By Garreth Nunn l @garrethnunn
Modern football is very Orwellian. ‘All teams are created equal, but some teams are better than others’ seems to be one of the messages written on the barn door or maybe in this case the stadium one. Yet, football fans forget very easily and no more so than in Spain.
Florentino Perez, the new president of the European Super League and current Real Madrid President, spoke two times to the press this week, once just after the announcement of the new Super League and again when it collapsed. He spoke about UEFA and FIFA and the control they held over the game. He talked about taking back control, about distributing the wealth fairly and making the sport more interesting.
Yet, this isn’t the first time Perez has spoken about change. He did so when he was first elected to the Santiago Bernabeu and made similar promises when the TV money distribution was changed. The big two would get a bigger share but the money would trickle down. It didn’t! So why are fans so quick to believe him now? Possibly, it’s because they forget too easily!
When the announcement came many looked at Spanish football and waited. It was almost like a scene from Braveheart. The charging horses were the new Super League, the fans and the rest of the clubs were Mel Gibson and his army. Hold, hold, HOLD!! But then there was nothing. Yes, Atletico Madrid fans were in uproar and so too were the other clubs but there was nothing compared to what was happening in England.
There were no huge mass of ex-players and journalists coming out and lambasting the new league. In fact, there was almost the opposite. There can be no denying the coziness that both Real Madrid and Barcelona enjoy from the press, but this proposition would destroy La Liga and it seemed most either didn’t care or thought it was a good idea. The big two had the press exactly where they wanted, saying what they wanted and so it looked like a formality that the new league would start.
So, with that in mind on Monday night Florentino Perez made his first appearance on TV since announcing the new Super League. As president of the new league, he was facing the press on possibly the most pro-Real Madrid show there is. We learned very little from the interview apart from Perez making some bold statements.
Statements that he didn’t back up. One statement that was made was about the attention span of young people and their complaints about the duration of football games. Perez offered no proof on this but in all fairness, he wasn’t asked to. The comments have been laughed at, made into memes but also believed and so the question of whether he is right or has a point arises and the truth of the matter is that there is a grain, albeit a small one, of truth in the statement about attention spans.
In Spain once upon a time clubs were run by their socios, but a law change in 1992 to get clubs to manage their debts better introduced club owners to the fold. Only four clubs remained in the hands of the fans and Madrid was one. Anybody could be president. It was difficult to do so but not impossible. Then enter Perez. Now only an extremely wealthy person can run for president. Yet socios signed off on this, being bought off with a fancy new stadium design, new players and promises of greatness.
Nobody asked at what cost. Can you imagine any CEO/Chairman/President completely changing where a company works and does business without speaking to its shareholders? It is unfathomable, so why didn’t the President of Real Madrid do so before entering the Super League? According to Perez on Wednesday in his second interview, this one being after the collapse of the League, he didn’t need to.
How long will it be before the fans forget that the person who is elected to run, not own and treat as his personal asset, their club made a huge decision without consultation? It is fair to say or believe, very soon but not only Real Madrid fans, but mostly all football fans in Spain have the memory of a fish. So maybe Perez is right on one thing, there are short attention spans and on this he has evidence.
When you think of all the legendary players that have graced the Santiago Bernabeu, who can hold a candle to Perez? Ten years ago, if you spoke to a madridista and didn’t admit that Iker Casillas was the greatest goalkeeper ever, you could end up in a fight. Now some madridistas wouldn’t include Casillas in their list of top 5 keepers, let alone players. Casillas isn’t the only ex-player who was held up as a hero, only to be discarded when they held no more value. Real Madrid like to talk about legends but how they treat them has always been an issue.
The amazing thing is how quick fans are to move on to the next thing. Perez is no fool and he took advantage of fans’ memory flaws. Ticket price hikes, third and fourth kits and any opportunity to flog the brand all started with him. Other clubs have followed. In 2004 you could take a tour of the Nou Camp for a relatively cheap price and get your picture taken with a replica of the Champions League trophy with your own camera for free. Those days have gone and now ‘Mes que un Club’ means we are also open for business and it all started when Joan Laporta looked across the country and saw the money Perez was making. It looks like Barca fans too have short memories.
So, Spain was going along for the ride and for many it was a done deal. For Perez the important people had signed off. He didn’t need anything else. What he says goes and what he wants he gets. It didn’t matter that other European clubs expressed outrage and that UEFA and FIFA made big threats. But then something happened. A man who tells fans how to think didn’t bank on the fans of the other 11 clubs revolting.
Why would he? He tells madridistas what to believe and if you don’t agree, you aren’t really a fan so he honestly believed the other clubs could get their fans in line. But it was fans in England who stood up and didn’t read or like the script and so we saw the start of the wheels coming off. Perez hadn’t banked on any fans revolting. He never imagined that fans in Manchester could come together against this. He never expected anyone to stand up to him at this point, let alone fans. He had never been in this situation before and as his dream crashes around him, he is still baffled about how it came about.
Perez blames Covid-19 for his and other clubs’ debts. But Covid-19 did not buy Hazard, Jovic and other underperforming players. It was not responsible for a huge rebuild of the Bernabeu. Nor did it buy Dembele, Coutinho or Griezmann, who are all fine players but were signed for ridiculous fees. Covid-19 did not push ticket prices higher and higher, making it impossible for many parents to bring their children to games. He says kids are turning away from football, but it hasn’t even occurred to him that it is because he has outpriced them!
It was announced that the new European Super League was the future and the saviour of football and the money would trickle down to the smaller clubs. But, it hasn’t happened in La Liga these past decades, so why would it happen now? Perez said this was the way forward and he was the man to do it.
Right now three clubs remain in the league and questions need to be asked of Perez with the biggest being is he the cure to footballs ills or is he the cause? Will the fans in Spain look at England and see that fan power is something and it can work? To make real change they will have to fight the media and the clubs which is no easy task. But, if fans really want to make a change to the game they love and take it back, they need to act now. And, they know exactly with whom they need to start!