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Champions League

Super League protests overshadow Leeds-Liverpool as fans make themselves heard outside empty Elland Road

LEEDS, England — On a night when fans set a Liverpool shirt alight in protest at the club’s involvement in plans for a European Super League, the persistence of a saxophonist outside Elland Road, who played ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” throughout Leeds United’s 1-1 draw against last season’s Premier League champions, provided a mournful soundtrack to the existential crisis facing football as we know it.

For 90 minutes, the lone musician played the same song as Liverpool — one of the 12 breakaway clubs branded the “dirty dozen” by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin earlier in the day — saw their Champions League qualification hopes dashed by Diego Llorente’s 87th-minute header, which cancelled out Sadio Mane’s first-half opener.

Talking about Champions League qualification for Liverpool seems almost laughable considering their involvement in the Super League plan. If Ceferin’s tough talking is to be believed, they and every other club signed up to the proposal will be banned from competing anyway, but as it stands, they might not even make the top four after failing to beat Marcelo Bielsa’s team.

Then again, the jeopardy that comes with playing in a competitive league, in which you can be champions one year and halfway down the table the next, is one of the big reasons Liverpool and their Super League partners want to create a closed-shop league that will guarantee annual participation against their fellow super clubs for the rest of time. It’s just not what the fans, or anyone outside the Super League boardrooms, want, though. They want to see games like this, when Leeds can upset the odds and land a blow on the bigger and richer teams who want it all their own way.

If those involved with the breakaway clubs were in any doubt as to the anger that their Super League plan has generated among football supporters, the greeting afforded to the Liverpool team bus prior to the game, by fans of both sides, will have given them a sharp dose of reality. Up to a thousand fans had amassed outside Elland Road, despite rules prohibiting large gatherings due to COVID-19 safety measures, and they welcomed the Liverpool bus with boos, jeers and anti-Super League chants. Some fans even attempted to block the vehicle’s path into the car park.

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A plane flew overhead, trailing a “Say No to Super League” message, while banners were displayed by supporters with anti-Super League slogans and one that read: “RIP LFC — Love for the working class game ruined by GR££D and CORRUPTION.”

Inside the stadium, a huge banner had been placed on the seats behind one goal, reading: “Earn it on the pitch, football is for the fans.” Prior to kickoff, the Leeds players wore T-shirts with the same slogan under a Champions League logo during the warm-up.

The T-shirts had also been left on the benches inside the Liverpool changing room, perhaps optimistically hoping for Jurgen Klopp’s players to wear them too, but those players, paid by the owners who want to break away, opted against such an incendiary move. Klopp, while saying he could “understand why people aren’t happy about [the Super League],” was unhappy with Leeds for placing the shirts in the Liverpool dressing room. “If someone thinks they have to remind us that we have to earn it to play in the Champions League, it’s a joke. A real joke,” he said.

Leeds are one of those clubs most likely to be disenfranchised by the Super League plan. A big club with a proud history and tradition — Leeds have been English champions three times since Tottenham Hotspur last managed it in 1961 — Leeds would argue they have the fan base and potential to play in the Champions League, as they did in the early 2000s.

After 16 years outside the Premier League, Bielsa’s team has made an impressive return to the top flight this season, but Leeds are maybe two to three years from challenging for Champions League qualification. But by then, who knows how the landscape will look? Will there even be a Champions League two to three years from now? The attempts by the Super League cabal to create their own exclusive club will all but end Leeds’ hopes of re-creating their glory days, which is perhaps why director of football Victor Orta stood with a protest T-shirt in the director’s box before kickoff.

Leeds believed they had reclaimed their place alongside the elite with promotion last season, enabling them to renew a rivalry with Liverpool dating back to 1924, which saw this being the 117th meeting between the two clubs. But Liverpool’s owners would rather play the whites of Real Madrid than those of Leeds United, and there is no escaping that.

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In normal times, without stadiums being closed because of the pandemic, a full and noisy Elland Road would have given a clear message to those aiming to destroy the fabric of English football, and every other top league. But even without fans inside the ground, the scenes outside and the T-shirts worn by the Leeds players got the point across.

Liverpool captain James Milner, a former Leeds player, was surprisingly blunt in his assessment of the breakaway plan, saying, “I don’t like it one bit and I hope it won’t happen. Coming into the game today, Leeds fans were making their feelings shown. As players, we don’t really have a say, so it feels a bit unjust. All we can do is try and win football matches.”

That was a sentiment his manager shared. “The Leeds fans were shouting at us on our walk in the city today and when we arrived at the ground,” Klopp said. “But we have nothing to do with it. We are human beings, and maybe the Leeds fans didn’t know that.”

Leeds forward Patrick Bamford joined Milner in voicing his opposition to the proposals. “From what I have seen, I haven’t seen one fan who is happy, and football is ultimately about the fans,” he said. “Without the fans, football is nothing, and it is important we stand our ground and show football is for the fans.”

But the rebel owners, who are attempting to take their clubs where nobody wants them to go, have arrogantly underestimated football and its supporters. The protests at Elland Road are likely only to be the start of things.

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