully committed. It was all falling apart.
That night, Perez pulled out of another interview. He was up until 1 a.m., he later said, trying to keep the clubs on board. He didn’t manage to. Soon, there were only two clubs left who had not released any kind of statement either backing away from the project entirely or expressing some disappointment at its failure. And that was Madrid and Barcelona. Although…
Wednesday: … Perez said late on Wednesday night — sleep? what’s that? — that officially, no-one had left because no one had paid the penalty for leaving. (Here’s a question: who do they pay it to? Especially if there is no-one left. And so, to another question, a bit more tongue-in-cheek this time: are Madrid and Barcelona actually geniuses? As the only members of the league, would they be getting everyone else’s penalties? That’s a tidy earner there if stories were right that it could be €300m per team.)
In other words, Perez was saying this still existed, it’s not done yet although, at the same time, he effectively admitted that it was over, at least in this format.
The interview came after Madrid had played at Cádiz, where a handful of fans had greeted their bus with chants of “capitalists!” Cadiz’s players came onto the pitch wearing t-shirts prepared by La Liga protesting against the breakaway. Every other team did the same; La Liga were enjoying this. Milking it, too. Somehow, they had become the good guys, on the fan’s side, and you can insert your own shoulder-shrugging emoji here. TV screens came embossed with a Champions League logo and the slogan: “Earn it”. Madrid earned a 3-0 win.
In the interview, Perez said that protesting Chelsea fans were few… and also fake. “I can tell you who took them there,” he said. Go on then, they replied. “The same as [who] organised the t-shirts,” he said. Who would have thought it? Tebas had a secret stash of stooges prepared to play the role of Chelsea fans?
Perez didn’t come out of the week well; at times his appearance was baffling, rambling, barely coherent and weak. It certainly wasn’t convincing. The damage done would only be mitigated by the protection he is afforded in Madrid.
And yet, there was still no word from Barcelona. Stories coming out from Atletico revealed — or claimed, for those of you with a more cynical mind — that they had come on board very late, after being told: it’s you or Sevilla. (Not true, Sevilla’s president would say, but then it’s perfectly plausible he didn’t even know and was never “fortunate” enough to have a decision to make.) They had doubts, and the moment that they saw Bayern Munich fall they feared that this whole thing was going down. Madrid still clung to the idea that it wouldn’t go down. Barcelona still hadn’t said anything, even though their veteran defender, Gerard Pique, had. “Football is for the fans, now more than ever,” he tweeted.
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Thursday: In a world-wide press conference with over 300 journalists*, including one from England drinking too much tea, Tebas declared the super league project dead, or very nearly.
*What a brilliant idea. Why didn’t the conspirators think of that?
Asked if he was surprised at the behaviour of the English clubs, Tebas replied: “Some of the English clubs surprised me, but not Manchester United because we know that [the Glazers own] an NFL franchise and those American owners have a different concept of sport. In Europe, it’s not the same. And it’s not just tradition; it’s the industry model. Across the whole of Europe, there are no closed leagues. I wasn’t surprised… the most surprised people were them because they end up having to say sorry for what they had done.”
Then he laughed. They had not understood “that English feeling, which is bigger than in other countries,” he said. And the reactions had proven that to be true.
Spain did not respond in the same way. There was time for another joke at their expense, a chance to poke fun at their folly and their failure. Even Tebas must have been surprised how easy it was in the end. “I don’t know what his geometry is like because it’s clearly not a pyramid,” he added. “It’s more like a balcony with 12 people on it where, once in a while, someone walks underneath and it falls on them.”
“After 20 years of threats, always there, [the super league] finally happened — and in 48 hours, it was gone,” the president of the league said. “We waited 20 years for it and it dissolved like a sugar lump. It’s not entirely dissolved, but the active threat [of a breakaway] no longer exists because we have seen the reaction was huge. And you know it’s not good for football, because if you did, you wouldn’t have done it all clandestinely.”
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About the same time on Thursday, Barcelona finally released a statement and president Joan Laporta spoke. They didn’t pull out as most assumed they would; instead, they actually did the opposite. Pérez was no longer alone: now there were two of them, rivals and collaborators. Barcelona’s statement was a word salad of silliness in places, empty of any real content, but it was clear on others. And there was no apology, no backing down. Not joining would have been a “historic error,” it said. Laporta, who has inherited a truly dire financial situation, was determined to play. But who would they play?
“I don’t know if it’s a bi-super league or a tri-super league now,” Tebas said. Yes, he was enjoying this, alright. “Perez and Laporta are not being realistic. The six [English] clubs are never going to be in that type of competition now, never. The German teams are never going to be in it, ever. And they can’t do it without those countries. It’s dead. To ring on the door for a negotiation now would be cynical.” Anyway, he added, fixing the financial crisis isn’t a question of getting more money but cutting costs — and the way Barcelona have burned cash in recent years, he had a point. Increasing income just means “players getting seven Ferraris instead of six.”
