BEVERLY HILLS, April 26, (THEWILL) – Since the late hours of Sunday, April 18, the sporting media has been awash with news of the birth of the European Super League B. The emergence of the new football league immediately ignited reactions from football fans and administrators across the world. Angry fans, players and managers across Europe, whose clubs had initially signed on for the breakaway league and those who did not, started kicking against it by Monday.
In the English Premier League, most of the Supporter Trusts and fan bases of the big six clubs, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, who were founding members, criticised their involvement.
Not a few commentators described the development as the “end of football”. They were not too far from the truth, as events would later reveal.
World football governing body, FIFA, in collaboration with its six confederations of UEFA, AFC, CAF, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and OFC also unambiguously opposed the unilateral display of influence, power, prestige and money behind the new League and warned of consequences for clubs, players and management involved at the club, local and international levels of football competitions. UEFA was most adamant in threatening repercussions for the 12 founding teams.
By Tuesday afternoon, as pressure kept coming from all corners, cracks began to appear in the hitherto united front of the constituting members of the new league. Yet, the owners persisted, believing in the authenticity of their objectives and the validity of their intentions to save football by making it more exclusive. For a while, the cord binding them together held and they looked capable of withstanding the barrage of criticism and negative reactions from other members of the European football community till strong-willed fans of the London-based EPL side, Chelsea, embarked on a demonstration to register their disapproval by blocking one of the club’s buses from gaining access to its stadium for last Tuesday’s EPL match against 16th-placed side Brighton Hove and Albion.
Club legend, Petr Cech’s appeal to the protesters to allow the team to enter the stadium fell on deaf ears. It was obvious that the fans were prepared to force the postponement of the fixture and disrupt the calendar in order to press home their disaffection with Chelsea’s membership of the ESL.
At that point news filtered in that the unrelenting and overwhelming global pressure had found a weak spot in the chain: Chelsea had buckled under the pressure and had initiated the process of withdrawal from the nascent ESL. That revelation reached the protesting fans in front of the stadium, just as it broke online before they let the team bus proceed into the pitch for their delayed tie against Brighton. It was a momentous victory for a world united against the perceived selfish aspirations at the foundations of the ESL.
The implications of Chelsea’s decision to back out went without saying. The other members, who were still weighing the most appropriate course of action to take, were watching for reactions. Chelsea’s exit was succeeded by a spate of withdrawals from the new league.
The first club to make its withdrawal public was EPL champions-in-waiting, Manchester City. Earlier, in a press conference, held ahead of their Round of 32 tie against Aston Villa at Villa Park, City’s manager, Pep Guardiola, criticised the unsportsmanlike structure of the format, but he was unable to answer more questions when the session ended abruptly.
What Chelsea ad Manchester City caused by publicly severing ties with the new Super League, which was only in its second day of existence, was to initiate a club-by-club level disintegration that gained in intensity with the withdrawal of the rest of the EPL’s big six clubs and the exit of La Liga’s Atletico Madrid and Serie A’s Inter Milan. This volte face had finally sounded the death knell for the ESL by Wednesday.
What gave the club owners of the 12 founding member-clubs the gumption to assume that they had the best ideas on how to end what they believed to be the financially restrictive shackles of UEFA’s continental football competition in favour of a closed-system format with regular teams and no threats of relegation, which seems to them to be self-sustaining and self-selling? What made them to feel that they were not going to need approvals or inputs because all that was necessary was to get the clubs, who were going to be incentivised by the financial windfall the ESL promised, to line up behind them and that would be all?
This needs to be answered by a resort to historical precedence. As an idea for competitive football, the ESL was not originally conceived by its 12 founding members or Florentino Perez, the president of Real Madrid. Since the 1990s, discussions revolving around a competition that can rightly be called a Super League of Europe’s best football clubs have made the press, but without the seriousness of a proposal-level interest.
