On Sunday evening, 12 European football clubs announced the formation of a new European Super League and it sent shockwaves around the world, which met the news with almost unanimous condemnation. But I don’t think the European Super League necessarily has to be a bad thing. And beyond that, it’s a symptom of a much larger problem that has existed in footballing institutions for decades already.
Note: This story reflects the opinion of the writer and not necessarily that of the Essential Millennial.
I’ve been a huge fan of European football for more than 20 years and have watched the sport evolve into something that’s very different today from the sport I watched as a boy. It’s mostly because I support two vastly different football clubs – Real Madrid and West Ham United.
As everyone knows, Real Madrid is the ultimate European giant, and they have all the silverware to show for it. Di Stefano, Puskas, Butragueño, Sanchez, Sanchis, Raul, Casillas, Zidane, Ronaldo, Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo are but a few of the iconic players that have donned the white shirt over the years. Regardless of our affiliations, everyone has to acknowledge that Real Madrid are the pioneers of European football and served as a major catalyst in creating the foundations of the highly popular European competitions such as the Champions League. It should therefore, be no surprise that Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez, is the chairman of the European Super League and the visionary (or villain) behind it.
However, West Ham United are a different team, a working class club, a reformed team of iron workers (Thames Ironworks), that has a long, but rather unimpressive history. The club have never finished higher than third in England’s top flight. They have three FA Cup titles, the last of which came in the early 80s and club icons like Booby Moore, Billy Bonds, Trevor Brooking, Paolo Di Canio and the even current captain, Mark Noble, don’t invoke images of glamorous superstars, scoring 30 or 40 goals a season but of hard-working, dedicated players who may not win all of the silverware, but play for the love of the game and win over the fans’ hearts nonetheless.
So, to put it in simpler terms, there are two very different perspectives that football fans have. One experience is about playing champagne football, winning trophies and spending every week watching extraordinary footballers do extraordinary things. The other experience is about moments. That moment when your team scores a 94th minute equaliser against Manchester City or some other giant on the last day of the season to save the club from relegation.
We live for that wondergoal that someone scores once every generation. West Ham are actually competing for a place in the Champions League this season and it’s a miracle. The fans accept that we’re not winning any kind of silverware sometime soon… we get excited about a cup run that gets us to the Quarter-Finals. Trophies are out of reach when you’re competing with clubs who have significantly larger budgets like Man City. Our fans accept their lot in life and are typically satisfied with avoiding relegation.
And the power disparity between a club like Real Madrid and other’s like West Ham is what has led to the formation of the closed European Super League.
What is the European Super League?
For anyone that isn’t up to speed on this, Sunday saw the birth of the European Super League, with 12 clubs officially joining as founding members.
The founding members include six English clubs (Man City, Liverpool, Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs), three Spanish clubs (Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid and three Italian sides (Juventus, Inter and AC Milan. The intention is for the European Super League to replace the UEFA Champions League, with more midweek fixtures and European giants squaring off far more frequently than we’re used to, whilst retaining their commitment to the domestic footballing calendar.
Fundamentally, it seems to make sense to give fans more of the most exciting football games that we love to watch. Perhaps it’ll be too much, but fixtures like Bayern Munich v PSG (neither of which are founding members) or Barcelona v Man United every season, twice a season, is mouthwatering to any neutral football fan.
The format of the new European Super League is deeply troubling, because the 12 founding members are looking to invite another three (presumably Bayern Munich, PSG and Dortmund who’ve all come out and said they will not be part of the new competition.) Those 15 founding members will play in the European Super League in perpetuum and five other teams will be invited to take the remaining places in a 20 team league.
Starting in August, the league will consist of two groups of 10 teams playing each other twice, home and away. The top three teams from each group will take six of the eight places in the quarter-finals and teams finishing fourth and fifth will then compete in a two-legged play-off for the remaining quarter-final positions. A two-leg knockout format will be used to reach the final at the end of May, which will be staged as a single fixture at a neutral venue. In other words, it’ll look a lot like the American franchise model, as can be found in Major League Soccer (MLS) as well as other sporting codes in the US, such as American football (the NFL), basketball (NBA), ice hockey (NHL), etc.
The fact that 15 teams will retain their status in the European Super League, regardless of the previous season’s performances is clearly greedy, unfair and completely throws out the competitive nature of the game. Rightfully so, many have spoken out against the creation of this oligarchical rebel league, because of how it concentrates more wealth into the hands of a few elite clubs (who will be earning almost triple what they would be earning in the Champions League) and protects them from having their hegemony challenged.
Who are the stakeholders?
So there are six major stakeholders that are all critical to the discussion about the formation of a European Super League: the clubs, the owners, the leagues, footballing bodies, the players and the fans. Each stakeholder will play a critical role in the outcome and have varying degrees of power.
