The dirty dozen: How the European Super League lost steam

Twelve top European clubs came together to form the invitation-only, exclusive rich-boys’ European Super League, but fortunately, sustained fan opposition saw the project fall apart.

Now a six-club cabal after the six English teams pulled out, the invitation-only, exclusive rich-boys club that was the European Super League has lost its steam, though it remains optimistic for a future revival.   -  Getty Images

In an already tumultuous world, the announcement of 12 top European clubs to cut their umbilical link to the game and their fans to open an invitation-only, exclusive rich-boys club — the European Super League — on April 18 sent the football world in even more despair.

The 12 founding members — Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur from England; Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona from Spain; and Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan from Italy — proposed a 20-team midweek European competition that offered permanent spots to 15 clubs [three more clubs were expected to join the group of 12].

TIMELINE - A dramatic rise and swift fall of the European Super League

“The Super League is a new European competition between 20 top clubs comprised of 15 founders and five annual qualifiers. There will be two groups of 10 clubs each, playing home and away fixtures within the group each year. Following the group stage, eight clubs will qualify for a knockout tournament, playing home and away until the single-match Super League championship, in a dramatic four-week end to the season. Games will be played midweek, and all clubs will remain in their domestic leagues,” a statement from the clubs read.

There were protests outside the stadiums of every English club in the fray, while in a symbolic gesture, multiple Liverpool supporter groups removed banners from the Kop that had been put up in support of the team in the absence of fans.   -  AFP

 

Condemnation was swift and wide as fans — especially those from England — led the fightback against the clubs. There were protests outside the stadiums of every English club in the fray, while in a symbolic gesture, multiple Liverpool supporter groups removed banners from the Kop that had been put up in support of the team in the absence of fans. “We, along with other groups, will be removing our flags from the Kop. We feel we can no longer give our support to a club which puts financial greed above the integrity of the game,” fan group Spion Kop 1906 said on their social media handle.

The fans of the Reds’ biggest rival Manchester United, too, echoed the same feeling, and the Manchester United Supporters Trust said: “A ‘Super’ League based on a closed shop of self-selected wealthy clubs goes against everything football and Manchester United should stand for. We urge everyone involved in the proposal, including Manchester United, to immediately withdraw.”

Sentiments from other English clubs were similar. With players and coaches lending their voice to the movement, the ill-fated move had very little chance of success, though the two main drivers behind the movement — Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and Juventus’ Andrea Agnelli — stayed defiant.

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Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was quick to distance himself and his team from the decision of his club.

“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,” he said. “I have said many times, I want the best and strongest competition possible, especially the Premier League. And it’s not fair if one team fights to make it to the top and then cannot qualify because success is just guaranteed for a few clubs.”

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez said the move was about saving football. “We have to explain to everyone that this is not a league for the rich clubs. It’s a league to save all the clubs. Otherwise, soccer will die,” he said.   -  Getty Images

 

The continental body — UEFA — and the world body — FIFA — were scathing in their criticism and indicated a threat to debar the clubs from their domestic competitions and players of the clubs from participating in international matches. “They will not be able to represent their national teams at any matches,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin warned. “UEFA and the footballing world stand united against the disgraceful self-serving proposal we have seen in the last 24 hours from a select few clubs in Europe that are fuelled purely by greed above all else.”

But for Real Madrid president Perez, who saw the club’s profit plummet from €38 million in 2018-19 to €330,000 in 2019-2020 because of the global pandemic, this move was about saving football. “I saved Madrid, now we have to save football,” he said in a television interview. “We have to explain to everyone that this is not a league for the rich clubs. It’s a league to save all the clubs. Otherwise, soccer will die.”

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The proposed league had been underwritten by a funding of €4 billion ($5.5 billion) from American bank JPMorgan Chase and had suggested a solidarity payment of €400 million to distribute among UEFA’s 54 national federations, which receive a combined €130 million from the continental body currently.

However, not many were convinced, and City and Chelsea — pressured by the unrelenting fan protests and distress among players and coaching staff — were the first English clubs to dither, announcing their move to break away from the project. Other English clubs soon followed, apologising to the fans about their misjudgement. The two Milan clubs and Atletico, too, officially left.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was quick to distance himself and his team from the decision of his club. “...it’s not fair if one team fights to make it to the top and then cannot qualify because success is just guaranteed for a few clubs,” he said.   -  Reuters

 

Now a three-club cabal, the Greed is Good League — an appropriate moniker often used by long-time Sportstar columnist Brian Glanville — lost its steam, though it remained optimistic for a future revival. Perez, the chairman of the now-defunct endeavour, said: “Some of them, due to pressure, have said they’re leaving. But this project, or one very similar, will move forward and I hope very soon.”

