A little over two years ago, I wrote an article entitled “Changing the Landscape of European Soccer.” The article detailed the in-the-works plans for a new European Soccer League, the ESL. The League would consist of sixteen of the wealthiest, most decorated soccer clubs in Europe (and by extension, the world). This league would replace the UEFA Champions League — the current European soccer league. At the time, I noted that UEFA and European clubs were under contract.
“… this agreement is only valid until 2021, meaning, a super league could technically begin in 2022.”
Well, 2021 is here, and the ESL just took a major step into the spotlight last Sunday, April 18, when it was reported that a total of twelve major European clubs were set to break away from UEFA and start a European Super League. The involved clubs consisted of six English clubs — Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenhma, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Arsenal — and Spanish giants Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid, with A.C. Milian, Inter Milan, and Juventus representing Italy. No French or German clubs elected to participate.
Funded by a JP Morgan investment of 3.25 billion dollars, the ESL was set to start next season. If brought to fruition, this league would irrevocably alter the landscape of European soccer. To many, this move was perceived as a cash grab; each participating team was set to gain ~$400 million a season through their participation in the league.
The very core of European soccer is parity and competition — teams that do well get rewarded by playing in better leagues, while teams that do poorly are relegated to lower tiers. This structure is referred to as relegation and promotion. This is a seemingly foreign concept to many American sports fans. Our professional sporting leagues include a set number of teams, all of which are guaranteed a spot in the league the following year.
“The most powerful are so because of what they produce and what they summon. But the rest are indispensable and what gives health to the competition is the development of the weak, not the excess growth of the weak. The logic that prevails in the world, and football is not out of it, is that the rich are richer at the cost of the weak being poorer”
Marcelo Bielsa (Head Coach, Leeds United)
That is not to say that there are not checks and balances in our sporting leagues. In both the National Hockey League and the National Football League, there are salary caps which limit the amount a team can spend on its players. Additionally, the major leagues in the United States have annual performance-based drafts, giving weaker teams the opportunity to recruit better players.
European soccer, however, is becoming increasingly less equitable. The lack of a salary cap, coupled with the arrival of foreign owners to large clubs, has given these clubs the funds to pay for the best players. This started with the purchase of Manchester City in 2008 by Sheikh Mansour, followed by the arrival of billionaire president Nasser Al-Khelaifi at Paris Saint Germain in 2011.
“When you have no income, only that from television (due to COVID), you understand that the solution is to have more competitive games, the most attractive you can have in the world. We have decided that in the week, instead of the Champions League, we can have a Super League with more games.”
Florentino Perez (President, Real madrid)
on the necessity of the Super League
While these events have forever altered the trajectory of European soccer, amongst fans, players, and pundits alike, the ethos of the game remains intact. In fact, despite the wealth of nations behind them, neither Manchester City nor PSG have managed to win the UEFA Championship League.
One of the defining characteristics that makes European soccer so interesting is its unpredictability and the high probability of upsets. 19th-placed West Bromwich Albion beat Chelsea, a club owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, earlier this April in the Premier League. Magical instances such as this made the mere suggestion of a Super League so abhorrent to fans and players alike. A Super League strategically filtering money to only big clubs will significantly decrease these upsets, as lower-ranking clubs will no longer be able to attract homegrown players to build their rosters.
Chelsea was the first team to play following the announcement. Prior to their game against Brighton, on Tuesday, April 20, fans gathered outside Stamford Bridge, to show their opposition to the Super League.
“We want our cold nights in Stoke”
A slogan used during Tuesday’s protest.
Later that evening, two days following the announcement of the Super League, Manchester City elected to pull out of the proposed League, with five other English Clubs following suit by midday on Wednesday. While the football world is currently enjoying their victory over the formation of the ESL, it should be noted that although English Clubs withdrew their support of the league alongside the participating Italian clubs, the financial motivations for top clubs remain intact.
It can be argued that the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic influenced clubs to join this league, but the idea of an exclusive, non-competitive league began decades ago. It is no coincidence that Chelsea and Manchester City were the first two teams to withdraw their support of a Super League; of the six English clubs set to join the ESL, Manchester City and Chelsea were the two least financially impacted.
But would the Super League have solved the financial problems plaguing the world of European Soccer? Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, CEO of Bayern Munich, disagrees.
“I do not believe the Super League will solve the financial problems of European clubs that have arisen as result of the coronavirus pandemic. Rather, all clubs in Europe should work in solidarity to ensure that the cost structure, especially players’ salaries and agents’ fees, are brought in line with revenues, to make all of European football more rational.”
Shortly after the collapse of the Super League, UEFA announced a new format for the Champions League set to start in 2024. This new format will raise the number of competing clubs from 32 to 36 and guarantees most teams will play at least twelve games. In short, this format seeks to add more games to the players’ already packed schedules, while simultaneously generating more revenue for the clubs involved.
Ilkay Gündogan, a midfielder for Manchester City, expressed his displeasure regarding the new Champions League format on Twitter.
“More and more and more games, is no one thinking about us players? The new UCL format is just the lesser of the two evils in comparison to the Super League.”
Although the Super League is the antithesis of traditional European soccer, this new UEFA format does not bode well for the future of the game either. It is viewed by many as a move to appease the bigger clubs, as this format will ensure larger clubs play each other on a more regular basis, a key aspect of the Super League.
Fans should be wary of accepting a new Champions League format. This new format, while considerably better than the Super League, is nonetheless a step in the wrong direction. Fortunately for the soccer world, fans, especially those in England, continue to demand a change in ownership in favor of owners who have the club’s best interests in mind. For example, Daniel Ek, owner of Spotify and a self-described lifetime Arsenal fan, has made an offer to buy Arsenal from Stan Kroenke, the current owner. Kronke has, however, repeatedly stated that the club is not for sale. Whether or not ownership changes remains to be seen, but for those pessimistic about the future of European Soccer, hope yet remains.