European football has been in a state of Cold War for decades, with the threat of a breakaway Super League coming up every few years. Usually, it ends with more concessions and reforms or some other agreement that merely kicks the can down the road.
Last Sunday’s official announcement and statement of intent signalled an end to the posturing, rumours and threats.
Make no mistake about it, for 48 brief, dramatic hours, football was at full out war.
On the one hand, UEFA, the current governing body of European football and organiser of the Champions League, the most prestigious club competition in football.
On the other hand, 12 of the most powerful clubs in global football: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético de Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan.
Their prize? Control of the very future of the world’s most popular and lucrative game.
Emotions have been incredibly high ever since plans for a European Super League were announced.
Most fans, pundits and other commentators have been up in arms over what they saw as an aggressive move motivated by the greed of 12 club owners in pursuit of ever greater financial returns at the expense of the rest of the football world.
Its architects on the other hand claimed they were “saving football,” resurrecting it from its uncompetitive malaise, where the same teams spend 90% of their seasons dominating local clubs and looking forward to a handful of big matches, a malaise they argue has been the cause of lower viewership and engagement with football among younger fans.
Now that the plans have been suspended and we are left to survey the wreckage, we can ask ourselves, what is the reality? Is football really dying and in need of a radical shakeup? Or were these owners about to kill it to line their pockets?
What is the European Super League?
Plans for a European Super League are nothing new. In fact, they first reared their head in the 60s, when economic problems first motivated ideas of a new glamour league of only big teams capable of maximising revenues.
Now, half a century later and a global pandemic that has cost football billions in revenue and left several clubs mired in debt has provided the perfect breeding ground for these plans to re-emerge.
While at times the European Super League has been planned as a replacement for the domestic leagues and European Cup, this most recent iteration was planned as a replacement for the Champions League only, with teams still competing domestically.
The now suspended plan aimed to have 15 founding members (it is thought Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and PSG were the 3 still being pursued by the 12 announced on Sunday) who would have guaranteed membership.
That would leave space for 5 more teams who would have had to qualify and could be relegated. It was not clear exactly how these clubs would be chosen or whether they would be replaced every year or only if they underperformed.
Although completely foreign to European sport, this model of a closed (or majority closed) league is very common in the United States, with the NBA, the NFL, the MLS and more all operating this way.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the battle, UEFA have been hard at work planning their own Champions League reformat. The new format, which was officially unveiled on Monday, would expand the tournament from 32 teams to 36 and use the “Swiss Model,” where every team would play 10 guaranteed matches against 10 different teams, ranked using coefficients. The top 8 performing teams would move on to the Round of 16 automatically, while teams finishing 9th to 24th would have to compete in a two-legged play-off to qualify. From then on, the current format would continue, with teams competing in two-legged knockout ties to reach the final.
Unlike the majority of football fans, I was not shocked when plans for a Super League were announced, nor am I celebrating the maintenances of the existing status quo now that they’ve been suspended.
European football has been in trouble for a long time. Many of the arguments made by Pérez and other Super League architects, whether said genuinely or more likely as a guise to hide their true motivations, are rooted in fact and, if not dealt with, threaten to kill the sport we love.
Let’s look at the lack of competition first, something Pérez was quick to emphasise in his doomed interview on Monday.
Domestic leagues have become hugely uncompetitive, especially outside of England.
Clubs that have managed to carve out a superiority in their league are becoming increasingly detached from the rest of their competition, a pattern that will continue to grow as globalisation disproportionality rewards the biggest, entrenched names and increasingly leaves the rest behind.
Take the Bundesliga for example, which Bayern Munich are about to win for their 9th time in a row at a canter.
Serie A? This year will be the first time in 9 years in which Juventus haven’t lifted the title.
Ligue 1? PSG have won 8 out of the last 9 and, with a budget larger than the rest of the league combined, will likely continue to win it for generations to come.
