On Sunday, 12 of Europe’s biggest soccer clubs said they were going to form a new league to offset the losses suffered from the coronavirus pandemic. By Wednesday morning, the idea was scrapped after two days of furious backlash.
(CN) — The world of soccer: In three days, it went from shock to fury to joy. In three days, Europe’s biggest soccer clubs became the biggest losers.
On Sunday, 12 of Europe’s richest and most powerful soccer clubs – among them Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Juventus – rocked the soccer universe by announcing plans to compete among themselves in a new league fashioned more along the lucrative American sports model of closed, and more business-friendly, leagues.
By Wednesday morning, after an outpouring of fury and faced with an avalanche of legislative and legal fights, the 12 clubs – all of them from Britain, Spain and Italy – had retreated and scrapped plans – for now, at least – to form the new league.
With billions of dollars in lost revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic, Europe’s big clubs said they needed to urgently find a new model to not only revive their finances but also bring excitement back into the sport. They argued this new league, called the European Super League, would do just that.
Imagine it, they argued: Every week, Europe’s biggest soccer stars battle it out as they gallop from one big stadium to the next across Europe. Their critics imagined something else: Even bigger TV contracts for the few, more sponsorships for the few, the biggest stars and clubs getting even bigger. Others imagined their old “local” teams becoming even less local as the new league goes global with the potential entry of New York- or Los Angeles-based teams into the Super League. Fear this, critics said: The biggest European teams, already worth billions, reap even more profits as they play the must-watch games week in and week out and leave scraps for everyone else to survive on.
The proposal landed with a gigantic thud and unleashed a tidal wave of condemnation from fans, soccer rivals, former players, government leaders, soccer officialdom and celebrities. Even the House of Windsor expressed its disapproval through Prince William.
“I’m heartbroken by it, genuinely heartbroken by it,” James Corden, the host of “The Late Late Show” and a Londoner with a passion for soccer, told his American audience. “I’m heartbroken because the owners of these teams have displayed the worst kind of greed I’ve ever seen in sport.”
His favorite team, West Ham, was not one of the six English clubs in the English Premier League joining the new league.
The clubs getting on board with the Super League were pilloried.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly declared to the head of the Premier League that the new league was “anti-competitive” and that he would like to “drop a legislative bomb to stop it.” Other government leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, came out against the idea.
UEFA, the union of Europe’s soccer associations, and FIFA, the world soccer association, fiercely denounced the project. UEFA threatened to ban the breakaway clubs from competing in national leagues and even said players on those teams would be kicked off national teams. Huge legal fights brewed.
“I cannot stress more strongly how everyone is united against this disgraceful, self-serving proposal, fueled by greed above all else,” UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin declared, opening a nasty fight with some of soccer’s most powerful team owners. Team owners blasted UEFA and said its Champions League, Europe’s top cross-border tournament, was failing the sport.
Fans were shocked and furious. In Britain, they showed up at stadiums to express their disgust. Protests broke out on Monday when Liverpool arrived in Leeds to play a match. Liverpool was under fire for joining the new league and Leeds United players sported T-shirts that read, “Football is for the fans.” Leeds was not part of the Super League.
Outside the Leeds stadium, where the game was played before empty stands because of coronavirus restrictions, fans gathered and held signs. One read, “RIP Football.” The slogan “Created by the poor, stolen by the rich” was spray-painted on banners, expressing a sentiment that soccer was born among common people but is dominated by the wealthy today. In London, an Arsenal fan displayed a handmade banner at his team’s stadium that read “Shame on You … RIP Arsenal” and added a hashtag symbol next to the name of team’s owner, American billionaire Stanley Kroenke of the Walmart empire. Arsenal was part of the Super League.
Americans also own Liverpool and Manchester United, two of the other six British teams signing up for the new league. The Fenway Sports Group – the company that also owns the Boston Red Sox – purchased Liverpool and the Glazer family – also the owners of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers – bought Manchester United. Meanwhile, an American hedge fund, Elliott Management, owns AC Milan, an Italian squad among the 12 clubs in the new league, and U.S. banking giant JP Morgan Chase reportedly was the project’s financial backer.
