Before anyone accuses me of being anti-American I must stress that I’ve always enjoyed the mini-adventures of the US football team in the World Cup. Despite the increasing popularity of “soccer” in the States, there’s a sense that these must be brave men for turning their backs on gridiron, baseball and basketball.
We may also like to think of them as discerning sophisticates who know a fast and beautiful sport when they see one – an Algonquin Round Table of jocks, no less, although they don’t always look terribly sophisticated.
Usually there’s at least one member of the side, extremely hairy, resembling a heavy-metal roadie left behind in Albuquerque who’s still trying to catch up with the tour-bus. But that just adds to Team America’s charm.
On the admin side, however, I despair. American influence on football is to be avoided at all costs. Over the years various ideas for “improving” the game have convinced me that they don’t actually understand what makes it great.
For instance, a penalty kick contains more than enough inherent drama. It doesn’t need the involvement of a high-maintenance diva like Diana Ross, especially if she’s going to duff her shot.
Okay, that was the opening ceremony of America’s World Cup in 1994 and not an actual match, but you wouldn’t put such a stunt past them, would you? That tournament could have seen matches featuring two additional stoppages or time-outs, for the express purpose of providing more advertising opportunities for TV. Truly, football would have been hung, drawn and quartered. Mercifully, the wheeze was booted out of the park.
Now we have the proposal for a European closed-shop. Charlie Stillitano, pictured right, is the US sports mogul who met five English clubs last week to discuss a shake-up of the continental club competitions. This would be bad news for Celtic or any other Scottish title-winners seeking to play in the Champions League. It would also be bad for Leicester City.
“Leicester don’t matter, claims breakaway boss,” ran one especially grim headline, with Stillitano claiming that clubs such as Manchester United deserved a permanent place in Europe’s elite competition – and substantially more of the spoils – because of their global popularity. He declared: “What would Manchester United argue: ‘Did we create soccer or did Leicester?’”
What would Sir Alex Ferguson argue? I’d love to hear his take on this. The United brand is basically down to him – no other individual contributed more to its creation – but I can’t believe that the Socialist ex-manager of East Stirling, St Mirren and Aberdeen supports Man U having an entitlement to being in the Champions League or some kind of elitist revamp.
Stillitano counts Sir Alex as a close friend. Fergie says the chairman of Relevent Sports is a “lovely guy”, adding: “Christ, he can talk.” Relevent organise the International Champions Cup, a lucrative but meaningless pre-season tournament, which would almost be a way of describing the Champions League if the closed-shop were to operate.
The mega-clubs would get all of the riches but what if none of them had actually won their domestic league? Surely that would rob the competition of credibility. Imagine if the “upgraded” Champions League were to kick off the season after this. Would Leicester, should they claim the flag in the next few weeks, get in? This is unclear, with the teams Relevent treated to lunch at London’s Dorchester Hotel denying any kind of breakaway Euro super-super league had been debated only for Stillitano to suggest that the top clubs were increasingly interested in the idea of a “closed system”.
But consider these comments from the guy who likes to talk: “Let’s call it the moneypot created by soccer and fandom around the world. Who has more of an integral role, Manchester United or Leicester? [Leicester] is a wonderful story but you could see it from United’s point of view, too. I guess they [the so-called ‘big five’] don’t have a birthright to be involved every year, but it’s the age-old argument: US sports franchises versus what they have in Europe. There are wonderful, wonderful elements to relegation and promotion, and there are good arguments for a closed system.”
Sorry, but promotion/relegation isn’t a partially successful system, it is the system. The system on which sport as we understand it – with all those wonderful uncertainties, fantastic imponderables, and it-could-be-my-team-this-year variables – is constructed. Take that away and you no longer have sport.
Good arguments for a closed-shop? Name one that isn’t tied up in snobbery and fear. But how would, say, England’s privileged representatives feel if among their number they could not point to the team who’d come out on top domestically? Would they feel embarrassed about being in a competition for the biggest but not necessarily the best? This is football, and the already money-drenched strata of the game, so probably not.
But again I’m dying to know what Fergie would say. At Aberdeen he stood outside the closed-shop that was the Old Firm duopoly of Scottish football. He made his players press their noses up against the glass and challenged them: “Go on, win in Glasgow.” It worked, and then for good measure he led the Dons to European glory. Aberdeen deserved the right to try and break up the established order, topple Real Madrid. How, if Leicester become champions of England, would they even get the chance if the same teams retained their privileges of Euro involvement regardless of failures in the Premier League?
So who are the big five? Ah well, besides Man U at the Dorchester there were representatives from Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. As they sat down to lunch, three of these super-clubs were in fifth, eighth and 11th place so you can see why exclusive, continuous membership would appeal, especially for those seasons when they cock up and strictly speaking should be excluded.
It’s not a great year for these teams to be coming over all proprietorial. The Champions League does need freshening up, but the closed-shop would only up the tedium level. What about reverting back to straight knockout? The big five – the big fearties – wouldn’t want to risk that, but if it’s any consolation to Celtic, that makes 1967 all the more special.
Meanwhile, in the lingo of the American sports fan: go Leicester!