As the 20th century neared its end in 1998, Media Partners, a company that has its headquarters in Italy, investigated the idea and delineated a plan to get dissatisfied clubs away from the UEFA tournaments and group then under a newer and more workable format that was satisfactory for the clubs. UEFA did not only recognise the threat, but also it acted swiftly to neutralise their plan with two key actions. It expanded its Champions League competition to accommodate clubs that were considering defection as an option in order to join the proposed Super League and abolished the Cup Winners’ Cup for the same purpose.
That masterstroke kept ESL talks to the margin and of no consequences for UEFA until July 2009. This time around, it wasn’t an Italian company proposing a change that UEFA could easily wave off; it was an individual wielding power and influence to carry a proposal forward with confidence. Real Madrid’s Pérez championed the idea. The story goes that he was fed up with the abiding format of the Champions League and wanted a system that guaranteed Europe’s biggest teams returned to compete annually without bothering about performance declines, which could mean that another not-so-big side qualified ahead of one of the big ones instead.
Perez, as far back as in 2009, was quoted as saying: “We have to agree a new European Super League which guarantees that the best always play the best – something that does not happen in the Champions League.” He already had the intention to put his influence, reputation and worth to bear on this move for a breakaway competition featuring Europe’s traditional powerhouses if UEFA failed to act on his proposition.
Perez intended to have the best sides on the continent remain part of their respective national leagues, but granted the guarantee of an opportunity to play each other at the conclusion of their regular league season, irrespective of where they end up in their domestic competitions and regardless of the form of their best players. He wanted the guarantee of a closed-system that took no consideration of excluded clubs and cared little for fair distribution of financial windfalls from this exclusivity outside the best of the best.
Opposed at the time and scoffed at, the proposal failed to get the traction it needed to stand and ultimately fell to the wayside as football continued with the standing format of UEFA. However, the former Manager of Arsenal FC, Arsène Wenger, who witnessed how big money stifled competition in the game across Europe, had predicted in August 2009 that a super league would become reality within 10 years. He hinged this prediction on the premise that the revenue pressure consistently piled on the continent’s elite teams had gone unchecked for so long as to become part of the system.
Wenger’s prediction was on record but nothing changed as time passed. However, agitation for such a league assumed a more serious dimension when in the following years several proposals aimed at encouraging its introduction began to materialise.
By February 2012, Dutch professional player, Clarence Seedorf, had looked at the development of money and football and seen the future, just like Wenger before him. He predicted the inception of such a competition, and, unlike Wenger, backed it to succeed. The vision of a better European competition was spreading and in April 2013, Scotland football manager, Gordon Strachan, already believed in the emergence of a future new 38-club two-division European Super League that would accommodate the Old Firm clubs of Celtic and Rangers.
By 2016, the drumbeats heralding a competitive football League different from the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League had reached a crescendo. This time around, it arrived in the United Kingdom and branched into the EPL. The big six sent representatives to a meeting with Stephen M. Ross’ representatives that discussed the proposition of a European Super League. Ross, an American real estate developer, philanthropist and sports team owner, who was also chairman and majority owner of The Related Companies, a global real estate development firm he founded in 1972, was proposing an American football-styled league that was all about the money and had found listening ears.
Word had got out and UEFA was listening. To satisfy the clamour for a change of format, the football body opened up a forum to discuss the possibility of creating a closed-league containing 16 of the best teams in European football from the highest ranked national leagues. It was based on a proposal that these 16 teams would be divided into two groups, eight in each. A round-robin system of 56 games in each group would qualify the top-four for the quarter-finals. This closely resembles what the 12 founding members of the ESL proposed, but in 2016 that plan was finally rejected and UEFA, in order to avoid the creation of a super league, made changes to the structure of the UEFA Champions League instead.
The organisation decided that from the 2018 season through to the 2021 trade cycle agreements of the European continental competition, England, Italy, Spain and Germany would have four teams in the UCL group stage without having to compete in play-offs. The change increased the number of direct slots from 22 to 26. The six slots left were to come from the champions’ path (down from five teams to four teams) and the non-champions’ path (down from five teams to two teams). Based on this alteration, UEFA included the caveat that if the title holder of this competition qualifies for the Champions League from its domestic league, the champion of the country with the 11th placed UEFA coefficient will go through into the group qualifying stage; if not, the title holder has the right to defend the trophy.
