Hope is everything in football. You hope for a late equaliser. You hope for a sudden run of form. You hope for a new goalkeeper. Or a new owner. You have hope because you’ve seen it before. You know it’s there. You saw what happened in Istanbul in 2005. You saw what Leicester did in 2015. And what they’re doing in 2016. You know that, for all the sins of modern football, that magic still exists and that it hasn’t been stamped out by money and power. You saw Swansea rise from circling the drain in the fourth division to the Premier League and a European campaign. Hope comforts you, it drives you, it protects you. But for how long?
Speaking on Sirius XM Radio this week, Charlie Stillitano, the American businessman behind the International Champions Cup (What do you mean, you don’t know what that is?) put a price on hope’s head. Earlier this week, he met with the heads of the five families, the five most influential men in English club football: Ian Ayre (stop laughing); Ed Woodward (seriously, stop it); Ivan Gazidis; Bruce Buck and Ferran Sorriano. We do not know precisely what they spoke about, but we know that it involved ‘restructuring’ the Champions League and we know, from the Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu that ‘wild card’ entries are desired by the big clubs who feel that they may be too feckless and incompetent to always qualify, even with both their natural and their contrived advantages.
Stillitano seems to imply* that clubs like Leicester are not welcome in this glorious new age of modern football. “What would Manchester United argue: did we create soccer or did Leicester create it?” said Stillitano. “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?”
That’s a strange implication. Ultimately, if we’re trying to find the source of the money pot, we should probably go back to the formation of the league that spawned the league that makes all the money. And I’m more than happy to see them rewarded for their vision. If Stillitano will have them, I suggest that the new cash-rich, breakaway Super League is compromised of the founder members of the Football League: Accrington Stanley; Aston Villa; Blackburn Rovers; Bolton Wanderers; Burnley; Derby; Everton; Notts County; Preston North End; Stoke; West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Over to you, Charlie. Monetise that.
But it’s Stillitano’s subsequent assertion that betrays his total ignorance of what makes football tick. When asked about Leicester’s spectacular performance this season he said, “Maybe that is absolutely spectacular unless you are a Manchester United fan, Liverpool fan or a Chelsea fan.”
Charlie, you’re so wrong. When Leicester played Manchester City off their own park, many City fans (those who hadn’t entirely understandably stormed to the pub) stayed to applaud them off the pitch. Chelsea fans, their own title challenge banjaxed long ago, are generally delighted for their former manager, the amiable Claudio Ranieri. Perhaps I’ve been speaking to the wrong people, but I’m yet to find a Manchester United or Liverpool fan who hasn’t been warmed by the Foxes’ temerity and who hasn’t used their unlikely success to ask serious and warranted questions of those running their own clubs. It is spectacular, no matter who you support.
He makes similarly bone-headed, condescending remarks about PSV Eindhoven and Ghent too. ‘Tiny’ PSV with their 22 national titles and one European Cup (That’s what we used to call the Champions League, Charlie). And who doesn’t like Ghent?!
Stillitano doesn’t like Ghent. Stillitano finds Ghent boring. Stillitano looks at Ghent, this tiny Belgian side with meagre resources, he looks at their astonishing journey to the Champions League group stages, their heart, their spirit, their joy, and it leaves him cold. He’d rather watch Real Madrid, less of a cohesive football team and more of a spoiled ten year old’s sticker collection, play Manchester United, a club owned by men who aspire to build their own spoiled ten year old’s sticker collection.
Stilitano doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand the notion of the underdog. If Stilitano directed Die Hard, he’d replace bare-footed John McLane with one of the giant robots from Pacific Rim. If he directed Star Wars, Luke Skywalker would launch a final assault on the Death Star with his own Death Star. Stilitano doesn’t want romance or love. Stilitano wants two fake-tanned, creatine-loaded, dead-eyed porn stars grudge-fucking each other under the bright lights of whoever paid the most money.
No-one is trying to pretend that modern football is some sort of socialist utopia. Far from it. For decades, the big clubs have been trying to kill the small clubs. They tried it when they scrapped shared gate receipts. They tried it when they voted for their cash trough Premier League (How did that work out, Luton?). They tried it with EPPP. But it’s never worked. It’s never worked because there has always been hope.
If you and I, upon this very morning, wished to conquer the world of football, we could. Hypothetically. It wouldn’t be easy. We would have to form our own club and enter the fray at a painfully low level. We would have to build upon every success, on and off the pitch. We’d have to do everything better, we’d have to be smarter, we’d have to be lucky. But we could do it. Look at FC United of Manchester, just two promotions from the Football League. Look at AFC Wimbledon, they could be in the same division as MK Dons next season. As long as the structure of football holds, as long as the passageways are kept clear, there is nothing to stop you and I from ruling the world.
That’s what football is. That’s what sport is. For fuck’s sake, that’s what life is. Stillitano may think that he’s a visionary, but he’s not. He’s an enemy of hope.
* EDITOR’S NOTE: In the original post, we said that Stillitano had ‘asserted’ that Leicester were not welcome in the Champions League. We recognise that this was not the case.