This week in football can only be described in one word. Chaotic. An overnight announcement of a new European Super League with 12 of the continent’s biggest clubs was like waking up in the morning to seeing the most anticipated album of the year dropped with no hype. But instead of taking in a classic, you quickly realise it’s nothing but trash. The beats weren’t mastered. The album artwork is looking a bit sloppy. The features didn’t deliver.
You were sold a lie – and that’s exactly what happened with the Super League. This was never an attempt to fix football and level it up for a new generation. The “blockbuster” fixtures were a veil over the cold truth. This was nothing more than a money exercise by the richest people in the game. No more, no less.
However, what’s undeniable is the Super League presented the first opportunity to radically change football in 30 years. Sadly, what we were offered by the 12 clubs attempted to fix none of the very obvious problems that plague the beautiful game, and instead underlined just how vital it is we use this moment to take action and create a better future for football.
It’s time for the governing bodies, clubs and the media to wake up and act with the same urgency about the big issues we’ve all cared about for a long time. Our voices count right now, we need to keep using them.
We asked you what you really want football to look like. With your help, the VERSUS team have put together a list of proposals that will bring us the change we truly need.
1. Create an environment that finally respects players as humans
Footballers are the reason we watch the game. Their on-pitch excellence is often an extension of their off-pitch personality, but we still don’t see that element of football culture respected enough by those that rule the game. Imagine a game that embraces ‘Tunnel Fits’ like the NBA, that encourages players to speak their mind after a game without judgement, that celebrates players dancing after a goal without middle-aged pundits foaming at the mouth in the studio. Leagues, media and social platforms need to create moments and environments where players can truly be themselves. The more comfortable players feel, the more ambitious they’ll be, and the more they can use positions of power to positively impact culture and society.
2. Kick unethical sponsors out of football
Football sponsorship is a major way to reach audiences but many of football’s sponsors have questionable motives. Gambling brands, FX companies and those looking to sportswash should be removed, and replaced by companies with a focus on issues like education, charity, or clean energy. We already know English football is set to outlaw gambling brands as shirt sponsors, but this should be extended to stadium advertising and all-wide club partnerships. William Hill sponsoring Tottenham’s first XI reveal on every match day, highlighting goalscorer odds at the same time, will never feel right. Football’s commercial partnerships should enhance communities, not exploit them.
3. Give ownership back to fans
The fact that the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’ was even able to discuss the idea of a Super League has brought clarity to how much power and influence fans have lost within their own football clubs. If it’s ever going to happen, the time is now to correct that power imbalance and give those who love football a great influence over how it’s run. Calls are rife for English clubs to introduce the 50+1 rule, which is already in place in Germany. To play in Bundesliga, fans must own 51 per cent of a club, which stops private investors swooping in and driving changes forward at the expense of fans. In short, it’s kept wages under control and ticket prices low, making the game more accessible for all.
4. Lifetime bans for fans, players and officials who racially discriminate
The game has been plagued by racism: racial abuse of players, racial abuse of fans, and racial inequalities within the football industry as a whole. Up to this point, racism has been treated as a minor issue and football’s major powers are too slow or too weak with their punishments. We’ll never eradicate racism from the game if those with power don’t take it seriously. UEFA’s proposed penalties against ESL clubs and players – kicking teams out of tournaments, banning players – has been more aggressive than any anti-racism measure. Lifetime bans on racism would be the biggest statement football has ever made on an issue that keeps on rearing its ugly head. Zero tolerance.
5. Make the game accessible to younger fans
One of Florentino Pérez’s big Super League theories was that 16-24 year-olds aren’t interested in football anymore. While he was blaming the league system and the way the sport is formatted for that, the truth is far more closely tied to how inaccessible the game has become. Tickets are too expensive. Young people can’t afford three subscription packages. There’s no easy, affordable way to watch games on a mobile device. Anyone sharing clips on social media have their posts taken down before you can say “copyright”. The game is governed by an old mindset. The future of football needs to be accessible via new technology, low price points, and relaxation on highlights rights. Until that happens, young fans will turn to pirated streams or turn off altogether – and you can’t blame them.
6. Partnerships between pro teams and grassroots clubs
Non-league and grassroots football have become steadily more popular in recent years, as fans continue to be priced out of the game or don’t see their values reflected in it. The grassroots game has played a part for every professional on their way up and it needs support from the game’s rich and powerful to keep thriving. COVID has shown that. The game’s biggest clubs should form official partnerships with their local FAs and non-league teams to increase funding, inform best practices, foster friendship between the pro and amateur game, and create genuine links between big clubs and the communities they represent.
7. Increased investment into the women’s game
The women’s game in England was banned for almost 50 years between 1921 and 1969. Let that sink in. Since that moment, the game has been playing catch up. A major part of rectifying this is greater investment in training facilities, the grassroots game, coaching, and academies to ensure the next generation of players are given the very best chance to be the best version of themselves. Every single professional club in the game should have men’s and women’s teams, with suitable funding for both. This doesn’t seem like a big target but when you realise Manchester United’s team was founded as recently as 2018, it tells you how much work there is to do. The women’s game at senior level should be supported so that all players can be professional, not just some.
8. Give climate targets to every professional club
Sustainability is not something that can be achieved overnight however, continued strides by everyone means that progress is the responsibility of the collective. As an industry, football has the opportunity to be an active participant in the fight against climate change and challenge all clubs to work towards carbon neutrality. Extreme weather will rapidly affect the way the game is played over time, from extreme heat to extreme storms, affecting both the pro ranks and the grassroots game. The sport isn’t immune from climate change, and we need to be talking about it a lot more. The game needs to follow Forest Green Rovers’ lead.
9. Support for young players in and out of academies
Statistics show there’s a 0.012% chance of an academy player becoming a professional player. That means 99% of boys and girls who get to academies in their formative years are thrown back out into the world if clubs eventually decide there’s no place for them. Their lives, dreams and identities change in the blink of an eye. This sense of loss is something 99% of prospective football players go through. And sadly, there’s no standardised support structures in place to help them on the next part of their journey. Clubs and the football industry has a responsibility to these young people to put support structures, safety nets, and transition programmes in place as they begin the next stage of their life journey. Young people aren’t expendable.