Football Nerd: Three Days in April: The Advent and Collapse of the European Super League, for now at least…

I really did not want to write another f**k*n’ piece on the seemingly inevitable advent of a European Super League. Ever since I started this blog some five years ago, there have been periodic murmurings of the launch of such a money-oriented abomination of the game that we all love. While these have thankfully tended to drift away and proven to be rumours, even if founded in some reality, this latest incarnation felt very very different. Just a few months back, in the immediate aftermath of the shameful “Project Big Picture” thinly-veiled power grab, I wrote about the proposal apparently being driven by Manchester United, Real Madrid and AC Milan which would see a group of fifteen founder member clubs who would all allegedly be offered between €100 million and €300 million to join a new Super League to operate over and above domestic competitions (More rumours of a European Super League: a clear indication that football’s never-ceasing pursuit of wealth is ruining the game as we used to know and love it.). So far, so all too familiar.

Then the news broke AT 11PM on Sunday evening (far from coincidentally just coming up to prime time in the States!) that: “Twelve of Europe’s leading football clubs have today come together to announce they have agreed to establish a new mid-week competition, the Super League, governed by its founding clubs…AC Milan, Arsenal FC, Atlético de Madrid, Chelsea FC, FC Barcelona, FC Internazionale Milano, Juventus FC, Liverpool FC, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid CF and Tottenham Hotspur have all joined as founding clubs. It is anticipated that a further three clubs will join ahead of the inaugural season, which is intended to commence as soon as practicable.”

The apparent rush with which the decision was made (forced through?) and the European Super League’s (ESL) statement was released was due to those involved getting wind of UEFA’s intention for President Aleksander Ceferin to unveil plans for the revamped Champions League to be launched in 2024 and based on a “Swiss system” whereby each member would play 10 games against 10 opponents in one league to determine qualification for the knockout phase. This apparently didn’t suit the twelve ESL founder member clubs (the Dirty Dozen!) as it would still require qualification on merit through the usual domestic competitions.

Instead the self-avowed biggest clubs in Europe as well as three specially invited friends would prefer it if they could remain in the competition in perpetuity while the rest of European football would be given the opportunity to qualify to be selected to take them on on an annual basis. Rather than a strictly traditional league format the ESL was due to comprise two groups of 10 teams followed by a knockout phase. Not vastly dissimilar in fact to what UEFA are proposing and actually more in line with the current Champions League. Where the Dirty Dozen were to come unstuck was the lack of jeopardy in needing to secure qualification for the tournament.

Of course, the other incentive for our avaricious friends was the sheer amount of cash that would be made available simply for signing up, something which all but the nation state/ oligarch bankrolled uber rich of Manchester City and Chelsea were in desperate need of given the huge amount of debts that have been racked up by the others through gross overspending and abysmal financial management for the most part, which has only been exacerbated by a global pandemic. Some of them probably (hello Barça!) couldn’t afford to say no regardless of what they would have to do for the cash, he who pays the piper and all that.  

While it seems the ESL’s initial intention was for their competition to operate in concert with domestic competitions as a replacement for UEFA’s Champions League and Europa League, the immediate backlash was such that it became abundantly clear that European football’s governing body were going to do everything in their power to make that impossible. In a statement issued by UEFA which was also signed by the Premier League, Football Association and their counterparts in Spain and Italy threatened to: “ban any involved from any competition at domestic, European or world level”. That one move was to prove sufficient to bring the proposed competition crashing down in flames.

As Mrs Football Nerd and I debated vehemently through Monday and most of Tuesday, a competition without qualification of any form would essentially be creating a Europe-based version of the NFL/NBA/MLB/NHL/MLS for soccer(sic). An almost completely closed shop with the same teams playing each other, for a championship that doesn’t have any history or tradition and without any established rivalries and backstories amongst any of the teams.

Where the US sports are different is that they have an established history, tradition and rivalries and while they are a closed shop other than for identified expansion proposals, they tend to have salary caps, revenue sharing and player drafts as mechanisms geared towards stimulating competition. The ESL didn’t seem to be offering anything similar and would have essentially been akin to those pre-season friendly tournaments that other than getting the players in shape and match-ready for the season are pretty much exclusively about commercial gain.

