In 2019, under the harsh May sun in Madrid’s Centro, a father-son duo from England meandered, holding aloft a placard requesting tickets, prepared to pay up to five times the cost to anyone willing to trade. To compensate, they ‘slummed it out’ — stayed in a van, skipped a meal.
Forty-four-year-old Teddy May had grown up a quarter of a mile away from Anfield, the fabled home of Liverpool, the football club he supported. He had inherited the tradition from his father and was now passing it on to his son Elliot, 14.
After years of watching the Champions League at ungodly hours, I was among the thousands of fans who had descended upon the Spanish capital that weekend for the final of a tournament considered tougher than World Cup. My anticipation, though, paled in front of the Mays, who travelled thousands of kilometres for the game.
Elliot was born in 2005, the year Liverpool won the world’s toughest club football competition by beating Italian giants AC Milan in one of the greatest finals of all time. That match was everything we love about football: great goals, stunning saves, a monumental comeback and the drama of a penalty shootout. Heroes were born and hearts were broken on that night in Istanbul.
It also gave birth to a generation of fans, many of whom woke up last Monday in fury to the news of Liverpool joining the European Super League (ESL), an exclusive competition for 12 clubs from England, Spain and Italy. It was to rival the Champions League in which any of the 220 clubs across Europe can play.
Simon Kuper noted in his Financial Times column that one of the earliest mentions of a “Super League in which all the leading European clubs would play, breaking away from domestic leagues in their own countries”, was made as far back as 1968. It failed to take off back then. And even this time, the plan pitched as the future of football has been shoved into the past.
An unprecedented backlash from politicians, managers, players and fans gave some of the ‘cartel’ members cold feet. They apologised and admitted they were wrong.
In his book Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby remarked that “big clubs seem to have tired of their fan base”. The ESL was an indication of that, an attempt to seduce the “fans of the future” — the ones in India, China, South America, and the US — who apparently are interested in “watching just big teams with superstar players”. A tournament like this, they assumed, would help them land TV deals, which would bring in more revenue than stadium-going ‘legacy’ fans.
This presumption that there would be more demand among fans to watch the ‘super clubs’ have a go at each other led the ‘dirty dozen’ , as they got labelled, to discard one of the sacred tenets of football: meritocracy. Football may no longer be a working-class game and the innocence might have been sucked out of it, but it still rewards performers.
Had the 12 clubs got their way, teams such as Ajax Amsterdam, who are the very antithesis of the capitalist modern football, and a production belt of players for the rest of Europe, would have been reduced to a footnote in the years to come. Or Porto would never be able to script the underdog story like they did by becoming European champions in 2004. Or Bayer Leverkusen would never be able to piece together a dream run like the one in 2001-02.
Champions League is not perfect. But it is still the reason why fans embark on pilgrimages. It still produces the kind of drama that makes someone like Alex Ferguson sit back and exhale, “Football, bloody hell!”