The discussion surrounding the proposed Super League for European soccer now has lasted a day longer than the league itself.
Unofficially, of course.
When the six founding members from England’s Premier League declared that they no longer intended to be part of the project, Super League was placed on life support with essentially no chance at revival. Juventus president Andrea Agnelli told Reuters that the project could not continue without Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
“I remain convinced of the beauty of the project, of the value it would have added to the pyramid,” Agnelli said. “But I don’t think that project is now still up and running.”
The Super League is no more, even if no one in authority yet has called the time of death.
Here’s a look at what that might mean:
What was the Super League?
The idea was to take the 15 most powerful clubs in European soccer and conduct an annual continental competition that effectively would have supplanted UEFA’s wildly popular Champions League.
It was backed by an American bank and was expected to generate more revenue for the members — and, of course, guaranteed involvement — than the current Champions League.
There were to be 15 founding members, with five qualifying on an annual basis. Only 12 were involved at the start, though, as Germany’s Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and France’s Paris Saint-Germain declined to be involved.
One reason cited for its launch was the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cost all world soccer clubs significant revenue in terms of gate and ancillary stadium income.
How and why did the ESL crumble so quickly?
The simple answer is that it united such a broad constituency that it became untenable for those in charge of the 12 founding Super League clubs to continue. The ESL concept was met with resistance from some of the most prominent figures in the game, from managers (Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola) to players (AC Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimović) to soccer analysts (Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville) to the fans themselves (who protested outside Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium and posted banners on Liverpool’s Anfield stadium gate declaring “R.I.P.” to the revered club).
The more intriguing element of this process, though, is how little vetting and market research appears to have been conducted regarding a maneuver that represented nothing less than a revolution in the way European soccer competition is conducted. It was a rebellion that was supported only within the boardroom from which it was launched.
The “Super League” concept has existed for years as a means for the sport’s most powerful clubs to gain concessions from UEFA regarding how the Champions League competition is conducted. But this time the founding clubs went so far as to announce its formation on the eve of UEFA presenting major changes to the structure of Champions League. They had to be serious about going through with it, and they were, until they couldn’t.
Did fan backlash alone kill the Super League?
As much as all the public commotion mattered — and it mattered a hell of a lot — the biggest blow might have been dealt when FIFA president Gianni Infantino threatened the Super League clubs that they could not “be half in and half out” of the global soccer landscape.
FIFA has control over global soccer in a way that is foreign to American sports fans and leagues, largely because of the importance of the World Cup. The championship to which an NFL player aspires is the Super Bowl. For many professional soccer players, as much as they may relish a Premier League or Serie A title or a Champions League title, the World Cup stands above all.
Infantino’s statement stood as a warning, mostly implied, that if clubs launched the Super League without a sanction that was not forthcoming, players for those teams might be ineligible for international competition that culminates at the World Cup.
“If some elect to go their own way, they must live with the consequences of their choice,” Infantino said. “This has to be absolutely clear.”
Anyone else have an impact?
According to Simon Evans of Reuters, the political response, which included a vigorous condemnation from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, might have been the most consequential in pushing founding members of the ESL to abandon the project.
It was not a difficult position for Johnson to take. Obviously fans of England clubs below the first division would be opposed, along with the 14 that were not invited. With fans even of the six English teams that were Super League founders vehemently opposed, Johnson could speak against the ESL to pretty much universal endorsement.
“We will put everything on the table to prevent this from happening,” Johnson said before Parliament. “We are examining every option from governance reform to competition law and mechanisms that allow football to take place.”
France President Emmanuel Macron also opposed the project publicly, but no team from France’s La Liga had agreed to participate. “The president of the republic welcomes the position of French clubs to refuse to participate to a European football Super League project that threatens the principle of solidarity and sporting merit,” the French presidency said in a statement to Reuters.
What fallout will there be for the clubs involved?
Edward Woodward resigned from his position as Manchester United executive vice chairman Tuesday, which was viewed as a result of the failed ESL initiative.
It is possible that the Premier League or UEFA could issue some sort of sanctions. But neither could afford to be too draconian without risking a possible reversal of fan sentiment to support their favorite clubs.
There will be plenty of public agitation about forcing owners who were involved to divest their interest in the various clubs. There is a public “FSG Out” campaign aimed at the Fenway Sports Group, owners of the Liverpool Football Club. FSG appears to have made a massive error by not alerting popular manager Jurgen Klopp of its actions in advance. But principal owner John Henry has overseen the revitalization of the club that sagged in the late 2000s, a resurgence that included LFC’s first Premier League title in 2020 and a Champions League title in 2019.
The public anger directed at him may explain Henry’s decision to become the only owner to date among the ESL founders to issue a personal public apology.
“I’m sorry, and I alone am responsible for the unnecessary negativity brought forward over the past couple of days,” Henry said in a video released through social media. “It’s something I won’t forget and shows the power the fans have today and will rightly continue to have.”
So what happens with Champions League?
The furor over Super League buried the announcement that UEFA had chosen to reform the Champions League as of the 2024-25 season into a 36-team competition that no longer will include a group stage.
The new arrangement is needlessly complicated but could produce more revenue for the clubs involved. It definitely will require more games of the players involved. The most they currently can play if they reach the Champions League final is 13. Under the new format, a team reaching the final would play 17 games.
Instead of the eight groups of four teams that currently comprise the core of the Champions League season, there will be one single league in which each team plays five home games and five road games, with teams seeded according to performance and each team’s schedule drawn at random.
The top eight teams will qualify for the round of 16 elimination stage of the tournament. The teams placed between ninth and 24th will play two-legged series to determine the next eight teams. The tournament then will proceed through the two-legged round of 16, quarterfinals and semifinals. The final will remain a single-game, super-bowl event.