Welcome to a new weekly blog courtesy of one of TRUE FAITH’s key writers, Matthew Philpotts. Matthew’s blog will unquestionably focus on Newcastle United but the scope of this blog is wider than what goes down at St James’ Park and will focus on a whole range of football issues not limited to the club we all love. 

From all at TRUE FAITH we hope you enjoy these Blogs which we hope to have with you every Thursday. 

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Kicking Off: The Rise and Fall of the European Super League – BBC 2 (first shown 4/May/22) 

The documentary is still available on i-Player – click here and there is a preview from the BBC also  here.

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There’s a particularly grim irony in watching the BBC’s new documentary, Kicking Off: The Rise and Fall of the European Super League, on the same day that UEFA announced its long-heralded changes to the Champions League. True, those changes weren’t quite as horrendous as they might have been – 64 additional, entirely pointless matches in the group stages, rather than 100 – but the two new places to be awarded on the basis of coefficient remain, albeit calculated annually and by country rather than historically by club.

In his accompanying comments, UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin couldn’t resist a pointed dig at Florentino Perez and Andrea Agnelli and the comically inept coup d’état they launched a little over a year ago. But his claim that UEFA has shown it’s “fully committed to respecting the fundamental values of sport and to defending the key principle of open competitions, with qualification based on sporting merit” is frankly laughable. And when the FSA talks optimistically of “putting the brakes on the worst excesses of Europe’s biggest clubs”, it all feels a bit more “Neville Chamberlain ”than “Neville, Gary”.

Still, as Kicking Off makes clear, UEFA’s history of appeasement is a long and inglorious one, stretching as far back as 1990 and the genesis of the Champions League in response to Silvio Berlusconi’s original Super League plans. In the thirty years since, we’ve moved incrementally from admitting league champions, in the singular, to what amounts to be guaranteed qualification for the top five in the Premier League, rising to as many as seven (SEVEN as the vidi-printer would have put it with suitable incredulity). But we already know that won’t be enough. The thing about appeasing dictators, whether Putin or Perez, is that no concession is ever enough.

Kicking Off is at its best when it sheds light on the personal and political machinations in Spanish and Italian football. We learn, for example, about the lunch one afternoon in Madrid between La Liga President Javier Tebas and Joan Laporta of Barcelona, at which the latter let slip that the ESL would be announced later that week. A long-time and outspoken critic of the power wielded by Barca and Real, Tebas immediately got on the phone to fellow lawyer Čeferin to warn him, only for the Slovenian to assure him that his close friend Agnelli would never do such a thing.

At this point, things went full-on soap opera, as Agnelli first denied all knowledge of the ESL to the UEFA chief, who also happens to be godfather to one of his children, before promising to call back in an hour, and then switching his phone off altogether. With Čeferin left phoning Agnelli’s wife in desperation while the world’s media went into meltdown, European football’s own Carrington-Colby moment at least answers one of the more intriguing questions in the whole affair. The UEFA President’s palpable fury at his press conference the next day was not driven by sporting principle – the thinnest of thin ice for someone holding dominion over the gilded corridors of Nyon – but by personal affront and betrayal from within “the family”.

The other genuinely insightful section of the film centres on the absence of fan protest in Spain and Italy. While Miguel Delaney argues plausibly for a football fan-scape demoralised by years of unrelenting Real-Barca hegemony, Nicky Bandini invokes the deeply ingrained cynicism of Italian public life. It’s just a shame the filmmakers make absolutely no attempt to pose the other compelling national question raised by the abortive ESL–why were Bayern and the Bundesliga so entirely absent from the project? Might there just be something to learn from German social and sporting structures? Alas, we’ll never know.

If that was an omission, then the yawning chasm at the film’s centre is the complete absence of critical perspective and insight into the actions of the Premier League and its dirty half dozen. After all, no country provided more participants than the home of unbridled free-market greed, but the ESL project is instead conveniently presented as a uniquely Italian-Spanish conspiracy triggered by PSG’s new found wealth.The closest we get to insight – and I use the word advisedly – is Alan Sugar on Daniel Levy. There are no insider perspectives, no journalists with anything like theexpertise offered on Italy and Spain.The thought processes of Abramovich, Henry, Glazer et al remain a closed book.

Instead, the void is filled by the odiously smug Steve Parish, presenting himself as a modern-day Robin Hood of the boardroom. Oh and, God help us, Richard Masters, who is given more air time than anyone for his particular brand of self-serving guff. I mean it really has come to something when Boris Johnson isn’t the most bare-faced liar present in a TV programme – Johnson’s dubious claim not to have discussed the ESL with Ed Woodward at Downing Street or empty promises of a “legislative bomb” positively pale next to Masters’s assurance that there have been “real consequences” in the punishment of the Judas six.

It falls to the straight-talking and savvy Kevin Miles of the FSA to offer a lone counter voice, rightly suggesting that the absence of punishment is indicative of a total failure of football governance. Indeed, the prominence of fan protest and voice –from popular demonstrations to the constructive intervention of supporters’ trusts –is the one obvious bright spot in the documentary’s treatment of the English angle.

And yet, it all feels too easy. True English fan culture overthrows the project while Spanish and Italian supporters stand by. Hooray! Masters and Parish heroically man the Premier League barricades. Hoorah! If we’ve done it once, we’ll do it again. Hallelujah! All of this functions as a convenient alibi for genuine scrutiny and reform of the structural conditions that made the ESL plan possible, and thedecades long complicity of the Premier League and its clubs in those same conditions.

Finally, what of Newcastle Utd in all of this? Well, the documentary rightly points out that we are now part of the problem. If six doesn’t go into four, then seven certainly doesn’t, with the addition of a PIF-fuelled United. Much as we might long for the responsible custodianship that Staveley and Ghodoussi have been preaching, only an idiot would think that our club would have stood by and watched the ESL from the outside, let alone the rehashed non-Champions League.

You’ll be glad to know, though, that I’ve racked my brains and come up with a radical alternative to spare us the bother. It’s an annual competition involving one club from each of UEFA’s constituent countries. Let’s say…the winners of each domestic league in the previous season. We could make it a straight knockout and call it, I don’t know, the European Cup. Genius, right?

Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731