Though we’re loathe to admit it, Gordon Gekko was right. The proposed European Super League captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit and clarifies how we feel about greed in its most brazen form.
Europe’s biggest and wealthiest clubs attempting to replace the Champions League with their own hegemony, loosely based on the American franchise model, was as inevitable as the reactions it was met with; ‘greedy fucking bastards’ (true), ‘it’s unsporting’ (absolutely) or ‘the game’s dead’ (referring to football’s soul).
While I sympathise with the disdain for its impetus, we have to see the European Super League for what it is – the result of a process we’ve happily fomented or at best willingly ignored. We’ve convinced ourselves that the slow and insidious erosion of the game’s competitive balance over the last three decades, along with its increasing economic inequality which we submissively financed, wouldn’t see consequences. Now there’s anger because that pretence has been vanquished. I firmly believe that in most instances it’s the sheer embarrassment at being made to feel so gullible, rather than the elitist nature of the new Super League, that’s riled people up. Claiming it’s the latter makes you look better though, doesn’t it?
Speaking of which, I could do without the piety from ex-playing pundits with their lips suckered on the Sky Sports teat. All of whom benefitted enormously from grotesque rises in their playing salaries after the Premier League’s formation. The European Super League breakaway may have been shameless, but so are they for using Sky Sports as a soapbox to spew populist rhetoric to appear grounded and using the issue itself as absolution for their involvement in football’s media explosion.
Make no mistake, the European Super League proposal has been a long time coming and its appeal has only grown as a litany of grievances at recent and long-running failures by UEFA and domestic football associations has too. Little doubt Covid-19 and it’s havoc on football finances was cynically wielded as a sickening justification to accelerate the timeline.
UEFA’s decadence, however, is the main cause. They willingly eroded sporting integrity over the last three decades in favour of profits, which has resulted in unwittingly conceding power to a small plutocracy of clubs. When the European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League in the early nineties there was far more financial parity in the sport, so clubs sought avarice in the margins. The increased sponsorship revenues tethered to UEFA’s renamed premier European competition, and worldwide commercialisation afforded by technological advances, changed that scope and attracted the worst kind of profiteers. Now UEFA needs the brand pull of the top clubs to maintain those sponsorship revenues. This is the destructive legacy of UEFA’s perpetual largess, where too much expansion lead to a bloated abortion of a group stage and allowed ease of access to too many clubs in the larger leagues to populate it. A mix of perpetual qualification and a relaxation on foreign player quotas has seen all the restrictions on hoovering up the best talent removed, allowing the big clubs to get stronger while weakening the rest.
A sign of UEFA’s lack of foresight and incompetence can be traced to the contentious aftermath of Liverpool’s extraordinary Champions League victory in 2005. That season Liverpool finished fifth in their domestic league and didn’t qualify for next season’s Champions League. UEFA had become so inured to the clubs winning the competition always performing well enough in their domestic league to qualify, that the scenario which left them having to fiddle a fair compromise (and let Liverpool defend their title) to save face had never arisen before. And even then Liverpool were made to go through the pre-qualifying rounds. A disgrace. Even now the winners of the World Cup have to qualify for the next finals tournament (which is equally scandalous). When it comes to sporting integrity, FIFA and UEFA’s is clearly selective.
Speaking of selective, UEFA’s complete indifference to racism is damning. Because it’s an ethical not a financial issue it’s paid lip service, with small fines and in extreme cases making clubs whose fans offend repeatedly play behind closed doors (not so effective a deterrent over the last year). However, as soon as their cash cow is threatened by the European Super League formation emergency meetings, sanctimonious statements and threats of bans for clubs were issued.
UEFA’s abject failure to implement financial fair play with any cogency or thoroughness has to grate with the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, who, while they may be financial behemoths, have earned their global cachet through decades of sustained success since the second World War. The ghastly (state and oligarch owned) nouveau-riche trio of PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City have audaciously abbreviated this process with complete disregard for UEFA’s financial fair play parameters. While City were banned, it was overturned by CAS on a technicality and UEFA did nothing in response but sulk. If UEFA aren’t going to make Financial Fair Play viable it’s no wonder the clubs want something that will more effectively even the playing field.
While permanent placement in the Super League, without any threat of demotion or need to qualify through domestic performance, is unfair and elitist, as was the limited number of qualification places for non-member clubs, you wonder how different this new competition would look and feel when compared to the current Champions League, where so few clubs have a realistic chance of winning the competition year after year.
To drive that point home, in the Champions League era (1992 to the present) only two clubs have managed to make the final of the Champions League who didn’t play in one of the five biggest leagues in Europe (Germany, Italy, Spain, France or England), Dutch club Ajax (twice), and Porto (once). The last club to win the competition outside of those five leagues was Porto in 2004. And since their win in 2004 no club from outside the top five leagues has even made the final. In practical terms, the current structure has ensured it’s already a closed shop.
As Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich and the like are to the Champions League, so too is the Premier League heavily reliant on the brand pull of the irksomely nicknamed ‘big six’ clubs. It is they who drive interest and social media impressions, and entice broadcasters, foreign and domestic, to spend billions on the TV rights. They’re propping up the rest through even distribution of revenue, allowing them to behave well beyond their means with disgusting displays of bravura opulence to deliver rank mediocrity – see Everton’s recent transfer business and any of the catastrophic wage to turnover ratios for most bottom feeding Premier League clubs.
So the threat of domestic league bans was, and is, a clear bluff. Is anyone paying hundreds of quid a year for Sky, BT (and whatever else) to watch a league where Leicester, Everton, Leeds and Wolves are the marquee clubs, and where Reading and Hull are imported to take the place of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester United? Would the same number of Chinese, Americans and Indonesians watch and bet on this ‘product’? Not a chance.
Now the important questions – how close was this proposal to being realised? Is it likely to return soon in another guise? Or was it just leverage?
To maintain control I can envision UEFA capitulating to permanent Champions League entry for clubs based upon some historical criteria of having won the competition a number of times. Limiting it to three wins would mean only Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Manchester United and Liverpool would automatically qualify every season as it stands, and it could be claimed as (somewhat) merit based. UEFA’s current plan for 2024, while less extreme, already contains a not too dis-similar mechanism, allowing a safety net through accrual of coefficient points if one of the big name clubs has a stinker of season. Further tinkering with the structure of the Champions League’s format beyond 2024 is all but assured (more games, more money) as is a reformatting of the prize money to further favour the biggest clubs.
And that’s another reason the European Super League clubs moved now, they saw the Swiss model for what it is – the sign of a weak hand. While the clubs behind the European Super League overplayed their hand and were defeated this time, they’ve collated more feedback on what kind of proposal could pass for acceptable. We’re talking about ruthless people here. They know fans are against a closed model of European competition. Expect the next proposal to assuage fairness concerns while also getting the founding clubs what they want – automatic entry in all but name. If Chelsea or Barcelona don’t qualify through their domestic league, they’ll have to go through several rounds of pre-qualification as the rest of the riff-raff from Slovenia and Finland currently do in the Champions League, only they won’t play anyone who threatens to knock them out. This feels like a fait accompli either way. While the big clubs underpin the prestige and revenues of the Champions League the threat of a break away will remain and this leaves UEFA in the same bind – keep conceding ground to placate the elite clubs, or lose control over this runaway gravy train.
I hate being so apathetic and pessimistic, but I keep returning to two questions: how realistic is the kind of sweeping reform that would be meaningful? And short of that is it worth saving a competition, ran by a morally bankrupt federation, that’s been bastardised beyond all recognition from its original format, just because it’s only slightly less egregiously greedy and unsporting than its potential replacement or what it’s bound to mutate into relatively soon?
If it’s left you all numb, well good. That’s the truth and inevitability of the evolutionary spirit, what it creates it then destroys. The only certainty this situation reveals to me is that, in this instance, we’re not truly prepared for the discomfort that’s necessary to stop this process.