La Liga? 3 teams have won 70/89 in the competitions history. You would have to go back to 2003/04 for the last time one of the big 3 didn’t win it. Even then, Atletico, used to argue La Liga is not a duopoly, have only won 1 in that time frame, the other 15 going to either Real Madrid or Barcelona.
Even the Premier League, often touted as the best and most competitive league in the world, has been won 14 times in the last 16 years by only 3 clubs: Manchester United (5), Chelsea (5) and Manchester City (4, soon to become 5).
While people are quick to bring up Leicester City’s triumph in 2014/15, that was a 1 in 5000 event which has as of yet only happened once. Bringing it up as if it’s a common occurrence to argue we still have competition at the top in football that would be destroyed by a Super League, when in reality it’s the exception that proves the rule, is laughable.
By all means, criticise the Super League’s plans (and I will be coming to that soon) but pretending it would have meant the death of a perfect competitive utopia is just wrong.
Some have been quick to argue for wage caps, transfer limits and other spending caps as a means to stopping this growing divergence. Even if we ignore the unlikely legality of these measures, the gap is already too significant to close now. Let’s not forget that financial fair play, a regulation aimed at reducing “financial doping” and closing the competitive gap, has already been in place for nearly a decade, a decade that has seen the gap between the dominant clubs and the rest accelerate by even more than in any other period in history.
That is not to say there is no space for some new regulations (stopping the farcical, over-bloated sponsorship deals the likes of PSG and Man City have signed in recent years to name one).
But the most powerful clubs already have the advantages in place to dominate and continue dominating even if more stringent financial doping measures are implemented. They have the huge stadiums, the global fanbase, the reputation and brand, the commercial deals, the world class academies, and more. Outside of a dystopian, communist-esque world where these clubs are forced to hand over their entire earnings and have them distributed equally, no amount of reasonable financial control is suddenly going to make a West Brom or an Elché as marketable or as equal competitively as a Liverpool FC or a Real Madrid.
This is before we even consider whether such an environment is even desirable, let alone possible. Big clubs bring together the best players in the world under the best managers in the best facilities. They create the elite game, the best of the best, which inspires fans and acts as the pinnacle of the sport. Creating (or trying to create) a completely equal playing field would rob us of Klopp’s Champions League winning Liverpool team, of Jose’s 95 point, undefeated at home Chelsea, of Guardiola’s Centurions, of Arsenal’s Invincibles and the vast, vast majority of football’s greatest ever teams.
Next, let’s look at the other big argument for a Super League: Not enough big games.
Supporters of a Super League often argue that the current competitions do not provide enough blockbuster matches. Big matches between European heavy weights draw in by far the most viewers with millions tuning in from around the world. The entire sport is sustained by the revenue generated by these matches. A European Super League would not only lead to more bigger matches for fans to enjoy, the additional revenue generated would be able to solidify both the bottom lines of the top clubs as well as the rest of the football pyramid, with the ESL committing to larger support payments than is currently provided by the Champions League.
Personally, I’ve felt for a long time that the quality of the Champions League is too diluted to be considered a true League of Champions. There are far too many low calibre matches and too many unbalanced match ups (Chelsea v. Krasnodar, Liverpool v. Midtjylland, Juventus v. Ferencvárosi TC to name a few from this year’s competition).
Some might argue these clubs deserve their chance to take on the big teams, but in reality what happens is these clubs come in, get heavily beaten and become the whipping boys of the group. That’s not competition and that’s not quality football.
Outside of the rare #GroupOfDeath match ups, the real match ups only really start going in the knockout stages and even then you only have to beat a handful to be crowned Champion of Europe. Its even possible to win the entire “Champions League” without beating a single national Champion if the draw is favourable to you.
UEFA’s new plans will not solve this but will instead further dilute the competition’s quality by increasing the number of teams and reducing its exclusivity, making the problem even worse.
So is a European Super League the answer?
On the surface, there is a lot to like about these plans if you believe the two problems stated above are significant.
