TThe worlds of Marvel superheroes and European club football are not that different. They are hugely popular forms of entertainment competing for attention in the global marketplace. They have traditional fans who remember things the way they used to be and those who want a product that reflects their lives now. Each of them has a list of names that vary in terms of recognition (for each Incredible Hulk or Barcelona, there is a Moon Knight or FC Krasnodar) and right now they are preparing their next chapter.
For Marvel it’s all about expansion: more TV shows, more characters and more movies, like Benedict Cumberbatch in Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. The European soccer powerhouses want similar growth, but in what direction? Andrea Agnelli introduced himself as the Supreme Sorcerer of football this week and the multiverse of possibilities he presented surprised many as particularly insane.
On Monday, the president of Juventus and the president of the Association of European Clubs confirmed the worst kept secret in football: the reform of the Champions League. There will be more teams, more matches, a group stage from a league table and seeded matches organized in what is known as the “Swiss system”.
Agnelli described such a system as ideal and said he hoped it would be agreed in a few weeks. He said he also hoped that some of the four additional teams would be allowed to qualify on their all-time European record and not on their domestic performance – something that would suit their member clubs but seems to be very weakly related to the idea of a cup ‘Champions’.
Agnelli was not overly concerned about such a change. “The unprecedented events then become normal,” he said.
This is not the only transformation Agnelli sees coming. You can perceive disturbances in another dimension; the one who controls the game itself. In answering a question about how to better regulate soccer agents, Agnelli casually mentioned that he would like to prevent Champions League clubs from buying each other’s players. Such a move, he suggested, would not only stop large transfers between the larger teams, but allow them to focus on buying “champion players in smaller countries.”
Big teams could not only suck up the talent of smaller rivals, they would also be obliged to do so. Naturally, this raised some eyebrows.
Agnelli went on to say that he thought this idea should be on the table when the time comes, in 2024, for the ECA to renew its “memorandum of understanding” with Uefa. This is a document that dictates the terms in which the two bodies will work together for the mutual benefit and the game. Check out the most recent version, in 2019, and it looks like nothing short of a peace treaty.
A central element of the agreement is the functioning of the Club Competitions Committee (CCC). It is the CCC who decides “any matter that has a material impact on UEFA club competitions”, including the form of the tournament and, yes, who receives the money. The ECA is represented in the CCC but, to make changes, the CCC must have its plans approved by the Uefa leadership. If the heads of Uefa do not agree and if a one-on-one summit between the presidents of Uefa and the ECA cannot reach an agreement, the status quo remains.
That stalemate, effectively a governing body veto, would appear to be quite a major block to prevent the Champions League from being controlled by its biggest clubs. It could be the reason why those clubs believe that a separatist Super League is better suited to their individual interests. A getaway, Agnelli suggested this week, that wouldn’t be possible if his clubs signed a new memorandum.
So maybe Agnelli really wants to prevent Real Madrid from signing Kylian Mbappé or maybe it’s just a negotiation and he knows the confusion such a thought would provoke.
You have the feeling that he enjoys playing in the minds of those who run the game. His organization, with its young British CEO hired from the tech industry, is portrayed as an increasingly confident agent of disruptive power.
However, the Italian’s field for a more “competitive” European football is not just about making it more responsive to the needs of its members (which, as he pointed out, extends to 246 clubs). It’s also about serving the fan of tomorrow.
If football is going to continue to grow as it has in the last two decades (at least before Covid), if everyone who has invested heavily in the game is going to see the desired returns, they must sell a product that is as attractive as a Marvel movie. That’s why, among all the other ideas, Agnelli came up with selling instant match highlights or 15-minute subscription packages; best to appeal to a demographic (18-24 year olds) who are not paying attention.
However, it could be that the fan of tomorrow is a pipe dream. That football will continue to be popular with fans who enjoy the sport for what it is, while those who might have gotten involved for entertainment will choose something more inherently designed for that purpose. If that turns out to be the case, all this change will have been for naught.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism