It’s been just over a week since Der Spiegel broke their story about the impending Super League. On the eighth day, Cardiff and Brighton produced a thumper of a match in South Wales to stir the senses. It was rough and tumble, came replete with an awful tackle and a very obvious sending off, and finished on a bicycle kick from a centre-half and last-minute winner which might have broken the net.
That’s football. The match as a spectacle was lacking, clearly, but right there, in those wild, uninhibited Cardiff celebrations was the game’s reason for being. It was ninety-five minutes of attrition which wasn’t always easy on the eyes, but isn’t that often the best way: when watching a match is a struggle, but when it comes with a dramatic pay-off as reward for that endurance.
This, then, is what would be lost. Those scenes at the end were derived from Cardiff’s status in the Premier League and the unlikelihood of their eventual survival. Consider the alternative, in which relegation no longer exists, all teams are free to plan their financial futures twenty years at a time, and what, really, is left? Where would the desperation come from, the urgency? The reason to even celebrate?
What about the compulsion to keep watching. If nothing were at stake, what neutral would have bothered waiting for Sol Bamba’s winner? Entertainment may be a virtue in professional sports, but it’s often overstated. The real joy – or pain – comes in knowing that a fine line exists between winning and losing and that there are real consequences of finishing on either side.
In a Super League, there would be no equivalent. Neymar might score a last-minute goal and celebrate with some self-glorifying prance, but what would it all be in aid of? The head-coach may even dance down the touchline as Neil Warnock did today, but he’ll be earning £10m a year and his squad will have been assembled at the cost of a small country’s GDP. Where’s the emotional resonance in that.
So people sneer at teams like Cardiff. They get referred to as the game’s “great unwashed” (Bruce Buck) and treated as an inconvenience by clubs who see the sport only as a vehicle for their commercial aims. But football needs them, needs its underdogs and needs – yes – even matches that looked like the one played today.
The game won’t realise that until they’re gone, though, or until they’ve been pushed off-stage to protect all the things which don’t actually matter.