Uncompetitive, repetitive domestic leagues
A Super League could potentially solve this increasingly uncompetitive environment in two ways:
Firstly, the Super League itself, by bringing together more teams of equal ability, would be a more competitive league with several teams in with a realistic chance of winning. By competing in a league format, teams would have to truly be the best to lift the trophy and would not be able to benefit from a favourable draw.
Secondly, a Super League where teams still compete in their domestic league would, without a doubt, have a diluting affect on the quality of the top teams’ showings in the Premier League, in a similar way to spending caps. Teams would prioritise the Super League matches, likely fielding weaker teams with more youth in their domestic leagues.
While most have been quick to decry this, one thing it would certainly lead to is a more equal and hence competitive environment where teams like Leicester, Everton, West Ham, Wolves, Leeds and others have a genuine chance of winning and not just the usual suspects over and over again.
Matches between sides that cost hundreds of millions vs sides that cost a fraction of that would become significantly less common with Super League teams likely to use more youth and back up players in these matches. Unlike spending caps that would kill the best teams entirely, you would still be able to see them in the ESL, with a slightly weaker (arguably fairer) showing in the domestic league.
Not only would this level the playing field, breathing life back into leagues that have become stagnant and repetitive, it would also have the side benefit of giving big clubs and their academies more quality opportunities to develop their youth, something sorely needed in the absence of B teams in England.
Not enough big matches, too many sub-par matches
The Super League would clearly solve this by significantly increasing the amount of big matches. Not only would this lead to more matches between more equal opposition and truer competition, it would also generate significantly more revenue.
Currently, the Big 6 in the Premier League generate $1.2 billion in total sponsorship revenue. This accounts for 81% of the total sponsorship revenue of the league and 4 times as much as the rest of the league generate combined.
Looking at other revenue sources, the gap is even larger. Take the match day for example, where the Big 6 generate £495 million, or 2.6 times as much as the other 14 clubs combined.
Or commercial revenue, where the Big 6’s £1.116 billion comes out to a whopping 3.78 times as much as the other 14.
The numbers put forward by the ESL, which would more than triple current Champions League revenues, show just how lucrative matches between the biggest and most marketable clubs have become.
While it is true the big clubs would benefit a huge amount from this greater revenue, the rest of football would benefit significantly as well, with solidarity payments to the domestic leagues and smaller clubs coming in at over 3 times as much as current levels. At a time when clubs are struggling financially and many smaller clubs are being threatened by bankruptcy, can football really afford not to maximise what is clearly an in demand product to generate what could prove to be club-saving revenue?
So is a European Super League the solution to these problems?
In short, no, it is not, a least not in the format presented on Sunday.
The Super League plans suffer from one big flaw that in my opinion undermines the entire project and what its trying to achieve: Its use of a closed shop model that guarantees membership to ¾ of the teams.
Firstly, a closed shop model goes against the very identity of European Sport. Sport is supposed to be about merit, where the best get rewarded and those who fall below get replaced by those working hard to overtake them. While in the USA, they have gotten used to the same teams being in the league regardless of performance, this system is entirely alien on this continent. Fans celebrate and cherish teams that have achieved multiple promotions through their good performances (for example, Bournemouth climbing from League 2 to the Premier League under Eddie Howe), while teams that fall away rightly get replaced (Sunderland most recently, who fell from the Premier League to League One over the course of 3 seasons). Moving to a closed shop, even one that still allows a small degree of promotion and relegation for 5/20 teams, goes against our very notion of what competitive sport is supposed to be.
Beyond the sporting merit concerns, there are real problems with leagues that operate a closed shop model, as shown by the American leagues, especially the NBA. A closed shop system removes the incentives to invest in order to maintain performance and by extension membership of the league. While this is less likely to a be problem for the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, clubs like Arsenal and Tottenham that already prioritise the bottom line and have not made the additional investment to be competitive will now have even less incentive to develop their teams, knowing they no longer need to make even top 4 to achieve Champions League wealth, let alone to try and win anything.