Friday: Real Madrid won’t be kicked out of the Champions League, it’s official, though UEFA’s Ceferin still hinted at consequences. “That debate is absurd,” said Real Madrid manager, Zinedine Zidane, about the prospect of missing their semifinal next week against Chelsea. It’s not the only thing that is absurd.
So now what?
Where are we at? With the fans? There has been a backlash against the backlash. Lots of people have hit on the hypocrisy. Others have come to the aid of Perez, a little bit of a punching bag over the past few days, and not entirely unjustifiably. Mostly those attacks on him have not come in Spain, where fear and favour play a part, but outside it, where he has been seen as an almost hapless figure. It sits in stark contrast to his image here as a highly competent administrator and hugely powerful businessman capable of controlling everything and everyone.
Those fans have reacted to the t-shirts and the insults, to the strength of remarks from UEFA and La Liga, men they do not trust and already didn’t like, and got angry.
Many (mostly Madrid fans) have noted — again, not entirely justifiably — that the idea “the fans have won” is kind of funny when you look at where the power still lies, when you see the laughable new Champions League structure, something these very teams pushed for. They have pointed accusing fingers at UEFA, at Paris Saint-Germain, at Bayern Munich and at the English clubs, now presented as traitors for walking out on the, er, traitorous walk-out. It has got entrenched and a bit conspiratorial, more than a touch paranoid, which tends to be the way. (And, well, it was quite literally a conspiracy in the first place: theirs). Those fans at least are probably keener for a super league now than they were before.
Tebas, by the way, admits that there’s something slightly awkward about being on PSG’s side this time. Oh, and he insists that he’s not. He will still watch them, still demand FFP and still speak out. But this battle came first.
Will there be punishments? Leaders of coups tend not to get away with it, but this time they might. They probably will, in fact. Domestically, they’ll definitely get away with it.
Oddly, the idea of punishment has only really been trained on Madrid, not so much on Barcelona and Atletico. Miguel Angel Gil Marin, Atletico CEO, will probably be forced to back down as vice-president of La Liga, although there seems to be a general acceptance that he took rather than sought a place in the Super League, and did so under some pressure. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has already said that he felt less disappointed in Laporta than anyone else, that the Barcelona president had little choice, and has not been in the presidency long enough to truly blame. That idea may change, though, as Laporta clings on now to the idea of a Super League, more so in fact than anyone else.
Perez is different, a man long seen as a powerful presence, a long-term plotter who made a bid for power and failed. In all probability though, this will be a question of relations, not regulations.
UEFA have to tread carefully, but they now have a mandate to move things in a different direction, having been handed the power not to appease the biggest clubs any more.
Tebas too is reinforced in his powers and recognised that idea, the opportunity to redistribute. He may even welcome it, and the temptation must exist. But he insisted now was not the time to talk about it. When is the time, then? Nor does he want punishments; often bullish, he sounds more magnanimous now. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves on punishments,” he says. “Everyone seems to want to look at punishments, to cut heads off. It’s clear that there was something very dangerous for football but let’s see how this ends. They have been punished by their fans already — especially the English ones – and by the disgust aimed at them from society, politics.
“They’ve been punished a lot already. There’s been a reputational punishment, that’s for sure.”
Which is a pretty poor punishment.
And what about the clubs? Well, quite. There’s still a league title to play for, in the hope of winning and the hope of giving everyone something else to talk about while they continue to machinate.
In Atletico’s case, let’s never talk about this again, and hope that everyone else soon forgets. In the case of Madrid and Barcelona, it leaves them hanging about waiting, in a club of two that’s not actually doing anything. Above all, it leaves them where they were, only even worse off. And, they have now revealed, that was already pretty bad… unless they weren’t entirely honest (a wild idea, that one).
“Hold that thought,” it says above. That, in case you don’t remember now, was this: “We can’t wait until 2024: we’ll be dead by then.”
“We’re here to save football.”
“Football is in free-fall.”
“We have to do something, or it’s over.” In the end, they didn’t.
Strip it all away — all the mess and all the noise — and what’s left? Ultimately that appearance on a tacky television show didn’t achieve much, leaving the image of a man alone, presenting himself as the saviour, and only one truly lasting message, a devastatingly simple one: we’re in trouble. Asked about superstar signings the other day, Perez insisted a little desperately, exclaiming: “there won’t be any of that without a super league.”
So, no Kylian Mbappe then, he was asked. “I didn’t say that,” he replied.