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The European (not so) Super League

Last Monday, fans of European football across the globe reacted passionately to the formation of the European Super League: an exclusive organization founded by 12 of the continent’s most renowned and wealthiest football clubs.

Under its proposed structure, the Super League would be comprised of 20 elite European clubs competing against each other in midweek matches between regularly scheduled competition in their respective domestic leagues. Following this ‘regular season’ of play, a playoff would ensue with a champion eventually crowned.

At face value, the league appears to have some merit. Who wouldn’t want to watch the most renowned clubs in European football compete against one another on a weekly basis? But fans were not tricked. Twitter erupted with demands for the league’s abolishment, and fans in England took to the streets in protest. 

Chelsea supporters gathered on Tuesday to protest their club’s involvement in the League. As they held up a team bus attempting to depart for a Premier League match against Brighton, threatening chants suddenly turned into overwhelming cheers. In the face of insurmountable public pressure, Chelsea and Manchester United became the first two clubs to quit the short-lived league, prompting a cascade reaction from other clubs and the League’s virtual collapse within less than 48 hours of its establishment.  

The discontent expressed by fans largely stems from the manner in which the Super League would alter the framework of European football as a whole. Since 1955, teams from different European countries have competed within domestic leagues to earn one of 32 bids to the UEFA Champions League, the most prestigious football tournament in Europe, and—excluding the FIFA World Cup—on the planet. 

Within the overlying structure of the Champions League, clubs in domestic leagues including the English Premier League, Italian Serie A, Spanish La Liga, and the German Bundesliga face the prospect of relegation if they underperform, making possible the promotion of clubs from lower leagues, who are able to ‘climb the pyramid’ and replace relegated clubs for an opportunity to vie for a bid to the Champions League tournament. 

“The ‘pyramid’ open league system with relegation and promotion is what makes ‘football’ ‘football’ in England, Europe and most of the world,” said Carleton Men’s Soccer Coach Bob Carlson, who leads the Sports and Globalization OCS program in England and Spain – a 10-week Winter Term program where students examine firsthand the political economy and culture of European football. 

If the Super League were to inevitably replace the Champions League as the prime football tournament in Europe, it would shatter the tradition of relegation that is the hallmark of European football. Under the proposed structure of the League, 15 of its 20 clubs would be permanent members protected from relegation, leaving a mere five clubs to compete for entry into the League each year.

Sports Economist Stefan Syzmanski, whose book Soccernomics is part of the Sports and Globalization curriculum, warns that the Super League “would be catastrophic for European football” because it would break the promise that any club can have an opportunity to triumph on the greatest stage in Europe. 

Under the current structure of European football under UEFA and the Champions League, teams in domestic leagues compete feverishly with an understanding that if they place high enough, they will have a reasonable shot at playing on Europe’s biggest stage. However, by opening the door to only five clubs on a yearly basis, the Super League will substantially restrict the prospects for non-member clubs to earn a bid to its tournament, which will in turn discourage top talent from joining non-member clubs and diminish the competitiveness of Europe’s domestic leagues.

Beyond the issue of the Super League’s exclusivity, there is also the issue of wealth accumulation. In contrast America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) or National Football League (NFL), European soccer leagues don’t have the equivalence of a salary cap, meaning that clubs with wealthy owners and an abundance of capital have a significant advantage in the international market for football talent, which more often that not translates to more wins on the pitch. 

“A closed league like the Super League is simply a way for the big clubs to generate more revenue for their own coffers,” said Carlson, contributing to the widely held notion that the European Super League would widen pre-existing wealth disparities between football clubs across Europe. 

JP Morgan Chase has already provided a $3.25 billion “infrastructure grant” to the European Super League, while each founding member stands to gain around $400 million from private investment in order to establish “a secure financial foundation” for the League moving forward. Beyond that, it is expected that the broadcast rights to Super League matches, along with commercial income, will generate billions of dollars per year. 

No longer subject to UEFA, the current governing body that operates the Champions League and redistributes its revenue to domestic leagues and clubs throughout Europe, the revenue earned from the Super League would remain largely within the hands of its 15 permanent members, thus furthering their advantage in attracting the top football talent and deepening the pockets of billionaire owners. 

The money-driven ambitions behind the European Super League violate the game’s origins as a working class game. Popularized by supporters of Club Africain in 2017, the slogan “Created by the poor, stolen by the rich” was scrawled on bedsheets and displayed by protestors throughout the U.K. last week. The majority of these protestors, bound to their clubs by a sense of community and tradition, would be sold out by the Super League, which seeks to capture profits from the “fans of the future,” a globalized demographic who live far away from Europe’s traditional football neighborhoods and are indifferent to the loss of tradition the Super League would inflict on Europe’s treasured domestic leagues. 

“The immediate backlash from fans, clubs, federations, players and managers gives me hope that although these big clubs are powerful, they cannot manipulate and dismiss the tradition of domestic leagues, which are the foundation for football around the globe,” said Carlson, who feels optimistic about the future of European football and Carleton’s Sports and Globalization program. 

“The heart and soul of English and Spanish football remains very, very strong. I don’t think promotion and relegation are going anywhere any time soon, and even with some form of the Super League, our students will still experience the thrill of immersing ourselves in sporting culture abroad,” he added.

Following the departure of Chelsea and Manchester City, the remaining four clubs from the English Premier League (Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham) abandoned the league and issued apologies to their fans, along with Italian clubs AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus and the Spanish club Atlético Madrid. The two remaining Spanish clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid, are the two lone clubs keeping the project alive.

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