On April 18, the Manchester United bus entered Old Trafford amidst a palpable air of tension. Whispers were circulating rumours regarding the next big thing in football.
Football-wise, it was a normal Sunday. Chelsea had beaten Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-finals the day before to quash any talks of an unprecedented quadruple. Arsenal were set to take on Fulham in what was a match with significant implications on the battle to avoid relegation. Both the Madrid clubs, in a three-horse race for the La Liga title with Barcelona, were scheduled to play. Juventus, Inter, Milan, Roma, Atalanta, Napoli and Lazio were all on show on a packed Serie A match day.
But then, during manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s press conference, after his club Manchester United beat Burnley in the Premier League, the question was thrown.
“I am dealing with the news this afternoon, the speculation,” Solskjaer said. “I don’t think it is for me to comment on now. We just have to wait and see what happens.”
To be fair to Solskjaer, he was probably in the dark like all of us. His words suggested that no one outside of the owners and chief executives of the clubs in discussion knew of the details and timelines of the plan.
But in the evening, confirming the speculations, a formal statement was issued on behalf of the 12 founding members, announcing the formation of a breakaway European league called the Super League to rival, and possibly replace, the UEFA Champions League (CL).
The uproar over the announcement of a breakaway European Super League to rival, and possibly replace, the UEFA Champions League, cuts to the heart of who is football for?
The 12 clubs in question were Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Inter, Manchester City, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Milan and Tottenham. Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint Germain rejected their invitations to join the competition.
It is very rare for a news story outside of the Olympics, the FIFA World Cup or tennis grand slams to make as many waves in international media as the European Super League and the fallout that followed, did. And it did so for all the wrong reasons.
The Super League blueprint was designed to ensure that the 15 founding members would always be a part of the league. Five other clubs would be invited each season, based on their domestic performance, and quite possibly, their global following.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez was announced as the chairman of the Super League, with the president of Juventus, Andrea Agnelli, and the US-based owners of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal all named co-vice chairmen.
In the proposed format, there would be no concept of relegation or promotion; the biggest continental competition would be reserved for a group of pre-picked teams.
This design of the competition killed the foundational competitiveness football has been built upon. Underdog stories are a big factor which make the sport special for so many fans around the world, exemplified by Leicester City’s march to the Premier League title in 2016, Ghana reaching the quarter-finals in the 2010 World Cup and Greece winning the Euros in 2004.
This design felt like the big boys had decided to put an end to stories like these and ensure former Champions League regulars such as Arsenal (currently 10th in the Premier League) and Milan (currently in the race for the CL but who haven’t qualified since 2013-14) would remain in the competition.
With the big teams being guaranteed a seat at the biggest party on the calendar, there would be no real targets relatively smaller teams could aspire to. Currently, Leicester City and West Ham sit third and fifth in the Premier League table, both firmly in the race for the Champions League next season. In an alternate universe with the Super League, there would be no reward for their wonderful seasons. All their sponsorship issues aside, RB Leipzig is now a permanent in the Champions League, despite being founded a mere 11 years ago. This would never be possible in the Super League.
Participation in the Super League guaranteed an annual revenue of around €300 million for each team. Numbers like these would inflate the wealth of the elite so much that the rest of the teams wouldn’t be able to compete in domestic leagues. The Super League clubs would have all the top players, all the top coaches and managers, a monopoly on the football pyramid and an unopposable influence on footballing decisions. Especially at a time when smaller clubs are struggling because of the pandemic, this announcement sounded like a death knell for clubs down the pyramid.
Plans to formulate an exclusive league for the big names may have existed for almost three decades, but this announcement still felt like a bombshell drop. An outburst of critique and backlash from supporters, media personalities and even other clubs ensued on social media.
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson called an emergency meeting of the captains of all the Premier League teams to discuss how they were going to move forward. The meeting ended with him and several other Liverpool players posting a Twitter message with the words: “We don’t like it and we don’t want it to happen.”
Marcus Rashford, heralded as the torchbearer for social activism among the sporting elite, posted a picture on Twitter with the words: “Football is nothing without its fans.”
UEFA President Aleksander eferin threatened that the founding members of the Super League would be sanctioned heavily, that they might be disbarred from their domestic leagues and cups, and their players might be banned from representing their countries. The English Football Association, the Royal Spanish Football Federation, the Italian Football Federation and FIFA all backed up UEFA’s stance.
A day after the announcement, fans gathered outside Elland Road, where Leeds United were hosting Liverpool, to voice their dissent against the proposed league. During warm up, Leeds players sported shirts with the words ‘Champions League: Earn It’ and ‘Football is for the fans’.
On the first Tuesday, more than a thousand Chelsea supporters protested outside Stamford Bridge before Chelsea faced Brighton, delaying the kick-off in the process. The team bus was let in only on the assurance that Chelsea would pull out of the competition, the formal announcement a couple hours later met with ecstatic celebrations.
In parallel, smaller protests were organised outside the stadia of the other English clubs, where fans hung banners expressing their disgust at the decision of their clubs. Twenty or so even made it to Manchester United’s training ground, to make their feelings known to the management and players.
By the end of the day, all six English clubs had pulled out; Manchester United chief executive Ed Woodward resigned, and Arsenal even apologised to its supporters. On Wednesday, before their match with Real Madrid, Cadiz players warmed up in shirts with the words ‘Earn it on the pitch’. By Thursday night, only Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus remained standing, all other clubs having pulled out.
Perez has maintained that the European Super League is the way forward, as it revolutionises football for the next generation of football-lovers who are losing interest in the current format because of too many boring games. He has also suggested that the founding members cannot leave, and that the Super League will be back after modifications to the format.
It’s ironic — Real Madrid, a club that is almost synonymous with the Champions League and which has won the competition a record 13 times, is the staunchest ally of a concept that will nullify the Champions League.
While UEFA, FIFA and the domestic leagues must be applauded for their response to the announcement of the Super League, it must not be forgotten that they’re not averse to controversy — e.g. FIFA’s role in overlooking human rights violations in the preparations for 2022 Qatar; UEFA’s launch of the new Champions League format which will pack yet more matches in an already tight calendar and compromise player welfare; and the failure of the Premier League to punish the people responsible for the controversial ‘Project Big Picture’ presented last year.
Overall, it has been reassuring to know how big a say fans and players still have over their sport. A task force has been formed in England to review the ownership and financing of football clubs and supporters’ involvement. It is being touted as a chance to bring meaningful change as presented by the masses.
Moving forward, this might just be the beginning of fan representation in major decisions.
The writer tweets @tahagoheer
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 9th, 2021