But this was a victory for football, a victory for its soul, a victory for the millions who support the players and teams without asking for anything in return. Football, long commercialised, was back — even if it was for a few days — with the fans. In a world of many million-dollar transfer fees, agent commissions and astronomical player wages [Lionel Messi has a €555,237,619 four-year deal with Barcelona, where he is paid €138 million in wages and bonuses, a €78 million loyalty bonus and has a clause that saw him paid an extra €115 million to renew his contract in 2017], fans are probably the only thing still beautiful about the beautiful game. They have been pursuing a lone battle against the crass commercialisation of football. Closer home, fans of Mohun Bagan — with more than 100 years of legacy behind it — are embroiled in a tussle with the club’s new owners, Kolkata Games & Sports Private Limited, to remove ATK from the name that was prefixed to “Mohun Bagan” after the investment in 2020.

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This has been a never-ending battle.

“If there is a positive to come from this situation it is that the power of supporters has been recognised in all its glory. Stopping the proposal was your victory — you showed you cannot and must not be ignored,” Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson wrote to fans.   -  Getty Images

 

However, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, who has been sorely missed as the club stuttered from one ignominy to another on the field, had the perfect words to soothe the frayed nerves of the supporters.

“It is good that Liverpool withdrew, and the concept has collapsed. That’s good for football. It’s also good that our owners, via John Henry, have apologised unreservedly. What matters now, for the team and the club, is that our relationship with our supporters is strengthened on the other side of this. We must make sure we protect the close bond that’s been so critical in bringing the success we’ve enjoyed over the past few seasons. The bond between fans and players,” he wrote. “If there is a positive to come from this situation it is that the power of supporters has been recognised in all its glory. Stopping the proposal was your victory — you showed you cannot and must not be ignored. Trust me when I tell you that message has been received loud and clear at our club and there is an acknowledgement we have to work as hard as we ever have done to earn your trust again.”

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The powers and governors of football will do well to remember these words in the days ahead.

Football world unites in condemnation

“Fans of any club in England and across Europe can currently dream that their team may climb to the top and play against the best. We believe that the concept of a European Super League would destroy this dream.” — English Premier League

“I’m disgusted. It’s an absolute disgrace. We have to wrestle back power from the clubs at the top of this league and that includes my club.” — Former Manchester United captain Gary Neville

“We, the coaches, are ready to coach the clubs. I have no doubt that the club will make the best decision for what is best for the future of the club.” — Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone

“In light of today’s reports on the subject of a so-called breakaway league, ECA as the body representing 246 leading clubs across Europe reiterates its stated commitment to working on developing the UEFA Club Competitions (UCCs) model with UEFA for the cycle beginning 2024 and that a ‘closed super league model’ to which media articles refer would be strongly opposed by ECA.” — European Club Association (ECA)

“Plans for a European Super League would be very damaging for football and we support football authorities in taking action. They would strike at the heart of the domestic game, and will concern fans across the country. The clubs involved must answer to their fans and the wider footballing community before taking any further steps.” — UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson

“The President of the Republic (Emmanuel Macron) welcomes the position of French clubs to refuse to participate in a European football Super League project threatening the principle of solidarity and sporting merit.” — France’s Elysees Palace

“For me, it’s absolutely unacceptable what is going on behind the scenes. Nobody wants it — not even the fans of the clubs who want to go there want it.” — Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl

“I do not recognise my club (Arsenal) and what happened just now, with them trying to join a league that would have been closed, makes no sense to me. They have been running the club like a company, not a football club, and they showed their hand. Maybe it’s a lack of understanding of the core football values and maybe the money was too big of a temptation. Whatever it was, they got it wrong. Badly wrong.” — Arsenal legend Thierry Henry

“It was born dead. From the start, I couldn’t believe it would work. The most surprising in all that was the English behaviour. Everybody dreams of destroying the Premier League in Europe. In England, we do it ourselves. I can’t understand the rationality behind that because England voted for Brexit and now they want to bring a Super League. England has the strongest league. The Super League would destroy, 100 per cent, the Premier League.” — FIFA’s head of global development Arsene Wenger

“It is absolutely necessary. The biggest clubs create the most financial resources and we must have our say in deciding how the earnings are shared. We are keeping a prudent stance. It is a necessity, but our club members will have the final word.” — Barcelona president Joan Laporta

“I’ve been really disappointed with the clubs who got involved in it, but the people have stood up. It’s the people’s game, it’s not for billionaires. It’s for everybody and the people have shown what it means to them.” — West Ham coach David Moyes