Phil Smith: Sunderland, Atalanta and why the rotten European Super League proposals matter to all clubs

Three years in League One can go some way to making you feel detached from many of the debates at the 'elite' level of the game.

Monday, 19th April 2021, 12:00 pm

For the most part, the circus that accompanies the Premier League feels not just like a different sport, but a different world entirely.

So when you hear that the so-called 'big six' are planning to form a new super league, it can be tempting to shrug your shoulders, raise your eyebrows and tut at this latest show of greed and arrogance.

Particularly, it must be said, when you've just watched Sunderland lose three games across seven days in the third tier.

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The European Super League plans are a threat to all football club

The Champions League, it is fair to say, feels some way off.

Ponder it a little more, though, and you realise exactly why the new proposals are so insidious.

All the defeats that come with following a football club, all the disappointments and frustrations, all the wasted and ruined weekends, are powered by the belief that one day your club might just get it right and the reward will be a place at the top table.

That no matter how bad things have got, how many mistakes your club has made, no matter how apathetic they have made you feel in their current iteration, it might be you who are the next to have their moment in the sun.

For that to happen, someone has to lose out and the clubs that have supported these new proposals are eager to ensure that is not them.

The League One schedule makes following England's top tier difficult but you only have to watch Arsenal or Tottenham once or twice to know why they so fear the principle of sporting merit in their current guise.

They have thrown money at average players and are left with teams without any identity and only a smattering of quality. No wonder they want to try and cut teams like Leicester City, who have recruited smartly, building a squad with patience and prudence.

They know they are vulnerable to any club who makes smart footballing decisions; their recent history suggests they are not capable of doing the same.

In fairness to Andrea Agnelli, the Juventus chairman who has done so much to drive these proposals, he has been entirely transparent with his loathsome logic.

Speaking earlier this year, he suggested that Atalanta should have perhaps not have been able to qualify for the Champions League based on one year of sporting success.

That is the Atalanta side who have thrived in Serie A for three seasons now, playing comfortably the most attractive and attacking football in the division.

They have done so on a budget a fraction of the league's biggest clubs, with a manager and group of players rejected by those sides.

Their story is what keeps us coming back to football, even despite the greed of administrators like Agnelli.

“I have great respect for everything that Atalanta are doing, but without international history and thanks to just one great season, they had direct access into the primary European club competition. Is that right or not?” Agnelli told the FT Business of Football Summit earlier this year.

“Then I think of Roma, who contributed in recent years to maintaining Italy’s ranking. They had one bad season and are out, with all the consequent damage to them financially."

Incidentally, Agnelli's Juventus fell to a 1-0 defeat just hours before the Super League was announced.

Their opponents? Atalanta. In doing so, Gian Piero Gasperini's side leapfrogged Juventus in the table.

A super league would put a stop to all this, by limiting access and by entrenching the 'super' club's financial advantages in their domestic divisions.

It's just the latest proposal put forward to advance this cause.

We saw it earlier this year, when the 'big six' attempted to exploit the challenging financial landscape in the EFL with their 'Project Big Picture' proposal.

Even the Champions League was moving firmly in this direction before last night's announcements.

All of these ideas and suggestions, cloaked with promises of more funding for the clubs who will miss out, are about closing the shop for ambitious and upwardly-mobile clubs.

If this proposal does not go through, then there will be another one on the way: the direction of travel is clear.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction of many of the game's 'legacy fans' has been to say, 'just let them go'.

From the not so dizzying heights of third in League One, it can seem at face value a little opportunistic to weigh in on the debate dominating football.

But this is exactly the point.

Not just for Sunderland, but for Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, Preston North End and any club whose history has shown they have every right to be considered as elite as Tottenham Hotspur.

A space at the top table should only ever be based on merit.

It might seem a long way off now, but if Kyril Louis-Dreyfus was to rebuild Sunderland over the next decade or more, then the changes those currently at the top table wish to force through would put a ceiling firmly in place.

If the 'big six' don't believe in the principle that every fan should turn up on a Saturday hoping that it can be the start of the journey to the top, then the game in this country really is better off without them.

For any club hoping to climb back from where they have found themselves, this stuff really matters.

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