Unless they won the Europa League this season, Arsenal were set to spend a sixth consecutive year out of the Champions League when the 2021-22 campaign kicks off. After appearing in Europe's premier footballing competition for 19 consecutive seasons, the club is locked into a vicious cycle. While the other members of the Big Five, Spurs, and even Leicester have been able to feature in the Champions League and reap the financial rewards of doing so, Arsenal have struggled to fight their way back in on a budget suffering from the loss of that income.
A smart club would have admitted that an era had ended and spent these last five years carefully and strategically rebuilding a squad of young players with high talent ceilings to eventually make a push for a top-four place in the Premier League. But Arsenal are not a smart club these days. They have instead resorted to quick fixes to try to return to prominence, repeatedly making short-term moves that have cost the club precious time and money.
The first of these stopgaps was probably the most obvious one. Instead of blowing up an aging squad and starting anew, they threw money at big names looking for their last major contract in a desperate attempt to compete once more for a top-four place. Instead of being sold for a significant fee, Alexis Sanchez was swapped for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Alexandre Lacazette was made the club's record signing before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang took that title months later. Mesut Ozil was infamously put on £350,000 a week.
In addition to those methods of climbing out of the Europa League places, Arsenal turned to the Europa League itself for an expedient way back to continental prominence. They ushered out Arsene Wenger and hired Unai Emery, who had won the Europa League three times in a row with Sevilla, as head coach. Unfortunately for Arsenal, this plan did not work, but came painfully close to doing so. Emery oversaw the capitulation of the team in the final games of the season to finish one point outside of the top four, as well as a spectacular 4-1 defeat against Chelsea in the Europa League final.
Arsenal finally seemed to acknowledge the need to get back into the top four the right way when they hired Mikel Arteta. The former club captain and technical director Edu Gaspar were reportedly operating on a multi-year timeline to get the club back to where it once was. Arteta is also incorporating young players such as Bukayo Saka, Kieran Tierney, and Emile Smith Rowe into the squad as important pieces of Arsenal's rebuild. However, in the meantime, Arsenal fans must watch as West Ham competes for a top-four spot and clubs like Everton and Leeds stand a very good chance of finishing above them as well.
This has all happened under the nose of Stan Kroenke. Two weeks ago marked ten years since the American billionaire became the majority owner of the club. In that decade, Arsenal's stature has declined. Dysfunction and underachievement have been the hallmark of Kroenke's tenure as club owner so far.
It is pretty clear at this point that Arsenal is not a passion project for the owner. Kroenke rarely invests his own money into the club, leaving it to subsist entirely off its own revenues. He has never given the impression of being knowledgeable about the sport and has continually placed faith in the wrong people to run Arsenal. He spends much of his time handling other sports franchises, particularly the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL in recent times.
So if it's not for the love of the game, that likely leaves love of money as the motivating factor behind Kroenke's ownership of Arsenal and relevant decisions. His actions certainly don't go very far toward disproving that hypothesis. Just during the pandemic, Arsenal streamlined their executive structure, talked most of their players into wage cuts, announced a plethora of redundancies, and applied for and received a £120 million loan from the Bank of England. All of these decisions kept money in Kroenke's pockets at a time when Arsenal was struggling to make ends meet.
At the end of the day, Arsenal is another investment for Kroenke. Just like the Rams. Just like the Denver Nuggets. Just like the Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Rapids, and Los Angeles Gladiators. Kroenke needed Arsenal back in the Champions League not to see his side play the continent's finest or give the fans those European nights once more, but to maximize the return on his investment.
However, after so many failed attempts to return to UEFA's top-tier competition and so many short-term actions taken for naught, Stan Kroenke has finally cut the corner of all corners. He banded together with Florentino Perez and billionaire owners of other big European clubs to create their own tournament: the European Super League.
Last night, Arsenal announced that they were among 12 founding members of the ESL. Along with AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Spurs, Arsenal have made a move that seismically impacts the landscape of European football. Three more founders will join the group, with Bayern Munich rumored to be among them. The Super League will consist of those 15 permanent members and "5 annual qualifiers", according to the competition's official website. In exchange for signing on, the founding clubs will split €3.5 billion to establish a "sustainable financial foundation", according to The New York Times.
