The ESL, now the dust has settled

I have previously vented my spleen about the European Super League (ESL), and I didn't have much good to say about our existing football authorities either. Now the season's over it's worth reflecting on how the English rebel clubs have been punished for trying to break away.

So let's see. They were fined something piffling like £15m between them, which barely buys a top class goalkeeper's gloves these days. Oh and there was something about taking 5% of the revenue they earn from the next season's European games. That's the football equivalent of gently slapping someone with a mildly moist lettuce leaf.

How else were they punished? Well they handed the Premier League trophy to Manchester City, the Champions League trophy to Chelsea and 2021-22 European qualification to Manchester United and Liverpool. Even Spurs qualified for the Europa Conference League, whatever that is. That's five of the six rebel clubs nicely set up for next season. Arsenal got nothing, although only through their own incompetence on the pitch.

There's a contrast here. If a poor club runs out of money and goes into administration, the footballing authorities pile more woe on them — and particularly their fans — by docking them anything up to 25 points. Yet if a rich club tries to bring down the whole structure of football they hand them trophies.

Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid president and the main author of the ESL, suggested that football cannot afford itself these days. He may have a point. The intense competition in the higher echelons of European football has led to massive transfer fees and huge wage bills for the best players. Pérez's solution was to create a league where the 15 top European clubs could play without worrying about whether they'd get into Europe the next season. They would be untouchable, never facing the prospect of relegation. They could lock down the TV rights for the league and the member clubs would have a guaranteed income forever.

The trouble with that idea is it would do nothing to stop transfer fees and wages from continuing to increase at scales way beyond inflation. There would come a point when, in order to keep up with ever increasing expenses, the top half of the ESL would need to breakaway again, reducing the number of clubs they split the TV revenue with.

Pérez's plan didn't work out because he underestimated the fans. It's easy to see why he did that in a world where club ownership is increasingly becoming the domain of oligarchs and nation states. It sometimes seems like club owners treat fans as an inconvenience these days but, banded together in numbers, those fans still hold some sway, and the pressure they brought to bear on their clubs was enough to change the minds of a lot of those clubs' owners.

If Pérez had instead tried the tackle the problem — perhaps with some sensible caps on transfer fees and player wages — he might have been onto something. Player wages do after all account for 70% of a club's expenses.

The ESL may have fallen through this time, and the football authorities have now introduced rules to try and prevent another breakaway, but the problem the European power clubs face hasn't gone away. Things are far from over.