The “Super League” crisis and the evolution of soccer

As you may recall, two weeks ago I did a piece on the possible formation of a European Super League in professional soccer, and commented on the dangers it possessed for the status of professional soccer as we know it to be as well as the financial greed rising within the game that it represented. It seems as if I timed my article quite well, as on the following Sunday, April 18th, this exact project came to fruition. It was announced that the ESL would be taking shape, with the 12 founding members also made public. Among the 12 clubs were English sides Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham, Italian sides Internazionale, AC Milan and Juventus, and Spanish clubs Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético de Madrid. 

And then, just as soon as it began, this radical new idea had collapsed. The afternoon of April 20th, Chelsea became the first club to rescind their decision to join in the wake of massive fan protests outside the club’s home stadium during a match with Brighton in the Premier League. This was followed soon after by Manchester City, and then the rest of the English clubs as fans made their voices known. Arsenal fans protested for their owners to sell the club, holding signs saying “We won’t forgive, we won’t forget.” Banners were left outside Liverpool’s iconic Anfield stadium announcing the death of the club. Chelsea fans referred to the decision as “Super Greed. “It was quite a beautiful sight of unity, if I allow myself to comment. 

This left only 6 of the founding 12 members. The following day, the Italian clubs left, alongside Atlético. Just Real and Barcelona remained, less than 72 hours after the ESL’s inauguration. Manchester United’s Chief Executive Ed Woodward resigned, and Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli resigned from his role as chairman of the European Club Association after being called a snake by Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) President Aleksander Ceferin. Real Madrid President Florentino Pérez was blasted across social media. Even the British government got involved, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowing to take legislative action to prevent English clubs participating. The League was dead. 

It also emerged that all German and French clubs invited fervently rejected the proposal, while all 6 English clubs accepted their invitations, making up half of the founding members alongside 3 each from Spain and Italy. The preponderance of English clubs actually led to accusations against the founding members of the ESL that there had been an attempt to “Americanize” the game. This claim may seem wild and nonsensical given the league is based in Europe, and consists only of European teams; however, upon closer inspection, there is some legitimacy to this statement. 

Among the English clubs to join the ESL, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal are owned by Americans: Liverpool by Fenway Sports Group who are headed by American John Henry (who also own the Boston Red Sox), United by the Glazer Family (who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Arsenal by Stan Kroenke (who also owns the Los Angeles Rams). With such heavy American influence in the formation of the league mirroring the establishment of a league with so many principles of American professional athletics, it is no wonder there have been accusations of Americanization of professional soccer in Europe. The league was proposing no possible relegations for founding members, which would allow for these clubs to form a monopoly over the money at the top of the game. This is eerily reminiscent of professional soccer in America, where MLS clubs cannot be relegated, and thus control nearly all of the money in the professional game; whereas in the top tier, professionals make hundreds of thousands or even millions a year, players in the second tier make less than a livable wage in many cases. Even more interesting is the fact that Liverpool owner Henry was in line to act as Vice Chairman of the ESL, thus consolidating American influence at the very pinnacle of the game. 

The numbers behind the consolidation of wealth among the super league clubs shed further light on what could have been a dangerous development in professional soccer. In the current format of European football, the winner of the Champions League (the ultimate tournament comprised of the best teams in Europe) receives about 23 million dollars. Just for entering the Super League, each founding club would have received in excess of 400 million dollars-around 16 times more than the Champions League winner’s prize money, and over 4 times the maximum total revenue the Champions League could provide a club at 99 million dollars. What’s more, this gap would surely have widened if the league had been successful, as the shift in attention from the Champions League to the ESL would surely have decreased available funds for the winner of the former competition. In a similar vein, revenues for clubs not involved in either competition (mid-table clubs like Burnley FC out of England, for example, who regularly finish in and around 10th in the league table) would be hurt financially as well, as the TV deals for their leagues would now be competing with the Champions League and Super League, leaving only peanuts in terms of viewership on any given week and thus decreasing the money in them. The Super League was an attempt at a wealth transfer to the elite clubs the likes of which the game has never seen. 

Just as the world breathed a sigh of relief at its collapse, the news broke it may still yet come into existence. Florentino Pérez, President of Real Madrid and spearhead of the idea, has said that clubs attempting to leave the league cannot, as the contracts they signed to briefly bring it into existence are binding. Spanish news outlet AS has quoted Pérez as saying that clubs cannot leave the league, and the project will indeed go ahead. Pérez has also affirmed that the league’s financial backer, JP Morgan (yes, that JP Morgan. That 400 million dollar check is currently held in a powerful hand) is still on board with funding his pet project. After reports backing had been rescinded, he said: “It’s not true they’ve withdrawn. They have taken some time for reflection, just like the 12 clubs. If we need to make changes we will but the Super League is the best project we’ve thought of.” Still, the super league could come to fruition, much to the dismay of billions of fans around the globe. 

Having now covered in detail just went into the Super League proposal and its downfall, I’d like to allow myself to continue on my earlier comment to say that the attempt made by a select group of owners to snatch football from the fans was utterly disgusting. To attempt to turn the Beautiful Game into a business venture for stealing from smaller clubs already struggling to keep up is despicable enough; to do so when no fans are allowed in stadiums to protest is quite another. There was no publication of any meetings behind the scenes, no face put forward to represent the league (even if we do recognize Pérez as the mastermind, neither he nor anyone else came forward to claim the idea as their own), no indication of a lack of satisfaction with the traditional league structure. This was an act of cowardice perpetrated by 12 men in an attempt to pad their own bank accounts at the expense of billions around the world, in a time when they knew no one would be able to say anything to their faces, when they could remain hidden behind Zoom meetings and emails. The entire saga has been deplorable and each and every person involved ought to hang their heads in shame. 

I should include the possibility this was all a political bargaining tool to get the newly approved Champions League format. Even in this case, the motive remains the same: money. The new structure sees teams play in a preliminary league format, increasing first round matches from 6 to 10 per team, increasing revenue at the expense of the health and fitness of the player. 4 additional teams get in each year as well, and there are also legacy spaces available for super clubs, meaning teams like Barcelona could finish 7th in their domestic league and still qualify for the Champions League before a team like Getafe, traditionally not a powerhouse, even if they finished above the former. This may not be as extreme an adaptation as the ESL promised to be, but it still proves the elite are out for only their own financial gain and couldn’t care less about the fans. The direction professional soccer is taking in Europe is deplorable, and it ought to be purged of the filth running it at the top level. Maybe the ESL was all a ruse after all in order to get this small step approved, a political move of some sort; regardless, the message is the same from the chief executives: “We don’t care about the fans.” As I recall writing before, the fans must be the priority. I can only hope the heads of football can come to their senses and see it this way too.