There are few things that can unite almost everyone together behind the same cause, particularly not in football where rivalries run back several generations. Yet, on Sunday 18th April 2021, 12 European clubs managed to unite nearly the entire continent in opposition to plans to create what they called the European Super League (ESL).
This new league would see the biggest clubs on the continent compete in a separate league in addition to their regular domestic commitments.
It was met with an angry backlash from supporters, commentators, players, and managers. It was so controversial that the leaders of several countries weighed in on the matter. The French President Emmanuel Macron described the proposals as “threatening the principle of sporting merit” while British PM Boris Johnson said that it was “very damaging for football”.
Shortly after hearing the plans on Sunday, former Manchester United player Gary Neville said that he was “absolutely disgusted” with his former club and that the plans were evidence of “pure greed” in English football.
By Tuesday night, all six English clubs had announced they were withdrawing their support for the plans, with Atletico Madrid and Inter Milan following on Wednesday morning. Shortly afterwards, Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli said that the ESL could no longer go ahead.
Who Was the ESL For?
It seems pretty unlikely that European club owners didn’t know that their domestic fans would have been immensely unhappy about the plans. Just a few months ago, the same six English clubs had to back down from their “Project Big Picture” plans after just about everyone in the country came out against it.
But the ESL wasn’t aimed at these fans. It was an idea that would appeal to international audiences who didn’t understand (or even know about) the universal disapproval that the league had at home.
In the United States, football (or as they know it there, soccer) has gained much more interest than many had ever thought possible and the sport looks set to attract even more fans in the coming years. Interestingly though, the English Premier League attracts more US viewers than domestic Major League Soccer games do and in the growing US betting market, sportsbooks like Bet365 offer just as many betting options for European football as they do for domestic competitions.
Fans from the US, Asia, India, and elsewhere mostly know the biggest clubs from Europe. If they’re going to support a team, it’s much more likely to be Liverpool or Real Madrid than it is Watford or Eibar. So the ESL makes a great deal of sense for the fact that it would mean more games, more often between these big-name clubs.
In 2021, Liverpool played Real Madrid twice in the UEFA Champions League; before then, the two sides hadn’t faced off against each other since 2018. Before then, their last games were in 2014, then in 2009, and then 1981. The ESL would have changed that, meaning these big sides would meet every year, creating significantly more commercial opportunities for their owners.
What Did Everyone Object to?
The football clubs linked to the ESL already compete in the top flight of European football. They play in their own domestic leagues and cups, regularly qualify for the Champions League and Europa League, and have the opportunity to take part in the FIFA Club World Cup.
The one thing that each of these competitions has in common is that they are, at least to some degree, based on merit.
European football is built on a pyramid system that uses promotion and relegation to reward successful clubs and punish those that fail to live up to the playing standards set out in their league. At least in theory, this means a smaller club can go from a regional league to a national one like the Premier League in just a few seasons if they can play well enough.
In practice, this rarely happens, but occasional stories like that of Leicester City – a club that went from the English third tier to winning the Premier League in four seasons – keep this dream alive for other teams.
The ESL would remove the risk of relegation for its founding 12 members, giving them a permanent seat at the top table, allowing them to rake in money from TV rights forever.
Fans objected to this because it moves away from the very principle of football and shows that money is the key motivating factor for all those involved.
To any American sports fan, the concept of promotion and relegation seems absurd. The NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS all operate as a closed system. Teams remain in their respective league regardless of whether they win or finish last.
Most leagues even have a mechanism for narrowing the gap between the leading teams and the ones that are struggling. For example, in the NFL, the lowest-ranked team from the last season gets the first pick in the next Draft which, in theory, gives them the chance to sign the best player.
Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal all have American owners. Manchester City is owned by Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who also owns the MLS team New York City FC.
This US influence is clear in the format of the ESL. It’s designed to maximize the profits for the owners, regardless of sporting success on the pitch, just like the major US leagues.
This is ultimately where the plan has come undone. The two systems are inherently incompatible as the pyramid system is so ingrained into European football that it is near impossible to remove. Fans will always object to changes that threaten footballing traditions, and it will always be a huge uphill battle for promoters of such plans to get buy-ins from enough stakeholders.
The End of It?
While the ESL may have died less than 48 hours after being announced, this won’t be the last football fans hear of it. Just over six months ago, Project Big Picture was announced and scrapped in almost the exact same way.
There is a clear desire among the owners of the richest clubs to extract more money from their assets and they are likely going to continue proposing ideas until they get their way.
So while things may go quiet for a while, football fans in Europe should sit tight and wait for round three.