Saturday, the 24th of April

Talking Points

Chad's General Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno takes his late father's job. PHOTO: Marco Longari / AFP
  1. A political crisis shook Chad after President Idriss Déby was slain
  2. Xi Jinping called for closer economic integration, clipped US
  3. An Indonesian military submarine disappeared with 53 onboard
  4. It was confirmed that 2020 was Europe's hottest year on record
  5. The Kremlin withdrew forces from a tense Ukraine border
  6. Russia announced its withdrawal from the International Space Station
  7. Meanwhile NASA probes made oxygen and flew on Mars
  8. A judge ordered Los Angeles to house its homeless
  9. The pandemic boom is over for streamers like Netflix
  10. The parent company of disgraced Greensill Capital folded

Dive deeper

A cautionary tale. PHOTO: Matteo Bottanelli

On Sunday, the world's wealthiest football clubs ('soccer clubs' to the heathens) rebelled and formed their own competition. But their coup d'état was roiled within just 48 hours. This week we spectate upon the ecstatic apotheosis of the miserable phenomenon that is football-as-a-business.

An own-goal to savour

On Sunday Real Madrid's Club de Fútbol President Florentino Pérez revealed an audacious plan to save football - by forming a 20-team European Super League (ESL). The breakaway competition would bundle up the top teams and usurp the Union of European Football Association's (UEFA) flagship Champions League. As justification, Pérez and his fellow insurgents averred that UEFA monopolises the sport – a problem that purportedly can only be remedied by forming an even more exclusive monopoly. A cartel, really. And they'd make it a reality with some out-of-town help: smuggling cash and know-how from the New World to the old.

Taken in its idealised form, European football is an open competition in which a team's success is based on its performance. Any club can be elevated or relegated between divisions. This is the antithesis of America's closed, franchise model for major leagues. On the left side of the Atlantic everyone makes money and no-one risks relegation for being thumped week after week. Reliable revenue, pre-booked profits.

In theory, the ESL would combine the elements of both worlds. 15 'founder teams' would be guaranteed a spot in perpetuity. Five more would be prone to the vicissitudes of performance-based relegation. And so 12 of the biggest decided they'd get in at ground level: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus, Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid, and Barcelona. The reigning Champions League winner Bayern Munich, their fellow Bundesliga big cheese Borussia Dortmund, and the perennial Ligue 1 shoe-in, Paris Saint-Germain, were also invited to join the party. Wisely, they declined .

JPMorgan Chased outta town

The 15 prospective founder clubs were promised a few hundred million to get them across the starting line. A welcome offer since all had bemoaned significant losses in 2020 (Pérez even used the word "ruined"). That's a dubious claim to put it mildly. Every one of those teams is among the 16 richest football clubs in the world. And even taking into account the annus horribilis, 9 of the 12 have posted gains every year since 2016. The real drain on their finances is the sky-rocketing debt required to meet the astronomical transfer fees of top footballers. Player wages soak up more than two-thirds of some teams' revenue! And that is why the ESL was so enticing to the 15 clubs in the inner sanctum: they would receive a guaranteed slice of broadcast and sponsorship rights (estimated at €4b in the first year alone).

Now, it takes a specific kind of expertise to judge that Europeans would want to watch a tournament that failed to convince Bayern Munich (arguably the most-successful continental football team ever) but included losers like Arsenal and AC Milan. As one wit pointed out, three of the 12 wouldn't even qualify for their own domestic competitions. Nevertheless, the brains trust at JPMorgan Chase underwrote a €3.5b "infrastructure grant" to goad the conspirators. It's not clear how deep in the hole they've ended up, but at least the resulting reputational damage won't be a major concern. For all the shade thrown at them this week, the ESL is just cheerful shenanigans next to JPMorgan's starring role in the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent implosion of the global economy.

Competitive spirit

Counter-revolutionary forces were marshalled swiftly under a common banner. Commentators and former players slammed the obnoxious proposal. Current players and managers openly criticised their owners. Fans protested outside their own stadiums . British PM Boris Johnson threatened to kill ESL with punitive legislation . UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin called the breakaway club grandees "liars" and "snakes". It really was quite a barrage. The English bowed out first – credibility in tatters, heads hung in shame . Pérez (like Brutus in the Senate) remained unrepentant.

