Yesterday, once again, the prospect of a breakaway European Super League (ESL) reared its head. The proposal — to carve out a continental competition in which fifteen of the game’s elite clubs could never be relegated — was met with widespread dismay by those who love the game.
Despite a year that has shown just how vital fans are for the “spectacle” of football, it was the match-going fans that once again were of least concern. Instead, if the plans go ahead, the future of football will be shaped by television and advertising — an entertainment industry that the top clubs estimate will deliver them £300 million per year, far outstripping their current domestic and Champions League revenues.
It’s important to point out that the Super League isn’t an anomaly. It is, rather, a continuation of the path football has been traveling for a long time. Some would point to the creation of the Premier League itself in the 1990s, with the incentive of Sky television money, as the origin point. But there is something qualitatively different about the clubs themselves controlling the game — at least in the Premier League–era giants of English football like Newcastle, Leeds, Aston Villa, and even Super League “Founding Club” Manchester City have been relegated.
But it was only a few months ago that elite Premier League clubs tried to centralize control of the league’s voting structure through the Project Big Picture proposals. These would have reserved boardroom voting rights for the nine longest-serving clubs — conveniently encompassing all the current “big six” who now plan to break away to the European Super League. Project Big Picture was an attempt to strong-arm the rest of the clubs in England, particularly those in lower leagues struggling financially with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, into accepting a raw deal that would reduce their decision-making power within the game, but sweetened with the promise of desperately needed further funding.
In the end, it failed. There was too much pushback from within the Premier League, and even the two clubs which proposed Project Big Picture, Liverpool and Manchester United, voted against it in a unanimous rejection. But we now know that this was only the opening gambit. It was acknowledged at the time that Project Big Picture was floated in preparation for talks on a new deal between the European Club Association (ECA) and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) over the Champions League. It was, in reality, a precursor to the plans for a European Super League.
UEFA has similarly tried to bend to the big clubs with a reformed Champions League structure. After many months of negotiation, its proposals for an increase in the number of games played and teams qualified were set to be voted on today. Many of those who have now announced the European Super League and resigned from UEFA structures were part of the negotiations. The proposals were a concession to these owners — with the number of guaranteed games played in the group stages going from six to ten and overall games played going from 125 to 225. More European football between the big boys meant more advertising revenue in the coffers. UEFA also promised one place based on past performance, or “historic coefficient,” for a superclub who hadn’t qualified through their domestic league — the beginning of the attack on competition.
But it wasn’t enough. Andrea Agnelli — a member of the industrialist family that owns both carmakers Fiat and Italian champions Juventus — was the figurehead for the ECA’s proposals and their representative on the UEFA Executive Committee. He resigned to advocate for the Super League instead. His team, of course, also signed the statement of intent, alongside compatriots AC Milan and Internazionale, the aforementioned English big six, and the big three from Spain: Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atlético Madrid. These want-to-be franchises are now the most unpopular clubs in world football.
But after so many years where the game has seemed to be losing its soul to the market, why have the European Super League plans in particular struck a chord? Partly, it’s the absence of relegation — but there is something deeper here. After all, the financial structure of the modern game was increasingly leading to the same teams competing year in, year out. Instead, the European Super League has become a symbol for a much deeper malaise: as in many other sectors of our economy and society, it is a story of the big boys dominating and centralizing powers at the cost of everyone else. The ESL becomes a closed shop for an elite few playing themselves over and over, removing even the paltry amount of support for lower league football and ripping clubs from their communities to cement them as global brands who could, in reality, play anywhere.
How does a problem like this get resolved? Fan protest would be the go-to in normal times — German fans have won battles against issues that continue to plague the English game, such as Monday night football for broadcasting. Regular boycotts have impacted club coffers and the “spectacle” for TV viewers — with none of the attention-grabbing tifos and vocal support that make the Bundesliga an attractive television watch. English fans have similarly organized against ticket price increases, but without a sustained, nationwide campaign, the results have been limited. Regardless, such protests are likely to be minimal until COVID-19 dissipates, something the superclubs have no doubt considered.
There are more radical proposals too. For years, football purists have advocated the German model of fan ownership as the alternative to the soulless, corporate trajectory of the game. In this case, the early signs are that they may have a point — no Bundesliga club has yet joined the plans, with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund both releasing strong statements against the Super League. It remains to be seen if they find the prospect too lucrative to ignore in the long term. Barcelona’s fan ownership model didn’t prevent them from throwing their hat in the ring, but it is a much more limited structure, allowing only votes on a president. With the new Barcelona president elected, the club’s “socios” may find themselves shut out of this decision.
The idea of fan ownership is surely one whose time has come, however. Recent efforts by Newcastle United fans to establish a fund that can offer an alternative to a Saudi takeover should be welcomed by all who oppose the European Super League trajectory. It is absolutely clear that if football were democratized, if there were real fan ownership that delivered a meaningful say over the future direction of the game, the Super League would be dead in the water. The only alternative to a game dominated by corporate brands with little loyalty to the working-class communities which built them is a reassertion of those foundational values — and that can only happen if power is taken from the hands of those who see the game as little more than an excuse to profit.
In the meantime, the European Super League itself may well be blocked by the existing interests tied up in the game. FIFA and UEFA have stated that any players in a breakaway league would forfeit their right to represent their countries internationally, following a similar line to cricket boards in the 1970s and ’80s responding to the first Kerry Packer’s World Series and then “rebel” tours to apartheid South Africa during the sporting boycott. Players may well have to choose between the financial rewards this competition will promise and the glory a successful Euros or World Cup could provide.
Veiled threats have been made by domestic leagues that any places within their competitions could also be stripped — a Premier League without the big six seems implausible, but these are uncertain times. Interestingly, European governments and the European Union itself have come out against the proposals. In fact, even commercial interests seem to be less than convinced: Sky Sports offered its platform to Gary Neville for a blistering denunciation on Sunday. Many sponsors have yet to be forthcoming in their own support for the project — although it has now been confirmed that investment bank JP Morgan will provide $6 billion per year to finance it.
But the response to this problem cannot be to circle the wagons around the existing structures. The reality is the European Super League proposal is the inevitable conclusion of a road the game has been following for a long time: a small number of elite clubs which care more about selling an entertainment product than the history of the sport dominating football and narrowing the sphere of genuine competition. Even if the European Super League doesn’t transpire and is merely a threat or a bargaining chip, these clubs will continue to pursue their agenda within the game as it is. Yesterday felt like a decisive moment. Something much more fundamental has to change.
The tighter the grip of monopoly capitalism exercised by the biggest clubs, the more utopian talk of returning football to the working class becomes. But fans see football as their game, and they see it being taken from their hands by a moneyed elite, with big sponsors and broadcasters ruling the roost — and they are correct. Radical reform is now needed, and it will only be brought about by movements from below.