Back in the day, there used to be a competition called the European Cup. It was first played for in 1955 and won on its first five iterations by Real Madrid.

Entry to the competition was determined by a club having won its domestic top-flight competition. In that first year though, the English champions Chelsea were denied permission to take part on the basis that it would not be in the best interests of English football, and indeed football in general.

It took until 1967 for a British team to come out on top with the Lions of Lisbon of Glasgow Celtic (pictured) claiming that piece of history.

The tournament was the backdrop to one of the great tragedies of the sport in 1985 when 39 Italian fans died in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels ahead of the final against Liverpool.

English football, in particular, was undergoing enormous difficulties at the time as a result of hooliganism and as a result of Heysel, clubs from England were banned from European competition for five years, six in the case of Liverpool.

Revamp

When they returned, plans were afoot for a revamp of the competition into the Champions’ League, with groups stages and a knockout element only from the quarter-final stage.

More games, more TV, more money. The die was cast. In 1997 the tournament was expanded to include the runners up from the top Leagues and now you only have to finish in the Top Four to make it into the competition.

At the same time the old English First Division, which had served the sport well for more than a century, was given its own makeover becoming the Premier League that we know today.

The moral of the story is that change happens. The fact that these two previous seismic changes in English and European football were introduced off the back of a period of serious trouble in financial and social terms should not be lost when we consider the move towards a European Super League now taking up every inch and every minute of sporting commentary.

Clubs are recovering from the restrictions of Covid and the blows of sponsor and media renegotiation in what has been a perfect storm. They are under pressure as rarely before with the capitalisation of Epic Games, makers of Fortnite, more than the value of the Big Seven clubs in Europe, all of whom bar Bayern Munich are signed up to the new tournament.

Resisted

The changes when they were introduced were resisted with calls that they would damage the very fabric of the game as prevalent then as they are now.

Perhaps the resistance of politicians like Boris Johnson and others is a little more evident now, and also a little more striking at a time of such enormous upheaval in society.

The changes happened though and the evidence that they brought greater awareness, greater engagement and more money into the sport is irrefutable.

Fans who today are raised on 24/7 football and live coverage of every game they could want, would be lost if transported back to the 1980’s when there were only a handful of live matches shown on a very small number of TV stations.

It could well be that this is a negotiation on behalf of the billionaire owners of the richest clubs.

It may be that fan power, leveraged by the power of social media and social activism will force a change of heart.

It is possible that the distasteful concept of 15 founder clubs being given a forever pass to play in this top-flight is seen as counter to the principles of good sport.

Then again, money talks and this change has been in the shadows for some time. That it should emerge when the traditional ways are under the greatest pressure can be no surprise.

It is a story of the boardroom and likely the courtroom that will run for longer than the cycle of a single round or twelve of midweek fixtures.

 

Sport for Business Partners