It was an extraordinary 48 hours of football. The biggest clubs in Europe last week pulled out of the Champions League, announced the creation of some sort of private tournament, and then returned with their tails between their legs following a seismic backlash.
A half-carton of milk in a fridge lasts longer than the ill-fated European Super League (ESL) which fizzled out spectacularly.
A European Super League has long been wanted by some of the continent’s most storied clubs who believe they should be making more of the decisions, and making more of the money, because they are the teams people want to watch. They do not like how UEFA runs the Champions League and do not think it delivers enough high-quality games.
The backers of the Super League say that the existing Champions League has too many meaningless one-sided games between minnows and giants of European football before it gets interesting.
Just cut to the chase, the founders sought.
At first glance the ESL would appear a dream come true for football aficionados. The 12 founding clubs, given a permanent spot in this competition, would consistently parade the biggest names in the sport (ultimately, they would increase to 15 clubs; five other teams would rotate in and out).
So why endure months of unpronounceables Metalurh Zaporizhzhya of Ukraine against Welsh team Llanfairpwll F.C., or Hungarian outfit Zalaegerszegi Torna Egylet vs Gençlerbirliği Spor Kulübü of Turkey in Round 654 when you instead can feast your eyes on the legendary names of the sport: Real Madrid clashing with Manchester United and Juventus sparring with Barcelona in what would look like quarter-finals onwards?
The founding clubs would also have been guaranteed many millions of dollars each year from selling the broadcast rights to their matches. When the biggest names in world football face off against one another, the broadcasting revenue would surge, which would in turn be pumped back into the participating clubs.
There are millions of fans across the world, in markets like the US, the Middle East and Asia, who don’t always watch their teams in their own countries but who will pay big money to watch this European football festival.
The ESL would basically supplant the UEFA Champions League altogether and overshadow the domestic leagues those teams all come from in terms of popularity.
But the creation of a walled-off European Super League, established by a cabal of clubs with the biggest resources who decide who is and isn’t allowed to join the fun would eliminate a great deal of the reason people enjoy football in the first place.
There would have been no threat of relegation for the founding teams who were guaranteed a place in the league every single year, regardless of performance. Eliminating jeopardy, the tension and excitement at the heart of football is destroyed.
Regular meetings between the great clubs would be the norm and make routine what should be rare events. Encounters of giants every week, without any exciting build-up to the occasion, would lose their significance. Were the owners intending to play a colossal derby and have superstars go head-to-head every other day?
A new European Super League would guarantee that the best always play the best. They would stay big forever. They would be stuck together like cold rice. No more would be the unique thrill of seeing an underdog triumph over the favourite. Remember Leicester City in 2016? Forget it. In the ESL, that giant-killer season would never happen again.
And some of these super clubs really aren’t so super. Tottenham, Arsenal, Inter Milan and AC Milan are not what they used to be.
The decline of these clubs is evidence that the Super League was nothing but an attempt by its founding members to up their revenue that they are not currently earning from their weakened teams, and certainly during these pandemic times.
There was no guarantee that the ESL would have been as successful as its founders had envisioned. Football has many tournaments that never really caught on. The FIFA Club World Cup, started in 2000, was supposed to be even more popular than the World Cup, seeing the fierceness of fan loyalty to club over country. But it still struggles to attract interest in most of Europe. It never got out of first gear.
The UEFA Nations League, a biennial competition contested by the national teams of the 55-member associations of UEFA, and was created in 2018 to take the place of friendly matches, never got off the ground.
The African Nations Championship (CHAN), whose first edition was in 2009, and which is uniquely African in that it features players who are playing in their domestic leagues while players who based abroad, in or out of the continent, are not eligible, never took off.
So, too, the ESL might not have captured the imagination. In the meantime, it is worth noting there were a couple of major changes to the Champions League starting from 2024 agreed by UEFA last week that will increase the tournament by four teams, from 32 to 36, and will create a greater number of matches as teams will play as many as 19 games to reach the final, rather than 13 in the present format.
The dozen insurrectionists, though, want fewer clubs, and more matches but only those that separate the wheat from the chaff.
In the end, football’s oligarchy did not have its way. From fans, players, pundits and politicians to rival clubs and the game’s governing bodies -- the response to the Super League was an emphatic ‘No’.
Even before a ball was kicked, the breakaway ESL risked messy legal challenges and court battles. UEFA and FIFA had already come out against the proposal, as had the Premier League and many other competitions. FIFA threatened any players who would have taken part in this competition at domestic, European or world level. Players could have been denied the opportunity to represent their national teams, including in this year’s European Championship and next year’s World Cup. Docking points in domestic leagues could have been another form of punishment.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the sport’s authorities would have the “ull backing” from his government to take action against the Super League plans.
Some quarters batted away those dire warnings. A Madrid court issued a preliminary ruling stopping UEFA, FIFA and its members from acting against the creation of the new league.
Amid the back-slapping from those who feel the big clubs have been stopped in their tracks, this is probably not the end of this closed, elitist league. The ESL is on “standby” insists Real Madrid President Florentino Perez, and the clubs have “binding contracts” and “cannot leave”. Barcelona called it a “historical error” to turn down the opportunity. Juventus are also plowing on.
Since the multi-billionaires who own the clubs and who launched their dream plan are still around, the aborted Super League will probably return in the not too distant future. When the furor has faded, it might return in a different format, under a new name, and it might necessitate a PR campaign by its founders to better explain what their intended goals are. The leaders of this separatist movement seem to have been disconnected from the fans, completely caught off guard and totally unaware of the fierce condemnation that their project would generate across the football world.
Wealthy owners of Europe’s top clubs know how much power they wield but apparently did not realise how football fans and stakeholders can snatch back some of that power.
The Super League did not address all at once the objectives of Europe’s biggest club owners, the intentions of the sport’s governing bodies and the desires of the fans. It must strike that balance if it wants to return from the dead.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly