Explaining The European Football Turmoil To A Layperson: Is This The End Of The ‘Beautiful Game’?
Late night show host, and West Ham United fan, James Cordon became the latest popular name to denounce the formation of the breakaway European Super League (ESL). He follows the likes of United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson, ex-footballer David Beckham, and Manchester United’s legendary former manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who have opposed this ‘monopolisation’ of football.
— James Corden (@JKCorden) April 20, 2021
On Sunday night, as many as 12 leading European clubs – including Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan – announced the formation of a new midweek competition, the ESL as a direct threat to Europe’s long-standing premier continental trophy, the UEFA Champions League (UCL).
Why the uproar?
Fans and celebrities from across the world have condemned the ESL. The reason is that this new league ensures participation from these 12 founding clubs regardless of how they’ve performed in their respective domestic leagues. This unswervingly challenges the traditional European football pyramid of performance-based participation in continental tournaments.
Cordon compared it to the quartet of Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Saiorse Ronan and Viola Davis founding their own version of the Oscar’s, and ensuring that they get nominated each time, on a historical basis rather than merit.
Cordon even quoted the example of Leicester City FC, a not-so-popular club among non-regular football watchers. Theirs can be regarded as one of the most spectacular underdog stories in modern football, as they overcame all odds to win the English Premier League in 2015-16.
They have won as many PL titles as Liverpool and one more than Tottenham, both of whom will be guaranteed participation in the cash-rich ESL at the expense of promising clubs like Leicester.
What is the ESL?
A further three clubs are expected to join in these 12 founding members as the league ‘is intended to commence as soon as practicable,’ confirmed Real Madrid President and chairman of the ESL, Florentino Perez.
The clubs say that “the formation of the Super League comes at a time when the global pandemic has accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model. Further, for a number of years, the Founding Clubs have had the objective of improving the quality and intensity of existing European competitions throughout each season, and of creating a format for top clubs and players to compete on a regular basis.
Am told by well-placed source;
*Man Utd & RM “ringleaders”
*3 US-owned PL clubs “really mean this”, sold on the NFL model of closed league with star clubs/players driving value
*others see it more as leverage over UEFA – unhappy new CL format means £ shared among more clubs..
— Dan Roan (@danroan) April 19, 2021
U.S. investment bank JP Morgan (JPM.N) is financing the new league, providing a 3.5 billion euro ($4.2 billion) grant to the founding clubs to spend on infrastructure and recovery from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Reuters.
The reason it is happening now is because we have had a global pandemic, finances at the biggest clubs in Europe have been hit, according to Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol.
“I keep saying it is about money, and if you look at the finances, a club like Man Utd playing in the Champions League, they make between £40m and £80m on a good year if they win it,” he said.
UCL winner gets €82.4m
EPL winner gets €150m
— DIGITEX SPORTS🥇 (@DigitexSports) April 19, 2021
“If they play in this new competition, they get a cheque for £250m-£300m to begin with, then in the future they will get three times as much money a season as they get from the Champions League.
“You are looking at £200m-£250m in TV rights, they will be able to sell some of the rights to the games themselves on their own channels, the broadcast rights all over the world.”
According to reports, some of those involved in ESL call traditional supporters of clubs “legacy fans” while they are focused instead on the “fans of the future” who want superstar names.
ESL insists that solidarity payments will be boosted by £10bn Euros over 23 seasons.
The founding clubs insist that they negotiated in good faith with UEFA over new UCL, but really dislike the new 36 team format, which they feel is quantity over quality. They want consistency in the competition and feel the current system doesn’t work with too many predictable matches.
ESL figures have also reiterated that the Super League is not a ‘closed shop’, as five clubs will be invited to enter it every year, and emphasised the solidarity payments promised for the English and European football pyramids.
History of breakaway leagues
Reports indicate that Man United’s American billionaire owners, the Glazer family, along with chief executive Ed Woodward, who are pivotal in the formation of the ESL, have likened the breakaway league to the former club manager, Sir Matt Busby-driven change in the 1950s.
United had become the first British club to compete in the European Cup in its second season in 1956, despite opposition from the domestic Football Association. The ‘Busby Babes’ reached the semi-finals in 1957 and again in 1958, when their hopes were wrecked in the Munich air disaster in which 23 people were killed, eight of them United players, according to the Manchester Evening News.
The very comparison with the pioneering Busby, almost killed in his quest to take United to the peak of European football, is bound to offend time-served supporters. A United fan of over 60 years has already contacted the club to inform them he is ‘finished’ with United if they enter the Super League.
The United hierarchy, in the face of backlash, have pointed out that the inception of the Premier League and the Champions League in the early 90s also drew scorn, before each competition generated enviable worldwide popularity.
With the development of modern-day football in the 2000s and transfers worth hundreds of millions in the years to come, former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, in 2009, had already foreseen the formation of a super league within the next decade. He cited the pressure of revenue generation on the Europe’s elite teams as the catalyst for this development.
A few years later, FA Cup-winning Man United manager Louis Van Gaal though, had shook off any interest in a super league. He said the ones looking to incept such a competition are thinking only commercially and not in the overall interest of the game.
The pandemic is finally considered to be the trigger for the latest development. Over the course of the last 12 months, football clubs like Madrid and United have lost hundreds of millions of pounds in matchday revenue, behind closed doors. The ESL is considered to be a step in the direction of recovering these large sums, but at the cost of neglecting the smaller clubs.
