It came as a surprise to none — bar the 12 football clubs involved in the creation of the situation — when soccer fans like myself went absolutely berserk April 18. True to their outspoken reputation, soccer fans made themselves heard around the globe in extreme and explicit fashion. From internationally recognized pundits to fans who run Instagram stan accounts for their favorite clubs, football fans were in agreement about one thing: the European Super League (ESL) undermines the very nature of what makes soccer The Beautiful Game.
The new league consisted of 12 “founding clubs” — famous teams from Europe’s top leagues like F.C. Barcelona of Spain, Manchester United of England, and Juventus of Italy. The proposed league, which would ultimately have 15 permanent members made up of the best and richest clubs in Europe with a rotating cast of five other teams to complete its play-off style structure, might have some wondering what the big deal is. After all, a “Super League” sounds pretty good, right?
Wrong. Fans have directed anger at the ESL for two major reasons: the first, and more obvious, is that the creation of a super league is really just a blatant ploy for financial gain from some of the richest sporting teams in the world. Forbes reported that, while all 12 of the founding members rank among the 20 richest clubs in the world and are worth an average of $2.28 billion, they stood to win hundreds of millions more just by joining the ESL.
The ESL was bold enough to designate a payment of more than $4 billion to its founding clubs in order to “support their infrastructure investment plans and to offset the impact of the COVID pandemic.” But, the COVID excuse is not valid since thousands of other (and smaller) clubs have been dealing with the same hardships. Further, the ESL champion was set to bag $470 million, nearly four times the current UEFA Champions League (Europe’s traditional elite club competition) purse.
The second major objection to the Super League is to its proposed structure which would have seen 15 of Europe’s most elite clubs as permanent members. Yes, the 12 founding clubs have distinguished legacies complete with hundreds of trophies and some of the finest footballing moments ever, but the fact of the matter is that several teams don’t live up to the strength of their name on the field. Though it pains me to say it as a fan of theirs, one example is the English club Tottenham, who have claimed only one major trophy in the past thirty years. Beyond skepticism about the quality of the founding ESL teams, the real qualm with the idea of permanent teams is that it takes the fun, passion, and competitive struggle for greatness out of the game.
There is a sense of majesty in competition that is unique to European football, and is often lost on American viewers. American sports leagues like the NFL and NBA host large playoff tournaments for large profits, which often include teams with losing records. However, for soccer clubs with decades of history, there’s a tangible offense to the idea of profits over performance. This financial-focused shift, spurred by the American owners of some of Europe’s best clubs, was a slap in the face to teams and fans who value hot-blooded competition and the rivalries and history behind it.
Equally unfamiliar to American sports fans is the idea of relegation; that a set amount of the worst teams at the end of the season, typically three, are knocked out of the top league and sent down to the one below it, while the best three teams in the lower league move up, replacing the relegated sides. In 2021 alone, this system has provided its fair share of drama. Schalke, a club which had been in the top division of German football for 30 years, was tearfully relegated this past week, while Norwich, a club which has been on a tear in England’s second division, clinched promotion to the Premier League (along with the millions that comes with it). With a relegation system that only puts five teams at risk, rather than all twenty, this drama would have been all but lost in the Super League. Moreso, this lack of relegation ensures prolonged financial gain for the founding clubs. All of the benefit, with none of the risk.
It seems this unfair and unfettered greed on the part of the clubs sat well with exactly no one, though. Fans all over Europe showed up online, and in person at stadiums, to protest the creation of the ESL, none more pointedly than the supporters of the founding cubs themselves. Facing massive retaliation from their supporters, English teams Chelsea and Manchester City were the first to drop out of the ESL April 20, just two days after the initial announcement. By April 25, all but two of the involved clubs renounced their participation in the league.
It was shocking to watch the prompt caving of a league reportedly three years in the making. In just a few days, the footballing public (including the ESL founding clubs’ own players and coaches) managed to dismantle a multi-billion dollar operation proposed and backed by the world’s most popular and wealthy soccer teams. . The onslaught of in-person protests, calls for accountability, and the threat of a boycott en masse was too much for the Super League to handle.
This situation proves doubly shocking to informed fans, who are all too aware of how fan displeasure around the rapid commercialization of The World’s Game has not fazed clubs nor soccer federations alike, rather they have basked in it. So while I’m overjoyed at the self-implosion of perhaps the most distasteful situation in soccer since “parking the bus,” I’m also left wondering, “What’s different this time?”
The swift and unilateral response from the footballing world is a clear signal that, despite the massive financial inequity plaguing soccer, fans still have the power to pave a fairer and more fun way forward for the sport. Following this example, perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to say that soccer might one day leave the pockets of the ultra-wealthy and once again belong to the world.