The clubs themselves are almost abstract entities here, because Liverpool, for example, is just a badge, a jersey, a stadium and an ethos. We cannot conflate Manchester United with the Glazers or Man City with Sheikh Mansour. The creation of the Super League has happened behind closed doors and it’s only the club owners who have been involved in the formal conversations. We cannot attribute complicity to entities in the clubs that have had no role to play in the negotiations of what Gary Neville has referred to as a “criminal act”
Leagues like La Liga, the Premier League and the Serie A, and footballing bodies like UEFA and FIFA will also have important roles to play and have been threatening to take punitive measures to prevent the formation of the European Super League, such as banning players from the clubs from playing for their national teams or kicking them out of their domestic and continental competitions. However, whether those threats will carry any water depends on whether you think FIFA would actually host a World Cup without the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Kevin De Bruyne, Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos, Paul Pogba or Harry Kane.
The players, on the other hand, will also be critical, because, without them, nothing can happen. If Harry Kane has a choice between playing for Tottenham Hotspur in the Super League or England at the European Championships, we’d like to think he and other players would choose country over club. But if Spurs offer to triple his salary to continue playing for them, who knows what he or any other player might do. In the event of a hard-split between greedy clubs and the rest of the footballing world, the directions that the players decide to move in will determine the outcome.
Fans are the most important stakeholders. Football is a game about fans. It’s a global sport with billions of people tuning into games week-in and week-out. Fans are central to all of the commercial benefits that a Super League would theoretically bring. And if the fans don’t follow, the league won’t take off. However, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the club owners came to realise that fans aren’t necessarily central to their commercial success, at least in terms of collections of matchday revenues.
That’s not to say that they haven’t struggled and incurred heavy losses… but it’s possible to function without fans in the stadiums. And the Super League, funded by American investment bank, JP Morgan is also an answer to the problem of empty stadiums in that it would bring in significantly more commercial revenue, because it’ll attract more audiences from the United States and the Far East. So, in reality, the category of “fans” extends beyond the group of fans in the European nations who have been privileged to watch their teams in person, week in, week out. And that’s what’s bothering fans and clubs around the world that aren’t part of the founding members. It’s obliterating more than a century of footballing culture, it’s taking the fans, who live for their teams for granted and leveraging larger audiences outside of Europe that can yield higher profits for club owners that don’t see football as a sport, but as a commercial opportunity.
This has happened before…
Rebel leagues are nothing new, and perhaps on of the best examples is the foundation of the Premier League in the early 1990s. Much like the discussion we’re having today, the pushback against the meetings that paved the way for a breakaway from England’s Football League largely surrounded commercial revenues and greed on the behalf of the “big five” owners, David Dein of Arsenal, Philip Carter of Everton, Noel White of Liverpool, Martin Edwards of Manchester United and Irving Scholar of Tottenham Hotspur.
In the late 80s, English football had been blighted by hooliganism and stadium disasters and the league needed to be reformed. It was argued that the breakaway league that was to become the Premier League as we know it today would allow English teams to compete with Europe’s elite, once again.
And, at around the same time as the first Season of the Premier League kicked off in 1992, the the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, commonly known as European Cup, rebranded itself into what is now known as the UEFA Champions League in 1992 as well. The European Cup originally took the form of a straight knockout tournament open only to the champions of Europe’s domestic leagues, but added a round-robin group stage in 1991 and has allowed multiple entrants from select countries since 1997.
It’s important to remember that reformatting leagues, break-away leagues and other major paradigm shifts like the formation of a European Super League are commonplace and football, as a sport, is always evolving. But, at the end of the day, the last major shift gave us products in the form of the Premier League and the Champions League – two competitions that have come to capture my imagination as a football fan of two very different European clubs. So, there could be a positive outcome here, if this entire process plays out and protects the interests of all stakeholders.
Football is already unequal
As much as I’m opposed to the idea of a closed European Super League, I’m also not completely opposed to something similar, just with a better format. Get rid of the American franchise model without relegation, open up the chance for teams to move their way up to and fall out of the European Super League. Because, we have to be honest with ourselves here. There’s massive disparity between Europe’s elite and the working class clubs is already practically impossible to overcome.
That’s why the entire footballing world fell in love with Leicester City when they won the Premier League in 2016. In the modern age, the difference between league champions and the relegation battlers is big. It’s almost insurmountable. Of course any team can win on their day, by 9 times out of 10 they lose and they’ll be lucky to draw the tenth game. Not only that, but the gap between the elite and the teams in lower divisions is far, far, far greater. In cup competitions, it’s a given that big teams send their academy products to cut their teeth against the uncompetitive lower-division clubs. And you can even go beyond this and question why Europe thinks it has the right to monopolise club football!
Why is it that all of the best players in the world come from every part of the world, but they all play in Europe? It’s a forgone conclusion that, almost invariably, the winners of the FIFA Club World Cup will be the winners of the UEFA Champions League.
I used to write about South Africa’s Premier Soccer League (PSL) and paid very close attention to the league and there’s a monumental difference in quality compared to literally any league in Europe. Any PSL player would jump at the chance to play in the lower divisions of European football. And the same can be said for any national league outside of Europe, except perhaps for China, where they have the money to offer players astronomical wages. Many of football’s biggest stars emerge from third world countries like Brazil and Senegal, for example. And even more are European-born decendants of immigrants. One of the beautiful things about the sport is that any kid that can kick a ball has a chance to make something out of their life, if they have the talent… and we all love an underdog story. Football is packed to the brim with those.
But to pretend that football is the “working-class game” that it used to be is not going to provide the antidote to the problem that European and world football now faces.
It’s been a long time since we saw guys like Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Gerd Muller or any of the legendary “down-to-earth” footballers that were in it for the love of the game. Football is a professional sport and it has long since been commercialised and has been all about the money for decades now. We’ve all seen astronomical transfer fees, film star wages and mega sponsorship deals progressively change the nature of the game for quite some time.
The days when Steaua București, Benfica, Ajax, Celtic, Dortmund or Marseille were able to compete for and win European titles, the days when Everton, Newcastle and Wolves were competitive in England’s top flight are gone. A massive power disparity where very few clubs control almost all the power is already here and that’s why the 12 founding members of the European Super League have so much bargaining power – they know football cannot do without them.
Forget the European Super League… and kick FIFA to the curb while you’re at it!
If Europe’s elite want to have a new league comprised of all the giants that will provide us with headline fixtures on a weekly basis, I think it could be genuinely exciting. But a competition that takes on the uncompetitive, Americanised franchise model simply cannot happen. Nobody should be agreeing to that. Should a relegation clause be added to the proposed European Super League model, one might even argue that teams could stand a better chance of challenging Europes elite in that, if they were to gain promotion to the Super League after a domestic league win, they’d have access to European Super League’s funding – giving them further opportunities to climb up the hierarchal structures.
Contrarily, if Real Madrid, for example, over-reach financially, have a bad season and get relegated to a La Liga with no Barcelona or Atletico in it, with less lucrative TV rights, sponsorships, etc., then Real Madrid must suffer the consequences of the hierarchy they created and be forced to either fight their way back to the top of fade into irrelevance.
That would be a far better model and making revisions to what has originally been proposed is critical. However, while we can discuss the merits of the European Super League, the inherent inequality created by big money in football and the merits of competition until we’re blue in the face. But, perhaps instead of looking at the European Super League as a threat, we should look at it as an opportunity to provide some much needed reform to football as a sport.
The pandemic has reshaped our perspectives on the revenue models and the role fans have to play in them. It’s also exposed some of the shortcomings of regulatory bodies like FIFA and UEFA and the various leagues. It’s shown that there is a political game being played between fans, clubs, owners and commercial entities. The beautiful game is under threat. It’s being tested by financial interests and the intentions of men who don’t care for the game itself – which is what’s at stake here. But this doesn’t start with Florentino Perez and Daniel Levy, it started with the money-grabbing practices in the powers-that-already-be, FIFA and UEFA.
It would be whataboutism to say that, before we start pointing fingers at the European Super League, we need to keep in mind that FIFA and UEFA are just as bad, if not worse. But UEFA and FIFA officials like Michel Platini, Sepp Blatter and Jack Warner were all involved in massive corruption scandals in recent years and, just because they’re no longer associated with their former organisations, that rot is most certainly still there. And, as is so often the case, the move to form a new breakaway league, is probably more a consequence of the problems that exist than a mere isolated case of greed.
The fans need to step up too
And another problem is that we have a new generation of fans whose entire perspective of football has been shaped by FIFA and this idea of football being played like a video game… where clubs consist only of superstars and Messi and Ronaldo play in the same team and every goal is a 30-yard screamer. They want to remove the “ugliness”, which is really the beauty behind football, add an extra layer of gloss and turn football into a sport so polished that it looks plastic.
As fans of clubs big and small, we need to pay homage to the smaller teams, the underdogs, the teams that play counter-attacking football, with 10 men in the box to salvage a point and steer clear of relegation. While we should be appreciating the brand of football that’s played by Pep Guardiola’s teams, we also need to appreciate what Sam Allardyce has to offer.
Without relegation scraps and park-the-bus tactics, football loses some of its magic. If we want to protect football as a working-class sport, we need to stay true to those principles and make our demands accordingly as fans. We need to stop glorifying FIFA-style football and respect the teams like Fulham and West Brom and Ossasuna, who somehow manage to remain competitive in the big leagues.
The European Super League may be a terrible idea, but this is what the fans wanted. If we don’t like it, we need to put effort into opening a dialogue about how to make football even more competitive, where it doesn’t take a miracle for Leicester to win the Premier League and its possible for leagues around the world to thrive, not just those in Europe.