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The European Super League: What is it and why is it so controversial?

On 2nd November 2018, German news magazine Der Spiegel released a series of emails that unearthed plans to create a European Super League starting in 2020. Their ground-breaking discovery quickly spread among media outlets across the continent who were shocked at just how developed discussions for a new league were. If the proposal is going to be implemented, it will be the biggest transformation European football has ever seen. Any movement towards the plan however will be met with widespread resistance and a struggle that could stretch on for many years.

During a period of time in which there are plans to play La Liga matches in America, there seems to be an increasing effort to shake things up in football as we know it. In the modern footballing era, the idea of a European Super League doesn’t sound remotely farfetched and it’s not a plan that will likely be going away. Subsequently, the concept of a European Super League will be a long-lasting concern of many football fans so here we take a look at what exactly it is and why it’s likely to prove so unpopular.

The Format

Eleven clubs were named as the founding fathers of the European Super League (ESL) in leaked documents. These include big sides from England (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United), Spain (Real Madrid, Barcelona) Italy (Juventus, AC Milan), France (PSG) and Germany (Bayern Munich). The 11 named sides would be permanent players of the league, making them ineligible for relegation for a 20 year period. Five other clubs would join the league on a rotational basis. For the first season the plan is for this to include: Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Roma and Marseille.

Country Club Status
England Arsenal Founders
Manchester City
Manchester United
Spain Barcelona Founders
Real Madrid
Atletico Madrid Rotated
Italy Juventus Founders
AC Milan
Inter Milan Rotated
Germany Bayern Munich Founder
Borussia Dortmund Rotated
France Paris Saint-Germain Founder
Marseille Rotated

The sixteen teams involved would be divided into four groups of four. Those finishing first or second in the group would make it into the quarter-finals and by this point the competition would become a straight knockout. Sports data analyst company Gracenote predicted Barcelona would have a 27.6% of being crowned champions with Juventus next in line (22%). In order for teams to get the chance to compete for the elite title, the idea of a second division has been under consideration. Those in the lower league would play the five rotational teams in order to win promotion to the Super League.

At this point it would appear that the ESL is intended to replace the Champions League rather than replace current domestic leagues. Without many big sides present, the Champions League would cease to exist as of 2021 while the Europa League would be able to continue. It’s unclear what the impact would be, if any, on domestic leagues but it didn’t stop the UK government seeing it as a threat to the national game. In an official statement they said they would oppose any plans that threatened the culture of sport in England.

Benefit for big clubs

Man in Suit Drawing Increased Revenue

Owners of the big clubs will know that the formation of an ESL will not be a popular one, so what is the driving force behind their interest? The answer to that of course is money. Big clubs in La Liga used to earn eight times that of the smaller sides but in 2016-17 the gap shrunk to 4:1. In the Premier League, overseas broadcasting money is divided equally as is 50% of domestic TV money. Only the remaining 50% is dependent on league finish and how many times a team features live on TV. In the 2017-18 season this resulted in league champions Manchester City receiving £149m while relegated and far less popular Swansea took home a still sizeable £98m.

There have also long been efforts in the Champions League to ensure the smallest clubs end up with a decent paycheque. For the 2018-19 season it was announced that €488m would be handed out evenly to the 32 teams that reach the group stages. For teams that fail to qualify, they will each receive a solidarity payment from a €107.5m budget. There are handsome performance related bonuses up for grabs but big clubs sometimes fall short of expectation, leaving them out of pocket. The system may seem fair to most but some owners of well-known sides will feel their pull and success is not rewarded enough.

Not only can big clubs avoid sharing the spoils with minnows with the creation of an ESL but there is another benefit too. Teams like PSG, Juventus and Bayern Munich who have entered a period of domestic domination will receive the chance to play more high-profile fixtures. PSG versus Dijon and Bayern versus Hannover doesn’t attract a large global audience but PSG against Bayern just might. An increase in perceived big matches is something that could help with player recruitment, fan base expansion and of course an increase in revenue.

Legal implications

Hammer and Gavel

The emails unearthed by Der Spiegel raised legal issues that may confront the founding clubs of the ESL. Perhaps the main concern was that Super League clubs may be liable to compensate UEFA for their loss of revenue. UEFA certainly wouldn’t let the Champions League be replaced without a costly and (most likely) lengthy legal battle. Another issue may arise from domestic leagues punishing clubs who breakaway. How they would do so is open to the imagination and the players themselves could be penalised in some way too. Under current UEFA rules, clubs must allow players to represent their countries but under an ESL, this may no longer be a legal requirement.