Fan reaction to the breaking news on Sunday was of utter shock and heartbreak. The biggest football subreddit r/soccer, with 2.5 million members, has had almost 14,000 comments calling out the ESL’s elitism. The most upvoted comments feature a big f*ck you to each of the 12 clubs from their own fans.
Man United fans making their feelings clear at Old Trafford. pic.twitter.com/z3sDrfmtj0
— Martha Kelner (@marthakelner) April 19, 2021
Supporters Trusts of all the six English clubs involved immediately released statements against the formation of any such league.
— James Pearce (@JamesPearceLFC) April 19, 2021
Some Manchester United fans even protested outside Old Trafford with anti-ESL banners while angry Liverpool fans also gathered around Elland Road ahead of their game against Leeds United on Monday.
Absolutely class from Gary Neville.
Speaks for almost every single football fan in the world right now. ✊
— Footy Accumulators (@FootyAccums) April 19, 2021
Eight-time Premier League winner and Sky Sports Pundit Gary Neville was one of the first public figures to openly denounce the ESL in multiple impassioned monologues. He called on for pundits from across channels to come together with the fans, the authorities and other stakeholders to reclaim the game, which has always been developed by the working class.
“I haven’t seen one football fan who is happy about the decision and football is ultimately for the fans.”
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) April 19, 2021
Active players from Leeds United wore shirts saying ‘Football is for the fans’ while warming up for their fixture against Liverpool. Even Liverpool veteran James Milner came out vocally against the prospects of a closed Super League.
Bruno Fernandes endorses Daniel Podence’s post celebrating the Champions League pic.twitter.com/SokDTsNcee
— Samuel Luckhurst (@samuelluckhurst) April 19, 2021
Earlier, Man United’s star playmaker Bruno Fernandes was the first player from the ‘founding members’ to speak up in favour of the Champions League. He endorsed Wolverhampton Wanderers player Daniel Podence’s post on Instagram, saying ‘dreams can’t be bought.’
UK Government & UEFA unite
The announcement of the Super League came hours before UEFA was due to discuss the impending reforms for the UCL, which will come into effect from 2024. The Champions League will be expanded to 36 teams, taking the total number of matches from 125 to 225.
The reforms were seen by many as part of an attempt to reach a compromise with the clubs in favour of a breakaway competition, by offering them more matches and broadcast primetime. But clearly the reforms didn’t impress the leading clubs enough.
UEFA, the English Football Association, the Premier League, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), LaLiga, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) and Lega Serie A have today released a statement.
Read it in full here: 👇
— UEFA (@UEFA) April 18, 2021
UEFA in its meeting on Monday proposed a ban on all the Super League players representing their national teams at the Euros and the World Cup. President Aleksander Ceferin described the Super League plan as a “spit in the face” of all football lovers.
Britain’s sports minister Oliver Dowden announced on Monday that the country will do everything possible to block the league and is examining options to penalise the six English teams that have signed up.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quick to object to the plans on Sunday, and Dowden said the government would seek to block the project if football authorities could not.
“If they can’t act, we will,” he told parliament. “We will put everything on the table to prevent this from happening.”
Clubs like Ajax and Everton, along with football associations of several European countries like Denmark, Norway, and Turkey etc have also condemned the formation of the Super League.
What happens next?
UEFA’s Executive Committee member Jesper Moller on Monday said that Real Madrid, Chelsea, and Manchester City could be thrown out of this season’s Champions League due to their involvement in the Super League. Even Man United and Arsenal could be disqualified from the Europa League semis.
But Perez continued to demonstrate complete faith in the law. After all, these founding clubs would’ve studied all possibilities before making their announcement.
“Real Madrid, Manchester City, and Chelsea will not be banned from the Champions League or domestic leagues. Impossible, I can assure you of that. 100 per cent, it won’t happen, the law protects us. This is impossible,” said Perez.
He also told a Spanish TV show: “We are doing this to save football at this critical moment.”
The decision to create the new league was in part taken because “young people are no longer interested” in the game.
Speaking for the first time since the league was announced, Mr Perez said: “Audiences are decreasing and rights are decreasing and something had to be done. We are all ruined. Television has to change so we can adapt.”
One school of thought argues that UEFA is no saint when it comes to helping smaller clubs in terms of returns. A comment, attributed to Germany and Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos, has been going viral on Twitter in the recent days.
“These competitions [UEFA Nations League etc] try to absorb everything financially, and they also squeeze the players physically. But I am a big fan of leaving things as they are when they are going well. The leagues are already hugely demanding along with the Champions League, the World Cup etc.”
Despite the opposition from the majority of fans, some argue that the ESL could be good for football, if executed properly. It will take control back from the UEFA, who have been heavily criticised for their lack of action against issues like racism, poor refereeing etc.
In fact, key FIFA and EPL meetings are due to be held later this week and could decide the future of continental European football soon. FIFA is considered to be planning a Club World Cup of its own, comprising a number of the ESL founding members, and might just back the new breakaway league against the UEFA.
The English and French governments will also play a key role in this saga. Their calls for a fan-driven review of the game might not bode well for the super league’s plans. The best case, but unlikely, scenario for fans would be the exit of owners like the Glazers from England. Enough has been said in the recent days to suggest that football is still considered the working class’ game in Europe.
There is little clarity when it comes to the timeframes for the super league. It will all depend on conversations with the UEFA, FIFA and domestic football associations. Clubs still want to continue participating in the UCL in the event that the ESL does not go ahead in the next season.
There is obviously a lot more drama left to unfold in the days to come. Stay tuned; we’ll be bringing you up to speed on everything that transpires.