When the Super League was launched in 2021, its chairman, Florentino Perez, also the president of Real Madrid, and the other founders didn’t think to invite Napoli.
Aurelio De Laurentiis, owner of the current Italian champions, claimed he wouldn’t have joined anyway. And in classic opportunistic fashion, he used it to his own political advantage.
At the time, Serie A was in talks with private equity firm CVC about setting up a media company to better sell its TV rights around the world. De Laurentiis opposed this. He thought giving away a percentage of future revenue in return for a much-needed instant cash injection after the financial damage done by the Covid-19 pandemic — “crumbs for the starving” — was a bad idea. “I said they were mad.”
So he played Andrea Agnelli, using the then Juventus and European Club Association (ECA) chairman’s ambition to launch a Super League with Perez to sink the CVC deal.
Signing up to it would have meant accepting what was dubbed an anti-Super League clause, which had been inserted on the grounds that an adjacent competition threatened the value of the rights CVC hoped to enhance. “I used Agnelli,” De Laurentiis claimed, “because if the fund bought into the league, he wouldn’t have been able to join the Super League. That’s why he lined up against them.”
Perez followed suit in Spain but, unlike De Laurentiis, was unable to stop CVC and La Liga coming to a similar agreement. At their expected lunch before Napoli host Real Madrid in the Champions League tonight (Tuesday), one expects the future of football to be a topic of conversation.
While Perez and De Laurentiis disagreed on the Super League, these septuagenarian disruptors share a belief that they could manage European football a whole lot better than UEFA does.
Perez insisted the Super League idea “saves everyone, it saves football” because it triples or quadruples club revenue and re-engages the next generation of fans, who are apparently losing interest. De Laurentiis proposed his own Champions League alternative on the basis that “it’s wrong UEFA makes €800million and we don’t know what they do with it”. He suggested: “Let’s put €10bn on the table and make a European league where the top six teams from the top five leagues and another minor league all play against each other once.”
These half-baked conversations have nudged UEFA into reformatting and expanding the Champions League from next season and it isn’t the first time Napoli and Real Madrid have influenced major change.
This is the fixture that made the Champions League as we know it.
One of Perez’s predecessors, Ramon Mendoza, wasn’t a fan of UEFA either. In the autumn of 1987, he criticised the governing body for the “mad decision” to ban supporters from attending the Bernabeu for Madrid’s first-round match against Napoli in the old straight-knockout European Cup as punishment for Juanito bringing a foot down on Bayern Munich midfielder Lothar Matthaus’ jaw in the previous season’s semi-finals, an act of Clockwork Orange-esque violence that resulted in a five-year suspension for the Spanish forward from UEFA competitions.
The Napoli tie was only marginally less UFC. Punches were thrown, and other things, too, as striker Salvatore Bagni alleged the Madrid players called him and his team-mates “Mafiosi”. The visitors’ backup goalkeeper, Luciano Castellini, lost his cool and hurled an icepack at Madrid coach Leo Beenhakker, which missed and apparently hit a photographer, at the end of a 2-0 home win remembered as ‘La partita degli insulti’ — the slanging match.
“We’re gonna eat them alive,” Diego Maradona kept telling his team-mates ahead of the second leg two weeks later at the stadium that now takes his name, a phrase that must have produced a wry smile among the Spanish press pack, who quite savagely put his anonymous performance at the Bernabeu down to him carrying “too many kilos” and being in an “almost scandalous” state of “physical abandon”.
Bagni, too, wished to avenge that defeat and “the kicks and punches (Madrid players) Michel and Martin Vazquez gave me in the dressing room”.
Rotten eggs were thrown at the coach carrying the Madrid squad as it left the airport for Castellammare di Stabia, where the visitors took refuge down the coast south of a hostile Naples.
In front of a sell-out crowd the following night, Napoli tried to stage a comeback, laying siege to Madrid’s goal. “Little Napoli, champions of Italy for the first time, had them cornered,” Bagni recalled. “They were almost on their knees, helpless for long spells.”
When Giovanni Francini opened the scoring on nine minutes, the turnaround was within their grasp. Madrid were flying by the seat of their pants. “In the truest sense of the word,” Bagni said. “Because (Madrid goalkeeper Paco) Buyo stopped a shot from Careca with his backside and there ended our breathless dash towards a comeback as immediately afterwards (Emilio) Butragueno scored (an away goal) and they went through.”
The result, in Francini’s telling, “still burns” all these years later.
Napoli were one and done, as they had been in the UEFA Cup the previous year when the holy water picked up in nearby Lourdes on the way to the French city of Toulouse and then rubbed into the players’ feet did not stop Bagni and Maradona missing penalties in the shootout that decided that first round tie.
The TV tycoon Silvio Berlusconi thought the format was “an historical anachronism”. The risk of one of the best teams — and in this case the best player in the world, Maradona — exiting European competition before it had started in earnest diminished it as an attraction.
