Last week in football was the craziest week in the sport’s history. Forget any matchweek of the Champions League or World Cup, or even the corruption scandals and arrests that swamped FIFA and UEFA throughout 2014 and 2015 – last week topped anything the sport had to offer.
The week began with the news that no one thought would ever be a reality: 12 of Europe’s biggest clubs had formally announced that they would form their very own ‘Super League’. This effectively meant that these so-called ‘Super Teams’ could form off their own exclusive league, with 15 serving as permanent members, whilst the remaining 5 spots in a 20-team league would be filled in on a promotional basis.
Safe to say, it was met with criticism across every front. From fans, to pundits, to league officials, to FIFA and UEFA officials, and even to world leaders, hardly anyone was on board for the idea that, founding chairman Florentino Perez alleged, would ‘save football’.
It didn’t take long for the league to completely capitulate on itself. Within 72 hours, all of the English clubs (the traditional ‘big 6’) had pulled out, owing as much to fan pressure as well as executive pressure. English clubs all released apologies and statements on their decisions, none more infamous than John Henry’s apology to Liverpool fans for his actions in coming up with the idea. Soon, the dominoes began to fall, as the Italian clubs began to pull out of the arrangement, as well as Atletico Madrid, leaving only Real Madrid and Barcelona left licking their wounds, and a defiantly stubborn Perez insisting the league is not dead.
In perhaps the most concentrated display of fans, media and executives uniting, The Super League was stopped in its tracks, if not dead, certainly incapacitated for the foreseeable future. But why was this Super League such a terrible idea, and how did this combined effort and uniting force kill it in its crib?
The Near Death of Football’s Competition
“It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed or it is not a sport where it doesn’t matter where you lose,” Pep Guardiola, the first manager to publicly criticise the Super League before its abandonment, famously said in his first press conference since the announcement of Manchester City’s role as a founding club of this league.
Avoiding the nitty gritty details of the make-up of the league, City were one of the 12 of what was to be expected 15 founding clubs of the league. These purported 15 clubs all would have had permanent residence in the league due to their historical pedigree (or unlimited bank accounts), and thus would never have run the risk of relegation or elimination from the league.
Football as a sport is built on promotion and relegation in its leagues. Pyramids across Europe are designed to give every team even just a fighting chance to make their way among the world’s elite, before potentially joining these clubs as some of the world’s best. The English pyramid, hailed as one of the best in the world, is the reason why a club like Leicester City could get promoted into the league, barely survive their first season, then miraculously win the league title in their second season since promotion. Now, they’re within a few games of qualifying for next season’s Champions League and look to be a regular competitor for years to come.
On the contrary, the pyramid also leaves no margin for error for even some of the most famous clubs in the world. Looking at England as another example – Aston Villa are a big club when you factor in their history prior to 1992, with them having even been European Champions at a point in their history, which cannot be said for nearly half of the ‘Super Teams’ that tried to form The Super League. Yet, despite their status, due to poor performances on and off the pitch, Villa were relegated in 2016, and it took them three years to claw their way back into the league. The point is clear: just because a team may be big, or have history, doesn’t give it a right to avoid relegation. Guardiola is absolutely spot on in saying that sport loses its point without any competition and where success is guaranteed.
The same teams losing and winning over and over again in the Super League was sure to happen and the thrill of fighting off relegation and fighting for promotion would have been gone, thus sucking out the essence of football.
A Super League already exists – it’s called The Champions League
UEFA are no angels, and they certainly had a dog in this fight, with their premier club competition being threatened by the very mention of this Super League. The Champions League already exists as a way for Europe’s best teams to battle it out and see who comes out as top dog.
But what’s the difference between that and what the Super League would have been? It’s easy – you have to qualify for the Champions League.
Each league is granted a certain number of places for teams to qualify to enter the Champions League, based on a complicated system of coefficients for each footballing association. It is true that nominally these spots are occupied by the biggest clubs, but this isn’t always the case. Manchester United, as an example, have been inconsistent in their qualification since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, whilst Arsenal have failed to qualify since 2016. Over in Italy, AC Milan – the second most successful club in Europe after Real Madrid – haven’t qualified since 2013, whilst smaller clubs such as Atalanta are becoming regular participants.
Though the Champions League is elitist in nature, merit is still the driving force behind its system. No team is guaranteed a spot no matter how large their pedigree is (though the new proposals beginning in 2024 may put a stop to this, but that’s a story for another time).
The magic of the Champions League comes from the rare occasions where you can see your favourite club battle it out against Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, PSG and the like, making the nights that much more special. Prior to COVID, European away nights for fans were special – how often would someone from Naples get the opportunity to travel to Madrid to watch their beloved Napoli play in the Santiago Bernabeu. European nights were that much more special because of their rarity in matchups, and because they were earned. The Super League saturates to the point where it would become dry, stale, and dull. And that’s ignoring the cost it would pile onto fans for them to consistently have to travel across Europe, who are already suffering financially due to COVID.
Everything about the Super League, particularly from a European competition standpoint, is just plain wrong.
All Forces Came to Play, but the Fans were the decider
Money plays the biggest factor in football. It was the motivator for the creation of this league and the motivator for its death. Who knows how much the exiting clubs were paid by UEFA, FIFA and their respective associations to scrap this idea? Media pundits all rallied against this idea, none more passionately than Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. But they’re employed by Sky Sports, who have a vested interest in keeping the current status quo.
That was all well and good, but why did these stakeholders with ulterior motives fight so hard against this league? Pressure from the ultimate stakeholder – fans.
No fans equal no money. This rung truer no times more than when this league was announced. Fans were sent into a furore, viciously protesting this league across social media and outside of stadiums. Their voices were heard loud and clear by all in football. When push came to shove, these clubs realised that they weren’t going to get anywhere near the support they’d expected, they abandoned ship. When fans demonstrated their willingness to fight the league, it gave UEFA and the like the encouragement to stand firm against the proposals, and possibly buy back their loyalty.
In no sport does fan culture play a bigger role than football. The sport has simply lost its magic since COVID hit, with the quietness of the stadiums ruining the atmosphere of games. The roar of the crowd when a goal hits the net, their creative chanting of players both as insults and appraisals, the popping of flares and Tifo walls decorating the stadium with colour and art – all forms the most important aspect of a matchday experience.
No sport other than football do fans get talked about as akin to their clubs. There is no other sport in the world where fan channels on social media become associated to their clubs. It’s the most watched sport in the world for a reason, because the fans and the people are as much a part of it as anyone else. Every single coach, player, executive, referee were all fans at one point, and the power of the fans was demonstrated in forcing hands to move to get this league in the grave.
It’s clear that fans can have an impact on all aspects of football. They could even force out corruption eventually, turning the game back into their hands for good. Anything is on the table, given the effort displayed in what was a chaotic, dramatic three days.
Truly, football is the sport of the people.