If, as seemed very likely from the reaction of the established governing bodies, the ESL participants were thrown out of their domestic leagues and the established European competitions they would find themselves existing in some kind of self-created vacuum. In looking for a suitable comparison, I would imagine that if you had access to Michelin star quality food for every meal you might soon start to find it less special than the first time you had it. As none other than Sir Alex Ferguson, who knows a thing or two about both football and business, succinctly put it in conversation with the BBC: “The plans … sound soulless.” 

Railing in condemnation of the proposals was rather unsurprisingly Sky Sports main pundit Gary Neville who in a not unexpected emotional rant slammed the proposals: “I’m disgusted with Manchester United and Liverpool the most. They’re breaking away to a competition they can’t be relegated from? It’s an absolute disgrace. We have to wrestle back power in this country from the clubs at the top of this league – and that includes my club. It’s pure greed, they’re impostors. The owners of Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Man City have nothing to do with football in this country. Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham aren’t even in the Champions League. Have they even got the right to be in there? They’re an absolute joke. Time has come now to have independent regulators to stop these clubs from having the power base. Enough is enough.”

Neville was far from alone in his scathing criticism. UEFA’s statement concluded: “Football is based on open competitions and sporting merit; it cannot be any other way.” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, not someone I normally (ever?) find myself agreeing with, promised that his government would: “look at everything that we can do with the football authorities to make sure that this doesn’t go ahead in the way that it’s currently being proposed. I don’t think that it’s good news for fans, I don’t think it’s good news for football in this country” and then later spoke of using a “legislative bomb” to stop English clubs joining the breakaway league. While UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin described the proposed Super League as a “disgraceful, self-serving plan and a spit in the face of football lovers”.

It seemed as if the hail of criticism thrown at the clubs, specifically the six English ones was enough, at least for now, as in the space of a mere few hours after protests by Liverpool fans at Elland Road on the Monday and similar scenes at Stamford Bridge the following evening, first Chelsea and then Manchester City announced their intention to quit the cartel, soon to be followed by the other four, although somewhat interestingly Arsenal were the only ones to include a direct apology in their announcement. I guess they have more to lose by alienating their “customers” given their self-sustaining model and Mr Kroenke’s reluctance to put his hand in his pocket on behalf of the club. Over the course of the afternoon and evening broadcasters including Amazon, Sky, Comcast and BT made it abundantly clear that even if there was a ten-foot barge pole around they wouldn’t be getting involved.

From Wednesday morning onwards there has been a palpable sense of relief amongst English football fans, the players and managers, although I do have to say I was quite looking forward to the conversation  with the Arsenal Box Office about whether I wanted to renew my season ticket to pay more to watch a meaningless competition that no one wanted in the first place! However, while some commenters seem to think this is the end of the ESL, I remain slightly more sceptical.

Adopting a super optimistic perspective, it would be great to hope that lessons will be learned, Boris Johnson and his colleagues are finally getting around to the long-promised root and branch review of football governance, and that by the end of it we might be something closer to the 50+1 ownership model utilised in Germany that made it impossible for Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to join the ill-fated ESL without the consent of the fans.

On the other hand however, I can’t help but fear that this was merely an opening gambit and rather than be a gross underestimation of the response of fans, is actually a strategic move ahead of forcing talks with FIFA, UEFA and other football authorities about reshaping the future of the game. However, it plays out for those of us who are supporters of the clubs involved, our relationships with our club and more specifically its ownership are likely to be damaged for ever.

As an Arsenal season-ticket holder I am fully aware, just like the vast majority of others, that Stan Kroenke couldn’t give a flying one about our club, traditions, values and history. Before all this I kept going to matches out of a sense of loyalty and frankly because I am a hopeless football obsessive, now I am struggling to find any affiliation or connection with the business that now exists in its place. If Liverpool fans can turn against Fenway Sports Group despite the success they have enjoyed under its ownership, then we should have no problem turning against our owner and his culture of skinflint mediocrity. Thankfully for Mrs Football Nerd and I our ongoing obsession with Leyton Orient means that we have an escape to real football and long may it continue!


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