And he would experience this feeling himself as owner of AC Milan when, a month after Napoli’s elimination from the European Cup by Madrid, Barcelona’s second club, Espanyol, knocked Arrigo Sacchi’s pressing pioneers out 2-0 on aggregate in the second round of the UEFA Cup.
“The imponderable prevails in European competitions,” Berlusconi told Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera. “We must turn them into a continental league, with guarantees for the clubs in terms of management and revenues.”
As he saw it: “We’d always go play in Madrid, Barcelona and Lisbon, not some remote provincial village. Clubs of a certain level that draw big crowds and have revenues to match should compete with each other. An 18-team Serie A is also against the interests of football. What mentality does a provincial side come to San Siro with? The most they can hope for is to play for a 0-0.”
The language of 1988 echoes that of Perez and Agnelli in 2021 and reminds us Berlusconi was a visionary not only in populism and the use of TV and football as a political vehicle to create a voter base and winning brand. He recognised the business potential within the game.
Berlusconi came to the football industry, which was still defined as a sport rather than an industry then, from the entertainment world. The tycoon, nicknamed His Emittance due to the number of satellite dishes that sprung up in Italy, took over what had been a local TV network national, in part by buying up the rights to tournaments such as the Mundialito — a competition held on the 50th anniversary of Uruguay’s first World Cup win that featured all the past winners (apart from England, who declined the invitation as the games were due to be played over Christmas in 1980-81).
Berlusconi later turned an international affair into a club competition held in Milan on three occasions (1981, 1983 and 1987), which featured Italy’s big three and an inconsistent mix of South America’s finest (Flamengo, Santos, Penarol) and whoever had won the European Cup (for example, Porto in 1987). In many respects, the whole thing foreshadowed the Club World Cup current FIFA president Gianni Infantino is busy relaunching.
This regulation-bending endeavour was all preparation for breaking the monopoly of Italy’s state broadcaster RAI and using live sport to start the pay-TV revolution that made Serie A ahead of the curve and filthy rich, helping funding the league’s golden years through the 1990s and early mid-2000s.
All of a sudden, Italian teams including Berlusconi’s stopped going out in the first and second rounds and started winning UEFA competitions. But Milan lifting the European Cup in back-to-back seasons (1988-89 and 1989-90) did not change Berlusconi’s opinion that the spectacle could be better and more lucrative. Umberto Gandini, one of Milan’s executives at the time, recalled: “In 1988, Berlusconi, who had a great relationship with Mendoza (at Real Madrid), was already talking about a maxi-competition.”
The working title was the European Television League. Advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi was drafted in on the project and when word of it got out, UEFA was forced into concessions to ensure the European Cup retained its status as the pinnacle of the club game on the continent.
All sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?
“The Champions League in (1992-)1993 was the consequence,” observed Gandini, a de facto minister of foreign affairs for Milan who’d later play a big role in the ECA. The group stage concept was introduced, the competition was expanded, more games meant more money could be charged to broadcasters and all of a sudden finishing in the top four of domestic leagues became important.
In part through Napoli-Real Madrid and then watching his own team bow out early from merciless straight-knockout competitions in the space of a month, Berlusconi imagined the game as it is today, not to mention its place in the media, sport and entertainment vertical.
The latest Super League threat two and a half years ago has provoked the most radical format change in three decades. From next season, there will be 36 teams competing in one Champions League division (a change from the current 32 in eight groups), sorted according to their results in matches against eight separate opponents (up from the present six first-phase fixtures — home and away games against three group rivals).
But just as the reform in 1992 didn’t stop other Super League projects in the short-term, with nicknames including Parsifal (whose quest for the Holy Grail is part of Arthurian legend) and Gandalf (there’s a theme here) from being discussed in smoky rooms over cognac, this one is unlikely to put an end to the shenanigans of 2021, regardless of Juventus belatedly following the Premier League clubs in initiating the procedure to exit from the Super League.
Perez and others are still waiting for the European Court of Justice’s verdict on whether FIFA and UEFA broke the law when they threatened to expel the devious dozen Super Leaguers from their competitions.
In the meantime, the gap between the Premier League and the rest of European football continues to yawn and will, in time, undermine the competitive balance of the Champions League if English clubs are making so much more money than what their counterparts on the continent earn.
“The Super League already exists,” the late Berlusconi’s right-hand man Adriano Galliani said this time last year. “It’s the Premier League.”
He elaborated: “There should be a Brexit in football, too” — a continental league “without the English” to attract more value and rival the Premier League. “Do you think the English left the Super League in April 2021 because the fans protested? Come on! It’s because you don’t leave a financial situation like that.” After all, Gallianni said: “Who is going to make the English give up the €4billion they make a year?”
It’s something for Perez and De Laurentiis to mull over at that lunch tomorrow.
That and the legacy of Napoli vs Madrid as the game that made the Champions League.
(Top photo: Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)
Read the full article here