Added to this, was the change that allowed the UEFA Europa League defending champions to acquire the right to compete in the group stages of the Champions League without the opportunity of directly securing a play-off berth, as in the 2015 to 2018 trade cycle agreements. If the Europa League champion automatically qualifies for the group stages of the Champions League via its domestic league, the third ranked team of the country with the 5th placed UEFA coefficient will replace the UEL winner at the second tier of European football competition.
Although the agitation for an ESL simmered down over time after the proposed changes, it was by no means over. This became obvious in November 2018, when Football Leaks claimed that there had been secret talks about the creation of a new continental club competition, the European Super League, which would kick off in 2021. This acquired more weight when in January, FIFA, in collaboration with its six confederations, threatened to ban any player from competing in any of their major international tournaments who joined and played for any sort of breakaway super league at any point in time, just as speculation that Europe’s major clubs could form a lucrative breakaway competition gained currency.
Events of the past days, since Sunday, however, reveal that the proposal was still being discussed by the clubs involved without deference to the threats and warnings of FIFA and the associated confederations. And by Sunday, an official press statement signaled the birth of the ESL. The 20-team envisioned league had 12 founding member clubs, which included Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan.
According to reports, one reason the owners found it expedient to introduce the ESL at this particular was partly due to the fact that each club had been promised the sum of $400 million (£290 million) or more for entering the competition, to be followed by up to £213 million per season. At a period where COVID-19 enforced health and safety protocols and the general ravages of the pandemic had eaten away at the big budgets of these big clubs, who know better than most how much it costs to remain competitive, it was difficult not to accept the offer and sign on to the league, based on the belief that the fans were going to be understanding and the staff of the various clubs and players would understand why it was necessary to be part of such a windfall. Even if they had expected negative reactions, nothing could have prepared them for the kind of opposition that followed their actions. From UEFA to the football associations and first-tier football leagues of England, Italy and Spain came a joint and strongly-worded statement, which declined to allow the ESL to proceed. UEFA did not hesitate to warn again that any club involved in a so-called super league would be banned from all other domestic, European, and world competitions and their players could be denied the opportunity to represent their national teams.
World leaders with close affinity to football matters, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson formed part of the high-level opposition to the plan, an opposition they expressed publicly.
As mentioned earlier, football fans were the most vociferous in the direct condemnation of the birth of the ESL. They made certain to register their outright opposition to the breakaway league in the manner of the protesting fans of Chelsea FC.
As much as Perez and Juventus’s Agnelli may be persuaded their position is to have a closed-system Super League, it retains the potential to devastate football in the domestic league across Europe, not to mention the established structure of football in the UEFA competitions that provide some overall support for some up and coming teams in different European capitals and help them to compete on the biggest European stages. What the biggest clubs intend is nothing short of a selfish and desperate “power grab” that will bring in more cash, as Perez so unabashedly admitted, and grant them greater control over football without having to worry too much about relegation issues.
As Guardiola pointed out, when the focus shifts from fair competition for places and fair distribution of proceeds to a system that excludes others from the big money deals while guaranteeing some an annual slot regardless of form and results, then, it ceases to be football and must then be called some other name. The onus now rests on FIFA and UEFA to make changes to the system of football as it currently exists and to identify the problems affecting the game. One big factor is the part played by big money, as Wenger predicted, to make it difficult for the not-so-rich to compete so badly that the very rich want to make out an exclusive league for themselves alone. Money football must be checked to level the playing field and bring the mega-bucks clubs under control.
FIFA and UEFA must tighten the regulations guiding football, especially in Europe, and take the necessary steps to guard against a repeat of the recent attempt at introducing a breakaway league in the future. The confidence of Perez and Agnelli demonstrate that they are simply waiting for the system to afford them another opportunity to give this attempt another shot, with possibly a better format next time that will be more difficult to checkmate.