Of the three sides that reportedly turned down Super League membership, two (Bayern Munich and PSG) dominate their domestic leagues and are never in threat of not qualifying. They are also both among the richest clubs in the world and likely do not feel they would benefit from additional funds, as they are already at the very top financially. In fact, in PSG’s case, a European Super League would likely remove their financial competitive advantage, so I’m not surprised at all they didn’t sign up.
This is a very different situation form the majority of the 12 founding members who are either in huge debt or currently struggle to consistently make the top 4.
While it is clearly in the interest of the qualifying clubs individually, a European Super League with guaranteed membership is an absolute non starter. By insisting on this point, the 12 clubs have proven that it is not a desire to achieve greater competitiveness nor a desire to create a superior product with more elite match ups that has motivated this decision but instead a desire to enrich themselves.
So if a closed shop Super League is not the answer, what is?
The way I see it, maintaining the status quo of stagnant, dead leagues with no or little competition at the top, dominated by the same teams who face each other only a handful of times a year, is not an option A new competition that solves these problems is an absolute must if football is to remain the vibrant, exciting and competitive sport we all love. Below, I will present two possible options:
OPTION 1: A European Super League that operates above the domestic leagues, with promotion and relegation.
In essence, this would be adding another step in the pyramid, one that would better ensure the top performing teams play each other more consistently.
Instead of having domestic leagues that are dominated by the same protagonists every year, these super teams would now have to compete against similar calibre competition.
There are a number of different ways such a league could be designed, but personally I would do the following:
Tournament announced to start in 3 years time, with 23 places split across the best leagues using UEFA coefficients
- Top 2 leagues (England and Spain): Top 4 qualify
- Leagues 3 and 4 (Italy and Germany): Top 3 qualify
- Leagues 5 and 6 (France and Portugal): Champions and runners up qualify
- Leagues 7-10 (Holland, Russia, Belgium, Austria): Champions qualify
- Leagues 11-14 (Scotland, Ukraine, Turkey, Denmark): Champions of these 4 divisions would enter a play-off, with the winner qualifying
Starting in 3 years will give teams 2 years to develop their teams before trying to qualify for the inaugural competition in year 3.
Once the competition begins:
Every team competes home and away (44 matches in total), with the team with the most points at the end being crowned Champion. In order to encourage greater internal competition, I would also have something like an additional Super Cup competition, between the teams that make the Top 8.
Qualification and Relegation
Every year the worst performing teams of each domestic league with more than one place (leagues 1-6) would be demoted back into the top division of their domestic league, while the domestic league champion would be promoted to replace them, keeping the total spots per national division the same.
As for teams in leagues 7 and below who only have one qualifying spot, relegation could be done through a tier system (e.g. If you fall into the bottom 5, you are automatically replaced at the end of the season with your domestic leagues’ champion that season. If you manage to escape the bottom 5, you have to play a two-legged play-off against your domestic champion, with the winner qualifying for next season.
By bringing together the very best performing teams of the year (not just historically), the competitiveness of the league would be stunning to watch, while the quantity of blockbuster matches would increase significantly, generating massive revenue.
By retaining qualification and relegation, teams would have the incentive to qualify, as well as to compete to stay in the league once there, while teams in the domestic leagues will also have the consistent chance to make it through with their performances, as well as the ability to benefit financially in a more direct way from Super League wealth.
The changing nature of the league, with promotions and relegation, would ensure the competition doesn’t get stale with the same teams competing every time but stays exciting and continues to evolve.
As qualifying teams would no longer play in their domestic leagues, there would not be significant additional workload (just 6 more matches if a 23 team league is used), meaning such a competition could exist alongside a reformed Champions League which could act as a sort of Europe-wide FA Cup, with more teams competing in knockout fixtures.
This should lead to much more equal, exciting domestic leagues, where teams of more equal ability compete to win the title and achieve promotion to the Super League, bringing an end to the era of constant consecutive champions.