Marc Edelman, a law professor specializing in sports at City University of New York, said in a Forbes column that the idea of a new soccer league likely was modeled on the U.S. franchise system of lucrative closed leagues. He said that model brings big profits to team owners by centralizing property licensing, garnering huge television contracts and pressuring cities to build publicly funded stadiums.
“The very features of the new Super League that cause controversy in Europe make the structure desirable to investors with U.S. sports experience,” Edelman wrote.
He’s talking about a big difference between what happens in the U.S. and Europe: When a European soccer team sinks to the bottom of the standings, it gets relegated to a lower league and the best teams in the second-tier league jump up into the top league.
In American terms, this would be like minor league baseball teams getting a chance to play in the major leagues and, vice versa, the worst in the big leagues getting the boot down to the minor leagues. It’s hard to imagine, but this would be like the Buffalo Bisons taking the place of a failing Arizona Diamondbacks.
In truth, the proposed Super League would not be an entirely closed system. It envisions 15 permanent teams and five others joining it based on their performance at national leagues. While the 12 teams that signed up for the Super League were among the best, many other top teams – most notably Germany and France’s top squads, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain – were not in the mix.
In defense of the Super League, Florentino Perez, who is both the head of the new league and the president of Real Madrid, said the new tournament would allow Europe’s big clubs to survive.
Claiming the pandemic had cost the clubs about $6 billion in losses and that the future of soccer is bleak with falling interest in the sport among young people, he argued the new league would save Europe’s beloved sport.
“We’re on the edge of ruin,” he said in an interview on Spanish television. “We don’t want the rich to be richer and the poor poorer. We have to save football. Everything I do is for the good of football, which is in a critical moment.”
Perez said the Super League was designed to boost interest in soccer by featuring top quality competition.
“There are lots of games of little quality; we have to change this sport to make it more attractive at all levels,” he said. “Real Madrid versus Manchester United is more attractive than Manchester [United] against a more modest team.”
He argued that the profits from the Super League would filter down to all the other clubs and help the entire sport. The Super League games were planned to be played during the week and not interfere with the regular weekend games of the national leagues.
His claims were rejected by many who see soccer’s woes in a different light and decry the dominance of a few big clubs in a few cities in a few countries.
“Year after year, the same clubs that reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League are repeated,” wrote Jordi Mas Elia, a law and politics professor, in a blog post written in Spanish for the Open University of Catalonia. “The creation of a Super League would only consolidate inequalities caused by the old system itself. What the uproar of the last few days indicates is that perhaps the system does need to be reformed.”
For the past three decades, he said European soccer has lost its regional diversity with the demise of smaller teams in an era of TV where profits went to larger-market teams. The collapse of Eastern Europe’s economies after the fall of communism saw strong teams there fade and other changes favored the biggest teams.
Some, though, see the future of soccer nonetheless taking on the American model.
“Whatever comes of the Super League gamble, a tournament in which top European teams regularly face one another is likely to happen in the end, because it is in the interest of clubs, broadcasters and, yes, viewers,” wrote Jon Sindreu, a Wall Street Journal columnist.
He argued that market realities will prevail and pointed out that European soccer revenues are below those of America’s major football, basketball and baseball leagues even as they enjoy larger fan bases.
“Critics of soccer’s commercialization make little sense with their appeals to the grass-roots game,” he continued, “which has already been marginalized by high ticket and pay-TV prices, schedules that hurt game attendance in favor of overseas viewership and, above all, massive financial inequalities.”
By Wednesday, with plans for the Super League in tatters after the English squads said they were dropping out, the new league said in a statement that its proposal was “fully aligned with European laws and regulations” and that it wasn’t scrapping the idea but would “reshape the project.”
Many in the soccer world expressed relief over the U-turn by the Super League teams.
“Well done football fans. This beautiful sport is nothing without you,” said Cesc Fabregas, a former Arsenal midfielder, in praise of the furious backlash from fans.
“We’ve got our ball back,” said Gary Lineker, a former English soccer great and TV presenter.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.