Where do the clubs stand?

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge by Dirk Vorderstraße, flickr

Interestingly, most clubs have remained silent on the issue. While this cannot be taken as firm evidence of their interest in the plan, it is a little curious why they have not chosen to distance themselves from the proposal. This is something Bayern Munich did, with Karl-Heinz Rumenigge, one of the named major players in developing the idea, saying he is “confused by the coverage.” He later went on to suggest the club may take legal action against Der Spiegel as the story contains “half-truths and untruths, which do not correspond to the facts.” Only time will tell if this is just an empty threat from a man deeply involved in the story.

Der Spiegel initially suggested that Manchester United and Arsenal were the two English clubs keenest to push the idea along. Contrasting reports have since emerged however stating that the same pair are involved in resistance to the formation of an ESL. At this point it could just be a face-saving job from the two Premier League outfits who won’t be popular among their fans if seen to be promoting the plan. Real Madrid president Florentino Perez hasn’t said anything new on the issue but in 2009 stated that, “we have to agree a new European Super League which guarantees that the best always play the best – something that does not happen in the Champions League.”

Initial reaction

Thumb Down Red HandThe immediate reaction following the unveiling of the plans was one largely of indignation. Voices from all over the footballing world joined together to lambast the idea, often with a particularly firm choice of words. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said he would fight such plans, adding that Juventus versus Bayern every week would be more boring than Juventus against Torino. His example would suggest he believes that the ESL would see the break-up of Serie A, again highlighting the lack of clarity about the future of domestic football if the plans were indeed to go ahead.

The Association of European Leagues also voiced their strong opposition stating that a closed shop would have “serious and lasting implications for the long-term sustainability of professional football in Europe”. Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp took the news more lightly, joking that more money and less games seemed like a great idea. The German talked more seriously afterwards showing absolutely no desire to alter the current structure of European football. Perhaps the biggest portion of resistance to an ESL has come from the journalists and fans. Almost all articles and comments published on the matter are critical of it, with the consensus being simple: ‘no thanks’.

Glamour ties appear to have little sway for local fans who primarily want to be able to see their club play at their home stadium. The idea of an ESL could well see more matches played abroad in order to attract overseas fans, alienating home-grown fan bases. It would also risk the future of many cherished derbies that involve one elite side and one side deemed not good enough to join the ESL. Many football supporters believe that the game would lose its soul by adopting such a proposal and some would choose to abandon their clubs altogether, such is their disgust towards the idea.

An idea unlikely to go away

The state of the modern game only makes the idea that teams would sell out their local fan bases for some extra cash seem all too probable. Many clubs have foreign owners who are more than likely to prioritise money over anything else. Arsenal’s biggest shareholder, Stan Kroenke is perhaps the best example of this.

St Louis Rams NFL Game
Image by Paul Sableman, flickr

Owner of the St Louis Rams, he moved the club all the way from Missouri to Los Angeles, changing their name in the process. Moving to a much more populous place made sense from a business perspective but left fans in St Louis to mourn the departure of their local team.

The vague notion of some sort of Super League has roots dating back to the 1998 but it was in 2009 when it came to the forefront of attention thanks to Florentino Perez. Seven years later Stephen M Ross supposedly met with five Premier League clubs to discuss plans for a breakaway league but the recent leaks show more developed ideas than anything we’ve seen previously. A start date of the 2020-21 season is likely to be far too soon given the challenges that face a potential ESL but with so many powerful figures in on the plan, it’s not something you should expect to hear the last of.

Will we see a European Super League?

The European Super League is more than just a vague notion but many details still need ironing out. The implications for the Champions League as well as domestic leagues are not entirely clear, nor is it obvious which teams have given their backing to the idea. Public reaction to the proposal has been immensely negative for many reasons but this is not to say talks will not continue behind closed doors. Der Spiegel’s investigative team deserve praise for their discovery but there are still plenty of questions that remain unanswered. At this point you can probably say we will not see a European Super League starting in 2020, but do not rule it out ever happening given the financial opportunities it will provide to the biggest clubs in Europe.