Finally, it may incentivise leagues and national associations as a whole to invest in a bid to increase their UEFA coefficient. Leagues which are just outside the top 14 may try and break into the top 14 for a chance at qualifying for the competition and achieving its revenues, while teams that are just outside the top 10 (or top 6 or top 4) may push to get into the higher tier for greater qualification prizes.
OPTION 2: A new, more exclusive competition that runs alongside the domestic leagues, not on top of them
This option would maintain each existing premier domestic league as the pinnacle of its country’s football pyramid, with no promotion beyond it. It would act as a more exclusive Champions League made of only the very top performing sides.
Personally, I would structure it as such:
- The Champion and runners up of the top 5 leagues would qualify every year = 10 spots
- The Champions of leagues 6-10 would also qualify = 5 spots
- A two round qualifier similar to the Championship play offs between the Champions of leagues 11-14 with the winner qualifying = 1 spot
These teams would be divided into two groups, with teams from the same league kept separate. Using the results of last season’s domestic leagues (and assuming for the sake of this example that Scottish champions Celtic won the 4 place 11-14 play-off), you could have had something like this this year:
|Group 1||Group 2|
|Borussia Dortmund||Bayern Munich|
|Zenit St. Petersburg||Club Brugge|
|Celtic||Red Bull Salzburg|
Each team would play every other team in their group home and away (14 matches) with the top 4 teams moving into the quarter finals. In total, a team competing in this competition would play a guaranteed 14 matches (4 more than the new UEFA Champions League format) and up to 19 matches in total if they made it to the final (2 more than the new Champions League), meaning a drastic increase in quality but not too much quantity which is key to avoid over-congestion.
This option shares the majority of advantages of the first option, including more equal competition, more frequent bigger matches, lots of variety and the incentive for leagues to develop and raise their coefficients.
It would also have the added advantage of creating additional competition in the domestic leagues at the very top. Currently teams often settle for top 4 but now there would be another incentive to try and make top 2.
However, unlike option 1, this would not remove or reduce the existing problem of domestic leagues becoming increasingly dominated by the same teams.
As of Wednesday April 21st, the European Super League, as put forward by Florentino Pérez and his supporters, is dead. Its architects disgraced, its plans in tatters. While Agnelli and Pérez may insist the plan will go on despite the departure of the English clubs, with no representatives from 3 of Europe’s biggest leagues, any competition that does happen will be merely a showcase, super in name alone but not much else.
We’ll remember these last 48 hours from Sunday night’s bombshell to Tuesday’s retreat as a rare time in which the entire footballing family was united against a deplorable idea, one that would have sold the very soul of football for profit and greed.
When football was most under threat, the people who matter the most, its fans, fought back and triumphed. For a sport that has become ever more money driven and increasingly detached from its working class roots, these 48 hours should be celebrated as the moment in which football regained some of the magic it has lost over the years.
What comes immediately next will have to be repercussions for this idea’s main architects. The people who risked destroying the foundations of the sport must pay one way or another to discourage talks of a breakaway closed league from happening ever again.
But once the dust settles, it is important we get to work reforming European football in order to eliminate the problems that created the breeding ground for these ideas in the first place.
Getting complacent and continuing to embrace the status quo, one that has lead to a footballing landscape devoid of true competition and which will only get worse over time, will merely delay the inevitable and ensure a closed-style European Super League will become a reality later down the line.
Reform is needed at the very top. UEFA’s new Champions League format is nowhere near good enough and will do nothing to stem the continued death of competition in the domestic leagues or the limited amount of blockbuster matches on the European stage. Serious reform to the Champions League or a new competition entirely is needed.
I’ve listed just two possible solutions in this article but the possibilities are endless. Either way, whatever is chosen, one thing must always remain: The connection between effort, performance and achievement. A closed system is a non-starter. Those who out perform must continue to replace those who fall behind and sporting merit must always be prioritised.
In the words of Pep Guardiola,
“It is not a sport where the relation between effort and success does not exist. It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed, it is not a sport where it doesn’t matter when you lose.”