The Dark Forces of Football are back at it. Or should I leave it at The Super Powers of it? Oh, damn, just one sentence and I already mentioned the dreaded S-word.
The plans were first reported by David Ornstein from The Athletic last Sunday night and they went under the European radar until early on Monday morning. That was the moment echoes started reverberating and you, undoubtedly and inevitably, found yourself looking at—let’s be honest—just another of those magnifying stories of grandiose plans describing all you need to know about UEFA’s latest dream.
The 2022 Summer Hit, but it ultimately landed, indeed: the current chairman of the European Club Association (ECA) and president of French club Paris Saint-Germain, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, will lead a group of representatives pitching the idea of “taking Champions League games outside of the continent”, supposedly, “to make meaningful games more accessible to global fanbases.” That group, Ornstein wrote, includes “some of the most powerful club executives in European football” that favor that proposal.
And that is, we have to assume, just the start of a long list of bullet points packed full of other proposals ready to be made by the ECA to UEFA’s board in a meeting happening in late September, also reported by The Athletic.
There is so much to unpack in the few paragraphs above, that it makes sense to pause for a second to make some things clearer for those who might not know what all of this means and the parts involved in the talks.
The ECA represents, simply put, all big dogs playing in European competitions on a yearly basis. These are your Ajaxes, PSGs, Arsenals, Milans, etc. As already stated, Qatar-born Nassir Al-Khelaifi was named the new Chairman of ECA in April of 2021. One plus one, you do the math.
Then, there is the proposal itself, which could be broken down into multiple equally significant and dumbfounding parts. It is made explicit in the article and fairly simple to guess, but just in case “outside of the continent” brings a three-branch ramification of options: the United States, China, and Middle East countries—chief among them Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Two birds, one stone.
On top of the locations in which those games would be played is the question about which games would be impacted or involved in this new International Champions League. Ornstein mentions sources quoted saying that “initial steps would surround early group games rather than high-stakes knockout matches.” That’s great! Also, that’s incomplete information shared by those sources if they are to be believed.
The current UEFA Champions league—not to mention the one coming in 2024—features 32 teams split into eight groups of four. And that’s just the final stage of the competition. Among those 32 clubs featuring in the competition this season are Liverpool, Viktoria Plzen, AC Milan, and Maccabi Haifa, just to name a few. Are we getting Plzen vs. Maccabi in New York City come 2026? Exciting times ahead! Yeah, right?
If there was a massive backlash against the UEFA decision to award Champions League places to clubs based on historic performance and coefficients, just imagine the hell it’d be for UEFA to code a fair algorithm for generating matchups between Team A and Team B in Location C. Good luck with that.
Of course, this is all a lie. Or at least, it’s only half the truth with the important, meaningful-for-the-moguls part of it remaining in the shadows as is UEFA/ECA’s favorite MO.
This is only one more development in a long chain of moves leading up to it. Al-Khelaifi, the embodiment of PSG—or the other way around, whatever you prefer—acquired the French side back in the summer of 2011 leading the Qatar Sports Investments (QSi) shareholding organization with HQ in Doha, Qatar. Al Khelaifi is also the chairman and chief executive officer of beIN Sports Media Group, as well as the president of the Qatar Tennis Federation among other high-rank positions.
Lost in the text right above this one: do you know which competition is broadcasted by the good folks over beIN? If you guessed UEFA’s Champions League, congratulations! Here’s your little oil-coated trophy!
But wait a minute, because the plot truly thickens. And it’s not that anything I’m writing about here is new.
Remember what happened last April? Al-Khelaifi had another of his otherworldly ideas. Back then, in a conference held at the Hilton hotel in Vienna, he said that “the [UCL] Final should be bigger” posing that including “an opening ceremony” would add “creativity and entertainment” to that type of event. That was just the latest move back then and now only one more piece of the large puzzle building up to whatever is coming when the final masterpiece is completed.
Already operating as the honcho of the ECA at that conference, Khelaifi disparagingly mentioned the “fabulists and [their] failures” referring to the funding members of the infamous European Super League. Of course, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin wet his pants hearing those words while also and in parallel telling L’Equipe that “[re-structuring the final stages of the Champions League and turning it into a one-location, single-game, winner-take-all Final Four] could be great and effective in terms of revenue if done right.”
The Champions League is, already, and by a good old mile, the most-watched club competition in the world of sports. So why do rich gents make any of those changes? Because money is infinite and the only challenge for football behemoths and their surrounding bodies is to make a little bit more of it if only to try and find the limit of their pockets’ seams—which, by the look of it, are bottomless.
Nobody, not at least those dressed in Armani suits sporting UEFA pins attached to them, seems to care about the lads working hard for five or six or even seven days a week only to find a respite on Sundays to sit for 90 minutes and scream at 22 men following a little ball.
Sadly, that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Allow me to take you on a time-travel trip all the way back to September 2012. Al-Khelaifi, just one year after taking over Paris Saint-Germain and with QSi in possession of the club since 2011, was interviewed by French newspaper Le Figaro. Funnily enough, the headline alone is telling. “It won’t be easy”. “Ce ne sera pas facile.”
Speaking for the media outlet and addressing the status of PSG, Al-Khelaifi was asked about how the club would create new revenue streams. Al-Khelaifi, never improving, said that “There are numerous possibilities.”, explaining that “this summer for example we were in the United States [and] we want to internationalize the PSG brand.” If that’s not enough to see the connection and long-schemed plot to conquer Europe and the world over still ongoing, Al-Khelaifi dropped the hammer by saying that “[PSG] strategy is not limited to France, but it’s international. Our project is to make the club one of the best clubs in Europe in the next five years.“
This takeover, as any and every other takeover, was hardly approved by longtime fans of Paris Saint-Germain but diametrically favored by bandwagoners from France and way beyond its borders. Things have, as expected, escalated steadily over time when it comes to the fanbase, its demands, and the deferring views of the club and its success.
I was able to ask a few people with—at least by their own assessment—links to PSG in terms of their fandom and support of the club. Here are some of the thoughts they shared with me:
“Sometimes it feels like a war between old fans and new fans. New fans are defending the new, flashy additions to the team. Old fans are stuck in the past and bringing legends back to every discussion.”
“It’s been more than ten years since the QSi bought the club. The management has been horrible, yes, but this takeover is still in its early stages compared to most successful, long-established organizations. It’s crazy that fans have been asking—demanding, even—a Champions League cup every season for a few years now.”
“This club didn’t have many fans in the 2000s. The takeover pretty much aligned with the raise of social media. The problem? A team with a few fans getting a boatload of bandwagoners aboard generated a tension between both fan factions with very contrasting interests. Some were rooting for the club, as they had always done. The others, for the new transfers, signins, and their faces. Take Messi, who is a venerated idol for some to the extent they praise and defend him above the likes of Mbappe—which, even if you look at it from an objective perspective, is just another external import PSG had to pay millions and millions to bring back to Paris.”
“It’s Patience vs. Instant Gratification. Old fans are never going to ask for trophies yearly after roaming the desert for decades with the odd major title between 1990 and 2010. Winning a cup back then was definitely an event to celebrate. Not winning a cup now is felt like a good reason to start an insurrection.”
That’s just the substance that makes for the main ingredient of the current PSG and its growingly agitated, never pleased, always anxious, perhaps delusional fanbase. Even then, ask them if they’d like to attend the Champions League games of their team away from the surroundings of Parc des Princes—and all other European frontiers, for that matter—and you probably guess what you’ll be getting.
Imagine rooting for your Noname City team for 38 years with your first memory of attending the lovely Nosponsor Stadium back in 1994. Imagine having the chance to finally, once and for all in your lifetime, enjoy a Champions League game against a top-notch club from one of the best nations around the continent. Imagine that in order to attend that dream of a match you’d need to pay for a flight, accommodation in a country you have probably never visited—the United States—or maybe one of which you don’t know its official language—China—or even worse, maybe one in which you would feel uncomfortable just thinking about stepping into its soil—Saudi Arabia.
In fact, you don’t even need to be a fan of that club. You might be a little Al-Khelaifi, a little Qatari boy or girl Doha-born-and-raised dreaming of watching a big European side that randomly happens to be visiting one of your country’s now-abandoned stadiums at some point in your lifetime. If only could you afford the ticket. A ticket that, of course, would have amounted to a full year of football streaming in one of many platforms already offering football in nearly every country around this thing we call Mother Earth. Perhaps, just maybe, real Al-Khelaifi could turn into some UFC or F1TV service, see what they are offering and the worldwide growth they are experiencing and go from there. Nonsensical ideas might be left at bay!
That only touches on the fans, of course, because who thinks about the actual athletes these days? Has Al-Khelaifi given five seconds to the thought of how vast contingents of people would need to make double-digit-hour trips to play midweek games? Has he thought about the fitness of those players? The impact on their availability and, perhaps most important for his business interests, the quality of the end product offered to those watching live on location and through broadcasts around multiple—if not all—nations? Honestly, I doubt it.
Domestic football associations will undoubtedly oppose this sort of proposal. So will fans of any—big or small—club. It happened in the past, it would happen now... but will it happen in the (most probably, near) future? That’s the huge question mark.
“Clubs are said to be open to holding matches in major markets such as the US, China or the Middle East.“ Clubs that, these days, are—or will soon be, ask Bill Foley—operated and owned by non-European billionaires, magnates, oligarchs, and sheiks with an obvious interest in moving the game away from the Old Continent and into new places that would pour revenues into their very own bags.
Who would have thought?