Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: ‘Leaders’ who know the price of everything... but the value of nothing

At its core, the European Super League project was about corporate leadership. Or lack of it.

Tottenham Chairman Daniel Levy
Tottenham Chairman Daniel Levy

As the game has become more corporate and more global, so the game’s governors have come from a world of corporate leaders.

And this is where we have seen a leadership crisis. In modern economic times – 21st century global capitalism – corporate leaders have been known to fail us long before this week’s doomed European Super League (ESL).

They have been happy to accept the power and influence but not the responsibility and moral obligations that come with their positions of running institutions that are an integral part of their communities.

The most infamous lack of corporate leadership emerged in the form of the 2008 Wall Street crash and global banking crisis.

Consider the acts of the 12 football club owners this week and then read this. “A single-minded pursuit of their own self-enrichment, self-aggrandisement to the exclusion of all other considerations has led to an abandonment of the old-fashioned concept of noblesse oblige, equality, fairness, or of any real notion of corporate social responsibility.”

That was written by the British academic Clive Boddy who put forward an academic paper arguing that the 2008 banking crash was caused by corporate psychopaths.

This column is not accusing the 12 ESL football club owners of being psychopaths.

But the traits that mark out corporate psychopathy – how certain individuals climb to the top of the corporate ladder – may have been exhibited this past week.

What has been lacking is genuine leadership and corporate responsibility.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is really big in the world of business, and the American cabal would know this more than any of the others. They were acutely aware that their behaviour would need to pass certain ethical tests.

The sheer stupidity of this oversight was astonishing. Ultimately, in their parlance, it was the abandonment of CSR that was the crime. A business that damages the systems and platforms on which it depends will eventually be unsustainable. Football requires competition. Football requires ‘Legacy Fans’.

What we have witnessed this week is more than just a clash of ideas.

It has been a clash of values and principles which has shone a spotlight on the very worst corporate behaviours. Supporters against owners.

Real Madrid's President Florentino Perez, right, stands with coach Zinedine Zidane

The traits exhibited in the aftermath of the owners’ failure to execute their project have been damning.

What type of leaders would hatch such a doomed plan and then hide away, thousands of miles away, while sending their managers out to face the media? Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and Jurgen Klopp were put in impossible situations by their own bosses when their teams played after the ESL news had broken.

Only long after the master plan was ripped to shreds did John W Henry emerge from his Massachusetts bolthole to seek absolution. Long after Klopp had been tasked with defending the indefensible on Monday evening at Leeds and long after Liverpool’s players had released a statement opposing the ESL.

Henry has become an expert in apologising. He told fans he will listen, but rarely does. He did not listen when Liverpool tried to raise ticket prices in 2016. Nor when the club attempted to trademark the word ‘Liverpool’. And not when the decision was taken to furlough staff at the start of the pandemic.

Tottenham Hotspur also took the furlough route. Chairman Daniel Levy’s statement, after the club withdrew from the ESL, did not offer an apology, just this. “We regret the anxiety and upset caused by the ESL proposal.”

Regret at your upset. Your reaction. Not my decision-making.

Joel Glazer’s open letter to Manchester United supporters, explaining why the club became a founding member of the flawed project, included the reasoning, “In seeking to create a more stable foundation for the game,” which beggared belief.

The ESL would have done exactly the opposite, handing wealth to a select few and creating a much larger financial gap. Did Glazer really expect supporters to believe his motive was to create a more stable foundation for the game? Not for United, or him personally, but for the game?

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez’s interview with radio station El Larguero was similarly delusional.

“Somebody has to give us another format, to earn more money. Without earning more money this will all die,” he railed, as the pandemic continued around him.

A raft of Premier League clubs were quickly on the front foot to denounce the ESL and deliver morality lectures to the shambolic six about how they could never have been a part of the project. They should be given the benefit of the doubt, but it would have been interesting to see how many would have jumped aboard the ESL had they actually been invited.

Football is suffering immensely from a lack of leadership.

Corruption in the global game has been rife over the last 20 years or more, surfacing every time there is a World Cup host nation bid to be fought over. UEFA’s Financial Fair Play model has been ineffective and disregarded. Ticketing at major competitions remains a source of frustration for supporters who pay over the odds for a miserly allocation. The next World Cup is to be held in Qatar, should we need a further reminder of the point we have reached. Football’s leaders act with self-interest. The ESL was just the latest example.

That it failed so spectacularly illustrated just how incompetently these men at the top went about their business. They may have held positions of immense power, but when it came to proving their leadership they fell dreadfully short of the required standards. These were not leaders to aspire to.

There was no integrity or depth to the project. The shameless add-on that a Women’s ESL would follow as soon as practicable, without one iota of detail, was laughable lip service.

Leaders should want to enhance the wellbeing and lives of those they lead or govern. ‘Earn It’ read the T-shirts players wore this week.

That applies not just to football teams’ results but to football’s leadership.

Leaders must lead.

Their behaviour this week left a bitter taste, while supporters showed themselves to be the game’s true leaders.

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