THE BLOG

Is Football About to Eat Itself?

08/03/2016 12:20 GMT | Updated 08/03/2017 10:12 GMT

You have to admire the chutzpah of Charlie Stillitano.

Mr Stillitano, chairman of the American organization, Relevent Sports, was revealed by The Sun newspaper to have held secret talks with executives from five of the biggest Premier League clubs, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. They were discussing setting up a breakaway European league.

Having been "busted" by The Sun, most men in his position would have refrained from comment. Not Mr Stillitano. He waxed lyrical, explaining why these giants of the English game deserved a permanent place at the football's top table.

"What would Manchester United argue, did we create soccer or did Leicester?" he opined. "Let's call it the money pot created by soccer and the fandom around the world. Who has had more of an integral role, Manchester United or Leicester?"

Objectively, of course, he is right. Manchester United have a much greater share of the money pot than Leicester City and always will.

Mr Stillitano's vision of a new European breakaway league is one where Manchester United and the like can never be relegated. By extension, therefore, the likes of Leicester City can never be admitted, no matter how vibrant their football.

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His company stages the International Champions Cup, a pre-season tournament adorned by the some of the biggest names in world football. By contrast, Mr Stillitano - tongue in cheek, no doubt - dismissed the Champions League as: "PSV Eindhoven and Ghent".

He acknowledged there had been an age-old argument between the closed system of US franchises and the "wonderful, wonderful" elements of promotion and relegation in Europe - but made it clear he favoured the certainty offered by the former.

There is an irony to all this because the United States is the personification of the free market yet the draft system in American football is a socialist model of which Jeremy Corbyn would be proud. And the Premier League, ridiculed for its riches, has distributed the TV billions so equally between its members that it has leveled the playing field, creating the most exciting football season in living memory.

The "Big Five", whom Mr Stillitano wooed at the Dorchester Hotel, have been challenged by pesky wannabes all season. No wonder the idea of a cosseted world where they are guaranteed a slice of the Champions League cake, irrespective of their finishing position in the league, seems appealing.

The biggest European clubs are global brands these days. The stakes are high. Losing a place at the top table for more than a couple of seasons means they can't attract the best players, miss out on TV exposure and sell fewer replica shirts.

Could a breakaway league happen? Yes. Will it happen? Not necessarily. Unpredictability and upsets are necessary ingredients in any sport - without them, you have a sterile environment lacking drama or intensity. That's not sport, it's sanitized entertainment. The Harlem Globetrotters are pleasing on the eye, but you can't support them. The fans know this. Instinctively, the executives who gathered at the Dorchester know it too.

Look at what's happening in other sports. Even in cricket, where the game's governing body, the ICC has been hijacked by the "Big Three" of India, England and Australia, the proposed two-division Test league will have promotion and relegation. It will not be a closed shop. The rugby authorities are trying to bring new nations into the world game, not pull up the drawbridge.

If the Champions League it is to remain the pinnacle of European football it must find room for the likes of Leicester City and give the giants of the game a bloody nose from time to time by expelling them to the eternal darkness of Thursday night football.

Tim Jotischky is a Senior Consultant at PHA Media.