By Sacha Perera
‘Project Big Picture’, a plan put together by established clubs to restructure English football to their benefit, promises to revolutionise our beautiful game – but at what cost? And, more specifically, at whose expense?
In the fortnight where we’ve seen the reintroduction of something resembling normality in football, with fans returning to where they belong, it’s a good time to step back and take a look at the beautiful game’s (Project) big picture.
Because while we’re edging closer to the reinstatement of life as usual, the sport is on the brink of not just resurrection but revolution – a revolution that would leave the gap between the big and small of football not just greater but unacceptably unequal.
The big picture
“Why do we love football?” asks UEFA’s #EqualGame ad (2017). “It’s a chance to make a difference on and off the field,” replies the Portuguese phenomenon, Cristiano Ronaldo. “It’s the passion of the fans,” answers Ronaldo’s rival, Lionel Messi. “It’s because out there, on the pitch, we’re all equal,” concludes France’s Paul Pogba.
Three years on and the Frenchman’s statement still seems to be more of a utopian ideal (or even a regrettable misrepresentation) rather than a tangible reality. This speaks not only to ongoing issues regarding racial inequality but also to the financial side of the game.
As footballers continue to use their abilities on the pitch as a platform for positive change off it (albeit reactively) the changes proposed by Project Big Picture (PBP) in many ways promise to undermine their actions.
The proposal, put together by Liverpool and Manchester United, would give the most established clubs unequal and unprecedented control over the running of the Premier League (PL) and in return promise to provide greater funding to the English Football League (EFL), including an immediate bailout package for struggling lower league teams.
Reaction to the proposal has been notably negative. The PL itself, as opposed to its clubs, has made its opposition to the idea clear, stating: “In the Premier League’s view, a number of the individual proposals in the plan could have a damaging impact on the whole game and we are disappointed to see that Rick Parry, chair of the EFL, has given his on-the-record support.”
Crucially PBP, which was initially downvoted on October 14th, was put forward in the midst of an increasingly dire economic crisis for many of the smaller clubs. Even before Covid, several teams had gone into administration over the last couple of years. But the pandemic has put many more in perilous positions as they’re unable to allow supporters into matches – thanks to the government’s heavy-handed and largely ineffective effort to control the virus.
All the while, the big players currently sitting comfortably at the peak of the footballing pyramid, specifically the so-called “Big Six”, don’t depend nearly as much on ticket revenue (despite taking a substantial financial hit due to Covid), primarily because much of their funding comes from multi-billion-dollar TV deals, both domestic and international.
As a result, these extraordinarily wealthy clubs – along with their equally well-off owners – have continued to make million-dollar transfers throughout the crisis as their lower league counterparts simultaneously struggle to simply stay safe. In turn perpetuating an unacceptable disparity within a sport which, ironically, is meant to support and uphold the value of equality.
Playing for power
This stark divide between the big and small of football has not only widened through the pandemic but has been exploited by those at the top. This is made blatantly clear in the form of PBP’s second condition: to provide the EFL with a much needed £250m bailout to cover Covid losses.
As the player turned pundit, Garry Neville points out: “this proposal proves that the PL clubs recognise that the EFL needs to be bailed out,” but are trying to cynically use the situation to force the hands of smaller clubs to agree to their terms.
This being said, there are aspects to the revolutionary project which, if don’t necessarily solve the pressing issue of economic disparity, do at least show an understanding that something needs to be done about it. The policy to pay 25% of annual PL income to the EFL, including the £250m upfront, is a good start, and something that now looks as though it will rightly become a reality – in one form or another.
Our Beautiful Game
Other projects calling for similar policies of redistribution and regulation have also been heard in recent months. Perhaps the most prominent is a manifesto released by an eight-person party, titled ‘Our Beautiful Game’.
The group calls for radical political intervention, arguing: “that government can significantly help the industry which has proved incapable of reforming itself,” proposing that “Parliament passes new legislation to set up an independent regulatory body for football with the challenge of radically reforming the way our national game is governed.”
The aims of this group, despite accusations, weren’t born out of the members’ selfish interests. In fact, the opposite is the case, reacting to the crony capitalistic actions of PL club owners, who evidently prioritise power and profit above the provision for, and preservation of, a wider fan-based community.
Community not monopoly
Part of the reason the big PL clubs feel entitled to more power and are reluctant to help those bellow them is that they see themselves as the drivers of the industry.
Their money and presence on the world stage bring millions of viewers, and their hard-earned cash, to the English game. And because these big players are the main attraction they think it’s only right that they get the largest slice of the pie – and some.
But what these clubs fail to realise is their dependence on the structure of football as a whole.
For one, the PL has no permanence. No club is guaranteed to remain in the topflight forever. Take Leeds for example who, from being on the brink of the Champion League final (Europe’s, and arguably the World’s, most prestigious competition), were relegated to League One just six short years later – only returning to the PL this season after 16 years away.
It’s this competition, provided by the community as a whole – especially and including the lower leagues – that supports the topflight and which makes the PL the leviathan it is today. By giving players and clubs alike equal opportunity to make or break it, no matter who you are, where you might be or where you’ve come from, gives people hope that one day it might be them on top. This aspiration is the foundation on which football stands, continuing to cultivate lifelong connections to childhood clubs, whilst also inspiring a desire within the stars of the future to be the best they can be – irrespective of their creed, colour, or religion.
More than just a game
So, the idea that the PL is a business that can, or worse, should be monopolised is therefore entirely unsubstantiated and even morally reprehensible, undermining the reasons we love what many consider to be not just a game but a community and its egalitarian values. Unfortunately, this ignorance of the role that wider communities play in the profits of the successful is systemic, characteristic of not just football but much of contemporary society.
I share the hope of those who drafted Our Beautiful Game’s manifesto that the industry will be able to reflect on the failure of PBP and reform itself – independent of an external authority. But I also have my reservations, fearing that the present geist makes it more likely that the situation will have to get worse before it gets better.