‘Three Days in April’

An attempted move by the uber-rich to overthrow the spirit of Football – The European Super League

Denita Mendez (SRO 0604139)

M Vishwanath (SRO 0633082)

It has been a fortnight since 12 of the biggest names in club football announced their ‘departure’ from the status quo of UEFA Champions League, followed by their humiliated and apologetic return in less than 48 hours. Outside of major events like an Olympics or World Cup, very few sports news stories have dominated world headlines, nor generated such interest. The ‘proposed’ rebel competition managed to attract attention as much as the exposing of the FIFA scandal in 2015, if not more.

What is the European Super League?

The Super League, a multi-billion-dollar tournament to be played largely among a closed group of elites– Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur from England, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid from Spain, and Juventus, Inter and AC Milan from Italy– aims ‘to put the game on a sustainable footing’.

The structure of the league consists of 20 teams, 15 of which are the founders– the bigwigs from the world’s biggest leagues, which will be the permanent participants in the tournament, and will govern the organization–and 5 annual qualifiers. The clubs will then be made into two groups of 10 clubs each, playing home and away fixtures within the group; the games will be played mid-week and all the clubs will continue to play in their respective domestic leagues.

But the principal aim seems to be to upend the Champions League, the crown jewel among all competitions managed by European football’s governing body UEFA.

What made the clubs look for greener pastures?

The COVID-19 pandemic affected the world economy in ways hitherto undreamt of. Football was no exception. With games suspended for a quarter of the year and ticket and merchandise sales plummeting, clubs found themselves staring at their imminent doom, especially FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, neck-deep in debt. This is where the new league comes in.

Currently, domestic league positions decide who qualifies for the Champions League, whereas in the proposed competition, the big 15 are under no risk of missing out, and are guaranteed a steady stream of revenue. It is even reported that each founding member is assured of a whopping $400 million in exchange for a mere commitment to establish a ‘sustainable financial foundation’.

Why the uproar?

As expected, the announcement threw European football into a state of pandemonium. To understand why the idea is so widely hated, one needs to look at the status quo.

The UEFA Champions League as a business entity came into its current form in 1992 so that the richest and most successful clubs can siphon off as much money as possible from broadcast fees. While the previous system pitted champions against each other on an equal footing, with UCL, national federations have been allowed to enter multiple teams, with richer, bigger leagues sending more clubs to the tournament. And over the past 20-odd years, the format has been continuously tweaked to give bigger clubs a greater advantage and greater share of the loot. And where do they get this income from? The fans.

The investors failed to see the ‘twelfth man’ of every sporting entity- the supporters. They are the principal revenue generators of each club and games are just not the same without them; be it in the jam-packed galleries or on the million television screens that broadcast the game to red-eyed and jersey-clad supporters, a sport is nothing without its supporters, and football is no exception. To put it short, No club is bigger than its fans. UCL is a big hit due to the fan-favourites in different leagues coming against each other, and this does not happen every weekend. To get such ‘clash of the titans’ every week spoils the novelty and thrill associated with an inter-league tournament.

Inevitably, the spirit of the game is put on stake; football is seen just as a vehicle to increase shareholder wealth. Traditionally, clubs considered themselves to be public-spirited entities. Meaningful competition among them was seen as a meritocratic exercise and it didn’t really matter if they won or lost. In the past two decades, the scenario has made way to a skewed version of ‘survival of the fittest’. The affluent teams find themselves in a self-perpetuating cycle– funds flow from business houses, enabling them to buy good players; they win, make more money, buy better players, and win again, making more money, and so on. In the end, outfits are answerable more to investors and shareholders than actual supporters.

The UCL is worth over €3 Billion and the clubs believe that they are entitled to get far more than what they are given now for participating in the tournament. To achieve this, the top dogs had threatened UEFA and the domestic leagues with breaking away more than once, and sad to say, it did succeed. With the pandemic making things difficult for everyone, the usual tantrums failed to see goal and the kingpins announced their breakaway league. What rubs salt in the fans’ wound is that the oil barons and the American nabobs kept talking among themselves, keeping even the players and coaches in the dark.

The aftermath

As expected, the announcement of the new league met with strong words from the authorities and football supporters alike. Players and coaches of the rebel teams, including Liverpool Captain Henderson and Coach Jurgen Klopp lashed out at the idea and the team owners for not even letting them know about the plans. Football legends, including Gary Neville called the League as “the attempted murder of English Football” and many fans couldn’t help but agree. The British Government, headed by PM Boris Johnson described it as a ‘cartel’, and HRH Prince William personally intervened to help thwart the new plans.

The FIFA, UEFA and the domestic leagues also took it upon them to slap sanctions and other countermeasures on the ‘dirty dozen’. FIFA also proposed to ban the players of the clubs from playing in the world cup, the Euro Cup and the like. Serie A banned clubs that join private, unauthorised competitions. Three major clubs from the Bundesliga and the French League turned down the offer to join the ESL and after things caught fire, they released statements condemning the new move. This was followed by kerfuffle from both the supporters of the 12 clubs and the other clubs to which invitations were not extended. Fans are calling for the blood of the owners of the dozen, especially the ones of Arsenal FC, Chelsea FC and Manchester United and it won’t be surprising if they fail to retain their seats once the dust settles. 72 hours later, the people at the helm of the league had to announce that all plans were suspended. As of now, ESL won’t be a reality in the next three years.

The attempt to create the ESL is not something that has happened overnight. It has been three years in development, which makes the spectacularly incompetent manner in which it was unveiled to a shocked footballing world even more remarkable. This story is far from over.

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