This is not to say that the community centre has been saved from the developers . Top-flight European football is – for the most part – firmly in the clutches of Wall Street billionaires, yuppy Gulf princelings, and the odd Russian oligarch. (Just imagine any of them trying to actually kick a football!) And they all want great returns on their investments. But not everyone can be a winner. So the owners of the most storied clubs in Europe are likely to keep on scheming . The model driving them only knows to keep loading up on debt in the pursuit of greater riches, prestige, and boundless growth. And with all that crammed in, there's little space left for principles, community, or fans.

But on some level, the ESL was right - football needs to change. So here's an even more radical idea: stop watching top-tier football. Instead, join your local club. Stand in the cold and barrack for players in the fourth (or fifth, or sixth) division even as they concede a pair of goals by half-time. Yell a little, make some wisecracks, and relish the game from the fence-line. You probably won't put a dent in the broadcast dollars that Real or United lust after, but you will get closer to the game. You'll be better for it. And who knows – maybe you'll see that young, rangy forward score their first hat-trick in the second half.


Burning cremation ghats alight all night in Delhi. PHOTO: Danish Saddiqui

India is suffocating

The world’s second most-populous nation is being crushed under the most acute wave of Covid-19 infections seen anywhere in the world since the beginning of the pandemic. Authorities reported 314,835 new infections on Thursday. Exponential doesn’t quite capture it: the chart of new cases is almost vertical. Mapping deaths is a significantly harder task. The figures reported by state governments remain modest – something contradicted by the crematoriums aflame with the recently deceased. In Delhi, the ghats – places to ceremonially burn bodies – are full. The burial grounds are full. In Lucknow, the crematoriums are reporting three times as many dead clients as normally reported. As we know, daily deaths (currently sitting at a rolling seven-day average above 2,000) trail the infection count by 14 days. Worse is yet to come.

The country’s enormous but poorly-equipped healthcare system has been tested and found wanting. In one Maharashtra hospital, a fifteen-minute disruption of oxygen supplies killed 22 patients on ventilators. The situation in the capital is not much better: there is simply not enough oxygen to go around. People are suffocating on the ventilators, they are suffocating waiting for ventilators in the halls, and they are suffocating at home having been turned back from overfull clinics. In recent days, those with the means to do so have turned to the black market for ventilators, oxygen, and vaccines. Now even hospitals are taking to social media to beg the central government for assistance.

Piecemeal support from the central government has been compounded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s refusal to cancel packed rallies . Indeed, senior members of government have been out on the soap box instead of directing the actual Covid-19 response . Canada , Singapore , the UAE, and the United Kingdom are among a number of countries with a sizeable Indian diaspora which have halted flights from the stricken subcontinent. It’s too late for the latter: British authorities detected 55 cases of India’s ‘double mutant’ B.1.617 variant in the last week. India, for now, is on its own .

Relief and exhaustion from Minneapolis to Houston. PHOTO: Karen Warren

Justice delivered to George Floyd's murderer

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was this week unanimously found guilty on the counts of 2nd degree murder, 3rd degree murder, and 2nd degree manslaughter by a jury of his peers. The murder that reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter community and sparked the largest protests in American history was thus avenged. It would've frankly been impossible to arrive at any other result. The evidence of Chauvin's guilt was profound; it sat in stark opposition to the ineptitude of the defence witnesses. President Joe Biden spoke powerfully on the matter, "It was a murder in full light of day and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see".

Many commentators lauded Darnella Frazier, the then-17-year-old who recorded the last nine minutes and 27 seconds of George Floyd's life from the sidewalk. There has been much made of the 'power of the bystander'. But Darnella Frazier can't be there every time a police officer kills a black or brown American.