The announcement was made with the backdrop of strong, public condemnation of the idea by FIFA, UEFA, and the Premier League. UEFA have threatened to ban teams who join any the Super League from ever again participating in the Champions League or Europa League. FIFA have announced that players who feature in the Super League may be denied the opportunity to represent their national teams. As it stands, any team that joins the Super League will be banned from the Premier League and FA Cup. Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson has condemned the action.
And yet, all 12 founding clubs departed the European Club Association, the body representing the interests of member football clubs in UEFA. Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli resigned from the UEFA executive committee and his post as ECA chairman, according to Simon Stone of BBC Sport. Each team has posted a statement on their official website announcing their decision to join the Super League.
What is especially jarring is how over the course of an evening, the biggest governing institutions in professional football were made to look powerless. Before our very eyes, the landscape of European football appears to be disintegrating. The owners of the biggest clubs in the world have seemingly usurped the people we thought were in charge. While perhaps years of ineffectiveness and corruption may lead you to feel that FIFA and UEFA had this coming to them, complete power held by club owners is far from a better alternative.
According to the Daily Mail, Stan Kroenke will serve as one of the league's vice-chairmen under Perez. BBC Sport claims that Kroenke was eager for the Super League to actualize and was Perez's "best mate" in making it happen. Arsenal's owner apparently sees the new competition as an opportunity to make Arsenal the biggest club in the world.
Kroenke couldn't wait for Arsenal to get back into the Champions League. He wanted his asset to start making more money for him now. So he joined in a move that could destroy the Premier League, that could bankrupt clubs all over Europe when TV deals get yanked because broadcasters are no longer interested, that could severely impact the careers of so many players who want to play in the major European leagues and for their nations. And to make sure the money never stops flooding in, he helped make sure Arsenal could never fail to qualify for this new competition.
Sadly, it makes sense that he would pursue this. Kroenke is used to working in American sports. In the NFL and NBA, the same group of teams compete every year for a championship. No one gets relegated to a lower league or fails to qualify as a part of the overall competition. Everyone reaps in the revenue. Now, Arsenal get to enjoy the same luxury in European football.
As surreal as it feels, it appears that Arsenal and the other founding teams are really going through with it. According to Sky Sport, the Super League is scheduled to begin this coming summer. Kroenke has finally found a successful shortcut for Arsenal back into the upper echelon of European competition.
The outrage will subside. The players who come to the Emirates because of the inflated transfer kitty the club is due to receive will win us over. The spectacle of Arsenal taking on Europe's finest once more will prove too great to not consume. Perhaps the Premier League will reach a compromise with the clubs it promised to ban. Maybe UEFA and FIFA will concede as well to be a part of this new venture.
But today, Stan Kroenke spit in the face of parity, of sport, of football itself, because he wanted the bigger payout without having to do the work of getting his team out of midtable. Instead of spending money, getting more involved in the club's inner workings, and doing his best to be a good owner, he mired Arsenal Football Club in the most openly greedy power grab in modern football history. There will be consequences. Some fans will walk away. Some players might even make their exit over this. Those who don't will never really look at the club in the same way ever again. But it is the Arsenal faithful who will pay the price, while Kroenke will reap the rewards.
Many have complained that the European Super League will get boring because of the lack of turnover in competitors. Other fans are worried that Arsenal will consistently finish bottom of the bunch when up against juggernauts of club football. But the thing that truly ruins what is otherwise what we've all craved for five years is how we got there. We didn't earn it. We likely won't finish in the Europa League places, let alone the top four, this season. We have not won a title since the season of the Invincibles. We coasted in to a cushy gig off our brand and our owner's thirst for even greater wealth.
For the neutral football fan, the European Super League will be the greatest entertainment ever devised in football. For fans of Europe's most successful clubs, it is a prospect that raises concerns of unfairness but none of impostor syndrome. For fans of smaller clubs, it is the ugliest reminder yet that football is an oligarchy. But for Arsenal fans, it might always feel like just another one of Silent Stan's get-rich-quick schemes.
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