A European “Super” League? The Beautiful Game Turns Ugly

Photo via: CBS Sports

Twelve of the richest football clubs in Europe have banned together to create their own Super League

The past thirty-six hours have been a whirlwind for soccer (or if you prefer, football) fans across the globe. Twelve of the biggest European clubs announced on Sunday that they are coming together to form a new league, the European Super League (ESL). The ESL is purportedly being created in response to instability in the economic model of European sport due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for a higher quality in their matches. 

Europe’s largest clubs are looking to start the competition in time for the 2023-24 season. The clubs are not looking to leave their respective leagues, rather, this proposed tournament is in addition to their season, replacing the UEFA Champions League, which has branded itself as the most prestigious competition in European club football. 

The Competition 

The twelve clubs creating the ESL competition include the “big six” from England (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham); three of the most successful clubs in Spain (Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, and Real Madrid); and the top-three from Italy (AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus). 

Notably, the proposed ESL is missing both German and French clubs, which have come out against the proposed league. The group of twelve is looking to add three more clubs within the next few weeks to round out the “founders” group, which will consistently have a spot in the ESL, regardless of performance. 

In addition to the fifteen founding clubs, the proposed ESL will add an additional five teams each year, that will be determined by a qualifying mechanism based on the club’s achievements in the season prior. This would bring the ESL to a total of 20 clubs each year. 

These twenty clubs would then be divided into two groups of ten, playing two matches, both home and away, against each team within the group. The three clubs with the best record in each grouping would automatically qualify for the quarterfinals, while the teams finishing fourth and fifth would compete in a two-game playoff for the last spot in each group. Once the eight teams are set, they would play a two-match series in both the quarterfinals and semi-finals, leading to a one-game final in a neutral venue. The competition is set to run from August to May each year.

Major Backlash 

These plans have not been met with a warm reception. Rather, almost everyone has been critical of the proposed ESL. 

At the very top, both the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the controlling bodies of international and European soccer, have come out against these plans. These bodies are considering a wide range of punishments for players and teams involved, including expulsion from their respective country’s leagues and banning the club’s players from international play. These punishments could be coming swiftly, as UEFA is considering the possibility of banning the players from these twelve teams from competing in the 2020 European Football Championship, which is being played in the summer of 2021 due to global health and safety concerns. FIFA is also threatening to ban the players from competition if the Super League is to start.

Obviously, these punishments will be met with questions of legality, as the players of each club do not necessarily have any say as to whether their team plays in the ESL or not. It is unclear what the governing bodies’ lawyers are likely to recommend to the respective organizations, but UEFA lawyers have said that legal assessments will begin on Tuesday morning. However, it appears that both FIFA and UEFA will have the broad power to enforce the bans. 

Similarly, the English Football Association, the Royal Spanish Football Federation, and the Italian Football Federation have all began to consider their legal options as well. The Associations put out a joint statement condemning the plans, stating that they “will remain united in [their] efforts to stop this cynical project . . . [and] will consider all measures available to [them], at all levels, both judicial and sporting in order to prevent this happening.” In England, the FA has floated around the idea of banning the “big six” from playing in the country’s Premier League moving forward and even docking points in this season’s standings, effectively removing these teams from title contention and preventing them from qualifying for the UEFA Champions League. In Spain, La Liga has removed Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico from the standings on their online website. 

Many fans, players, politicians, and media groups are also upset by the twelve clubs’ decision to create the ESL. Both former and current football players have been expressing their frustration on social media. One has expressed he believes it will be the “collapse” of football and another has expressed his disappointment, saying he can no longer remain silent on the issue, saying it would be “the rich stealing what the people created.”  Newspapers in the UK have labeled the creation of the ESL as a “civil war.” What remains to be seen, however, are the sentiments and thoughts of the players on the twelve ESL teams. 