Consider the first press release from the Minneapolis police after the Floyd killing: "Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later." More than one thousand similar press releases are issued every year when police kill – how many of their victims had the great misfortune of being slain beyond the field of vision of bystanders? Even when killer cops are caught, they are rarely punished. To wit: on-duty American police killed 7666 people between 2013 and 2019. A mere 25 instances resulted in conviction. 74 saw charges but no conviction. How's your math? That leaves a staggering 98.7% with no charges at all.

For decades, minority communities have been characterised as untrustworthy for their own mistrust of authorities. A serious response , one that honours the constant and ongoing trauma of police brutality, would reverse that responsibility. Imagine a police department that instantly dismisses officers who have been found to interfere with or not use their body cameras. Imagine a system that sends any and every police killing to an independent body for review. Better yet, imagine a country in which the police earn the trust and consent of their community. For now, just soak up the relief .

The worst of times

The genocide memorial in Kigali. PHOTO: AFP

France failed Rwanda

A report this week found that France "enabled" the 1994 Rwandan genocide which left at least 800,000 dead. The European nation’s administration knew of Rwanda’s preparations for the massacres, and yet "did nothing to stop" it. Not only that, but the Hutu-dominated Rwandan regime received arms, equipment, and training from the French government beforehand. While an international military intervention did begin in June of 1994, it came too late to save hundreds of thousands of Tutsis.

The seabed of the Mediterranean

Elsewhere in Africa, Libyan authorities were accused of leaving Mediterranean migrants to die in 2017. Wiretaps obtained by the Guardian reveal the North African nation’s coastguard avoided assisting boats stranded at sea . Additionally, Italy knew Libya was "incapable or unwilling" to help, while also preventing NGOs from launching private rescue operations. And so, between the months of February and June of 2017, at least 305 migrants died on the Mediterranean sea.

The best of times

The future's so bright Prof Xiulin Ruan's got to wear shades. PHOTO: Jared Pike / Purdue University

Whiter whites

Last year, a UN report found that increasing the efficiency of air conditioning could cut years’ worth of emissions . This week, the creation of the whitest paint ever means we could simply replace air conditioning instead. The paint’s high concentration of barium sulphate means it can cool coated surfaces by 4.5°C. Additionally, the liquid is also capable of reflecting 98% of sunlight and radiating infrared heat through the atmosphere into deep space. And no, it won’t hurt your eyes to look at.

Internal affairs

A new implantable device can measure the health of tissue and organs in real time. The technology works by monitoring oxygen levels and transmits the information using ultrasound waves . Current devices are either unable to send the data instantaneously or can only do so from a near-surface level. Not only does the new 4.5x3mm wireless gizmo combat this problem, it also paves the way for other minimally-invasive devices to monitor organ function from inside our bodies.

Weekend Reading

The image

To celebrate New York City decriminalising marijuana use, activists handed out joints as a thank you to anyone who had their coronavirus vaccination card on them. Photograph supplied by AFP.

The quote

“How long do you honestly believe people in power like you will get away with it?”

– Outspoken climate activist Greta Thunberg lambasts the US House of Representatives for their half-hearted commitment to climate science in a virtual address. Good for her.

The numbers

50-52% reduction in CO2 from 2005 levels by 2030

- US President Joe Biden outlines the strong targets his administration is setting to combat anthropogenic climate change. It is about time the world's second-largest emitter got on board.

26-28% reduction in C02 from 2005 levels by 2030

- Australia is fast becoming a pariah in the global community. Despite its potential to lead the world in a green energy revolution, the conservative government is jammed up for fear of losing crucial seats in coal mining regions . In fact, both sides of Australian politics have signed up to continue exporting coal beyond 2050. It demeans all Australians.

The headline

"Those Annoying Loud TV Commercials to Get Scrutiny from FCC" Bloomberg . Thank you!

The special mention

This Italian man who skipped work for 15 years .

A few choice long-reads

  • What the SPAC are you talking about? The Economist looks to "seize sanity from the jaws of absurdity".
  • This romance doesn't have a Hollywood ending. Financial Times plots the end of the affair between Tinseltown and China.
  • How is this for a title: Tesla Runs on Faith, Exxon Runs on Discipline. Only One Is Right. A classic from Bloomberg Businessweek.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting