Thursday, February 29, 2024

Breaking Point

Over the years I have written a lot about disillusionment with ‘modern football’ for want of a better catch all phrase. Increasing ticket prices, (increasing rail prices too!), late kickoff changes that add an additional layer of expense to match attendance, group stages that serve no other function than revenue expansion, Stan Kroenke’s ownership. All of them have caused varying degrees of ennui in recent years.

When I write this sort of article, I am often asked the same question. ‘What is your personal breaking point?’ It’s a question I have shied away from- partly because I don’t really know and partly because I don’t want to confront the day that I decide to walk away from a relationship that has defined my whole life.

Regularly producing ‘Arsenal content’ has tightened that bond. It combines my two most enduring passions- writing and Arsenal. It’s not easy to countenance walking away from what amounts to a life I have built for myself. I could never totally leave it, I don’t think that would be possible. I always envisage myself at least ‘observing’ and writing about the club.

As for what it would take to stop me going? Like I say, I don’t really know. I have always mumbled, in a mealy mouthed manner, that my breaking point wouldn’t be my decision. So the point where I literally could no longer afford it, for example. But in the back of my mind, three words have always circled around my head that would absolutely represent my breaking point. European Super League.

A European Super League is an inevitability at some point. Competitive games hosted globally are, likewise, a total inevitability. Within the next 10-15 years, maybe sooner, I think we will see Premier League games taking place in New York, Doha and Sydney. It is the next logical phase of the Premier League’s expansion. The point is approaching where the ‘domestic market’ and television subscriptions cannot be wrung any drier.

My objection to the European Super League isn’t entirely a moral one. The Premier League breakaway and the incremental expansion of the Champions League were both decisions driven by avarice, Stan Kroenke has acquired 100% of Arsenal holdings and I have continued to go to games. I am not a moral paragon when it comes to Arsenal or football.

There are some key differences though, where a European Super League is concerned. The Premier League breakaway and the Champions League expansion may have been driven by revenue but, whisper it quietly, the quality of ‘the product’ improved as a result. It is easier to set aside your moral concerns when Dennis Bergkamp and Mesut Özil see Arsenal as an attractive destination and the high water point of the Champions League around a decade ago.

I think the Super League represents a tipping of the scale however. My principle objection would be that it wouldn’t be entertaining. Up until around 5 years ago, I didn’t really like what the Champions League stood for, but I still enjoyed watching the games. As inequality has deepened, the competition has, in my view, become unwatchable. Especially in the group stage format, which is 100% about money and 0% about what is entertaining to watch.

People can tie themselves in knots justifying the existence of the group stage, but the fact is, nobody would choose this format if they took money out of the equation. A few weeks ago, I realised my twitter mentions were becoming busy as Wojciech Szczesny apparently made an error playing for Juventus against Manchester United in the Champions League.

Not only was I not watching, I forgot the game was happening. It simply hadn’t occurred to me to watch two of Europe’s most famous clubs play. This is because group stages insulate games from consequence, parcelling any remote opportunity for drama over the course of 540 minutes and 3 months totally stifles the entertainment value.

I was watching Netflix. It literally hadn’t occurred to me to watch one of the world’s big ticket ties. My interest in the competition has dropped to zero and this was the case prior to Arsenal’s lack of involvement. Even the knockout phase holds less interest because the same teams tend to meet year on year, so the sense of occasion is lost. The Super League, which proposes no relegation or promotion for 20 years, completely murders the jeopardy football needs.

The other reason the Super League would represent a personal breaking point is that I literally wouldn’t be able to attend most of the games. An away match in Europe every other week would not be conceivable or affordable for me and most others (and I recognise that I am fortunate that my financial breaking point hasn’t arrived well before now). My relationship with Arsenal is entirely based on match attendance, without it, the bond is significantly weakened.

I am not saying there is any good reason for the club to pity me and people like me. This is not an idle threat on my part. And who knows, maybe fans in New York and Doha do deserve to see more than the occasional money spinning pre-season friendly? Many of us domestic based fans talk and tweet about our acceptance of overseas fans, maybe it would be interesting to see that sincerity tested by sharing the opportunity to attend matches.

But, speaking personally, not being able to attend the majority of the matches would instantly render Arsenal a background force in my life. Match attendance is how my relationship with the club has been forged. I missed the Newcastle away fixture in September for a friend’s wedding. It was the first domestic fixture I had not attended since 20th January, 2002.

Throughout the day, friends asked me how I was coping with the withdrawal. It was actually quite easy, because when I am not at the match, the tension and fervour just isn’t there. When the game exists on a TV screen or on my phone, it exists only as an abstract concept. It is only the result I am really interested in, which isn’t hugely satisfying to me.

I am sure I would eventually adjust to the idea of watching Arsenal on TV, but the motivation to do so just isn’t there in a ‘competition’ like the European Super League, which is not really a competition at all. When the reason for a competition’s existence is less than 50% about entertainment, it ceases to be a sport. It loses its tension, its purpose. A Super League tips a balance that has been sliding towards <50% for some years now.

My intention is not to preach, nor to even try to convince or persuade. I am not under the illusion that I hold any bargaining chips here. My brother-in-law is a Birmingham City fan and he gave up his season ticket when St. Andrews became all seater. It wasn’t a boycott, or an act of protest. He just didn’t enjoy going to matches in all seater stadia, so he stopped and now only visits the ground 2-3 times a season. I think that’s where I am with the Super League. I am just not interested.

As for what I would do instead? I don’t struggle to enjoy football, I regularly watch non-league matches, South American football, women’s football. I would find other avenues for my absorption. I would probably move my focus more onto the Arsenal Women’s team. I garner an even greater deal of enjoyment from these games because I get to ‘cover’ them now and indulge my journalistic fantasies.

I realise watching another branch of the Arsenal Football Club is hardly a punishment for ‘the regime’ whose refusal to condemn the football leaks revelations amounts to an admission. Because really, any sense of protest or punishment should start now, as outlined excellently in this blog from Tifo Football. That the process is already underway is enough. The recent £5m ‘gift’ for Richard Scudamore is just a further layer of sewage in the stream Premier League football swims in.

Rory Smith further outlines the case for moral indignation here. But this isn’t really about punishment, or protest, or anger. Not for me, anyway. It probably should be, were I an individual of decent moral fibre. But the way I see it, a European Super League would take the choice out of my hands.

And in a way, I kind of hope they all hurry up and get on with it, because I am tired of fighting- the ticket prices, the games rescheduled at short notice at unsociable hours, the takeovers. It’s increasingly clear that the game is not for me anymore and these backroom dealings are a mere confirmation of that, they come as no surprise and I really ought to have taken the hint by now. After years of gripping the cliff edge, someone stamping on my fingers is probably just what I need.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook.

Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available to order here.

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