The Financial Impact  

So, why would the twelve clubs continue their plans to create the ESL in the face of incredible backlash and the looming threat of legal action? Simply put, the money is too good to pass up. With American investment bank JP Morgan set to finance the operation, the twelve teams are expected to split a revenue of 3.5 billion Euros ($4.2 billion USD), giving each club roughly $400 million USD for their participation. This is more than four-times the amount that the winner of the UEFA Champions League (which the Super League looks to replace) took home last year. For these clubs, it would offset any losses incurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought the sporting world to a halt last summer. This would give the ESL teams the ability to repay their debts and create a new financing structure to move forward. 

It’s not just these twelve teams that will be affected by the creation of the ESL. It is no secret that the twelve ESL teams generate the majority of revenue for each of their respective leagues, have the largest annual budgets, and are, for lack of a better term, the richest. The other clubs across England, Spain, and Italy are dependent upon them to bring in revenue from television rights, ticket sales, and advertisements from when they play each other twice every year. 

If the twelve ESL teams were banned from their main leagues, the smaller clubs would suffer greatly because there would be less interest in their matches. They stand to lose copious amounts of money, bringing them into financial crisis, as they just wouldn’t draw enough attention. 

This places their respective leagues between a rock and a hard place. Removing the bigger teams who compete in the ESL will cause the smaller teams to incur major revenue losses, putting many on the brink of bankruptcy. On the other hand, by allowing them to compete in both the ESL and country competitions, the already rich teams will just get richer, destroying the already fragile competitive nature of European football.

In some sense, the ESL is just another means of allowing the rich to get richer. Should they continue down this road? Absolutely not. Will there be consequences? Absolutely. We already know respective governing bodies are considering both sporting and legal options. But, will that stop any of the twelve from moving forward with their plans? The answer is unknown. One thing is certain, this will be the beginning of an ugly chapter in what is affectionately referred to as the beautiful game.  

Update (4/19/21, 9:00 PM)

Real Madrid President and Super League President, Florentino Pérez, recently insisted that the contract the twelve clubs signed was binding and that no team can or will back out. When asked about teams leaving the ESL he stated: “We all signed on Saturday. Anyone to leave? No, it is binding. They do not leave. We are all going to negotiate together.” He also insisted that the ESL will ultimately save the sport, not the rich. This interview comes in what has been considered to be one of the most dramatic days in European football.

Additionally, the fallout between the founding twelve and UEFA continues tonight, as the Danish FA chairman and member of UEFA’s Executive Committee, Jesper Moller, noted that he expects the clubs involved in the Super League who still remain in the Champions League (Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Manchester City) to be “going out” by Friday, meaning they would be removed from the competition. This would most likely ensure that Paris Saint-Germain, the only non-ESL side left, would automatically clinch their first-ever Champions League.

In other news, Leeds United wore warm-up shirts that depicted the UEFA Champions League Logo and read: “Earn It” on the front and “Football is for the Fans” on the back, before their match against one of the founding members of the ESL, Liverpool, today. It is safe to say that things are going to get chippy.

Update (4/20/21, 3:00 PM EST)

It appears that the outrage and backlash has caused several teams to reconsider their involvement in the Super League. In fact, the teams have fallen like dominos. Around 1:50 PM EST, or 6:50 in London, Chelsea announced that they were beginning to prepare papers to withdraw from the ESL. Their fans, while protesting outside their stadium, Stamford Bridge, went wild. Shortly thereafter, Manchester City was the next Premier League team to withdraw from the proposed tournament.

The 12 Super League clubs are meeting this afternoon (or, tonight in Europe) to discuss the tournament’s future. However, it has just been reported that the Super League will no longer happen and all twelve teams are out. This is an absolute shocking twist of events, as just last night President of both Real Madrid and the Super League said that no one would leave.

But it just doesn’t end there. Bob Woodward, chairman of Manchester United has resigned amid the backlash from proposed Super League. He will be stepping down at the end of the season. It is unclear if this is directly linked to the ESL, as some have reported he was always planning on stepping down at the end of the season and there was no falling out between him and the club. If it was planned, they sure picked an awful time to announce it. In Italy, Andrea Agnelli, the President of Juventus has resigned as well. This looks to be a direct response to the backlash his now-former club received.

This has been a dramatic three days in European sport and the effect of the now-failed Super League is yet to be seen.

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