Image Description: Pages of an open book about Machiavelli
Football has never seen such a blatant display of greed as the proposals for the now condemned European Super League. The owners acted in what would commonly be described as a Machiavellian fashion. However, even Machiavelli would have reacted with disdain at the proposed Super League.
Machiavelli thought that Julius Caesar was a tyrant. This title fits the Juventus Chairman, and fellow Italian, Andrea Agnelli. His actions, alongside Florentino Perez, the President of Real Madrid, were motivated entirely by self-interest. Machiavelli, who believed ‘all men are evil’, could easily have used these pair as his archetype. Agnelli was prepared to thrust Aleksander Čeferin, President of UEFA and godfather of one of his children, into the biggest crisis football has ever seen.
Machiavelli certainly would have taken note of, or even praised, Agnelli’s ruthlessness. However, he only excused morally contemptible actions when they were for the common good. Agnelli’s actions were fuelled by greed and entirely for his own self-interest.
The European Super League was stopped from going ahead. Machiavelli would have approved of the reasons for this. As typical of the Renaissance period, Machiavelli had a reverence for the past, in particular the Roman Empire. Whilst football does not stretch back quite that far, there was a connection to the origins of football and what makes it the most popular sport on the planet; its foundation on merit.
Football, for all its faults, has a greater claim to a meritocracy than most other areas of society. There are still significant issues of racism within the game. However, the general principle of football relies on a ball and a patch of land. It can be played almost anywhere and does not require expensive equipment. We have all used jumpers for goalposts.
It is this basic principle that has made the beautiful game accessible across the world, especially to the working classes and places with high levels of deprivation. It is why there are so many players from humble beginnings, such as Marcus Rashford who challenged the government to protect the most vulnerable in society.
It is from these foundations that the belief, on their day, a team can beat anyone else derives. It is quintessential to the magic of the FA Cup and why the story of Leicester City becoming Premier League Champions in 2016 struck the hearts and minds of football fans. Even with all the money in the game, it is still possible to dream. The European Super League, with its closed shop of teams, attacked the very fabric of football’s integrity and that is why it could not stand.
The method of stopping the European Super League would have appealed to Machiavelli. He was a man that advocated the involvement of citizens in the protection of the state. This was what happened with football fans. Their outrage meant that the Super League could not stand with fans mobilising across England to protest outside Elland Road and Stamford Bridge.
Who was the man leading the calls for mobilisation?
Could he be the man of outstanding virtú that Machiavelli cried out for to restore glory to his city of Florence that has arrived to save football instead?
In his most famous work, The Prince, Machiavelli used a metaphor of a lion and a fox to illustrate the combination of cunning and strength a great leader requires.
‘The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.’
Gary Neville’s multitude of involvement within football as player, manager, pundit, and owner means he has been the whole proverbial zoo. Maybe he should now be the one to build the ark to protect against the flood of money in the game. His impassioned plea on Sunday after the Manchester United game and then his more thorough dissection of the situation on Monday Night Football displayed the nous and leadership that football requires to save itself.
Gary Neville’s multitude of involvement within football as player, manager, pundit, and owner means he has been the whole proverbial zoo
Neville’s advocation of an independent regulatory body would have pleased Machiavelli, who believed in the use of institutions to offset human nature’s tendency to act in self-interest instead of for the common good.
But be warned. We should all remain vigilant to the direction the game is travelling in. With changes to the Champions League to include more matches and more guarantee for the inclusion of so-called big clubs, the move away from football’s principles is not just being attacked by the European Super League.
The people who pushed for the Super League have not gone away. They will try again. The institutions set up to protect football must be strong enough to stand up to the challenge. It is easy not to trust UEFA to enact this as they are synonymous with corruption. Michel Platini, former president of UEFA, was banned from involvement with football after ethics violations in 2015. Nor does the attempts in British football at regulating owners with a fit and proper test provide much hope.
I want to be positive. I do. However, it is difficult not to share a pessimism with Machiavelli of human nature’s propensity for greed that could destroy football. Football needs to act to save itself. We are at a clear juncture that could be a moment of change to ensure football’s prosperous future. It could well be that the man to lead these reforms should be Gary Neville. We need strong regulations now or I fear fans will have to take up arms again to protect our cold Tuesday nights in Stoke.
Image Credit: Quinn Dombrowski