It's about a week now since the European Super League was announced. It died a rather swift death, of course - or not - but the memory is still ripe. The reaction was pretty much an outcry against the greed of the so-called elite, even as the elite themselves highlighted their ambition. But then, do the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspurs really belong among Europe's elite? Arsenal were eighth in the Premier League last season and are 9th this season. Spurs had a good year under Pochettino but have fallen back into being a Europa League side. Along with Atletico Madrid, these are three sides that have never won the Champions League, which is the competition the Super League was supposed to replace.
Meanwhile over in Italy, the Milan clubs also signed up for this league. The last time Inter Milan won the league was in 2010, and they have waded through some terrible seasons before Antonio Conte has brought them back to title contention. Even as this season's Serie A champions elect, their recent history has hardly put them into the bracket of Europe's top teams. AC Milan's strong early-season title charge notwithstanding, the Rossoneri have been unspectacular recently. They're set to finish in the top four this season, and will make a return to Champions League after nearly a decade out. Are these the so-called best sides in Europe?
There is a lot that is wrong with the concept of the European Super League. The perceived notion of superiority notwithstanding, it's the closed form of the league that raised furore. The structure of the league was that there would be 15 founding members who would never be relegated from the League. 5 other teams would join on a rotational basis based on their league performances. This meant for those 15 clubs, European football would be confirmed every season.
In a closed league, there is no sense of jeopardy. If you are certain to remain in the league despite the quality of performance, then what motivates the squad to excel? Week in, week out, a club can consistently lose every football game. Yet, next season, they'll still be there. There is no motivation to improve. For owners like Arsenal's Stan Kroenke and Manchester United's Glazers, whose main aim is business, that would reduce the need to spend more money towards the squad. They wouldn't have to invest in order to keep the club in the top tier of football. It's hardly what the fans would want to see.
Yesterday, West Ham United welcomed Chelsea to the London stadium for a Premier League encounter. The beauty of football is that this was a pivotal game for the top four battle. When the season began, no one expected West Ham to do any wonders. They just about escaped relegation last season, and began this one with a torrid loss to Newcastle. David Moyes's reputation has never escaped the rock bottom he achieved as Manchester United's pick to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson. But contrary to popular thought, West Ham have pushed above their weight and established themselves as genuine contenders for a top four finish. The arrival of Jesse Lingard on loan has further spurred them on.
A sense of competition
West Ham and Chelsea began level on points, with the West Londoners ahead on goal difference. A tense encounter was settled by Timo Werner, who scored the most important goal of his Chelsea career so far. Chelsea showed they wouldn't need a European Super League to prove they're good; they can do that on the field itself. West Ham, meanwhile, will go again next week, still hoping to gatecrash the top four. But this is the unpredictability that would be missing from a closed league. The fight the Hammers have put in would be worthless if it was a closed shop at the top with no way in. There would be no fairy tale stories either. Southampton, Burnley and Wolves are among the teams who have defied odds to qualify for European football in recent years.
Sticking with Chelsea, their match-up against Real Madrid is another such example. Chelsea vs Real Madrid is a rivalry that doesn't really exist. These two sides have hardly ever been drawn against each other. The European history of this match-up is limited to a Super Cup in 1998 and a European Cup Winners' Cup in 1971, both won by previous incarnations of Chelsea. This is a Real Madrid team that has immense European pedigree with the likes of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema. It's not supposed to be easy to get to this tie. Thomas Tuchel's side have earned this match-up on their merit, and it is so exciting because it is rare.
The formation of the European Super League was, in essence, a rogue act. The stakeholders decided to create their own competition without consulting, or at least notifying FIFA, UEFA or the ECA. Instead they only announced it all right at the end. And once it all was all official, the clubs left the European Club Association (ECA), further cementing the idea that this was certainly a breakaway. The 12 clubs affirmed their intentions to stay in the domestic leagues, but how long before the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus decide it's too much of a burden to play the likes of Burnley, Cadiz and Spezia week in week out?
That's the point here. Who would govern a self-governing body? Who would keep track if rules are being followed? They could decide to make radical changes like Florentino Perez's suggestion that games should be shorter to catch the attention span of 16-24 year olds. There's no one to oversee that.
Lack of Connection to Fans
Clearly, megalomaniacs like Florentino Perez lack any real connection to fans. He boldly claimed that 16-24 year olds were put off by the length of the games and were uninterested in football. Now, not every 16-24 year old in the world is devoted to football, and why should they if it doesn't interest them? But football is the most followed sport in the world, and there are millions of fans in this age group who travel long distances and forget sleep to watch their favourite team play.
Fans of the teams aren't just from the home country, but from worldwide. Here in India, I stay awake till 3.30 AM to watch Champions League games. In the US, it's early morning. Why would we prepare for watching games at such absurd timings if we were not devoted and interested in our teams? It's the folly of these executives to imagine what the fans need without actually consulting any of the fans. Perez defiantly claimed after the fall of the European Super League that there were only 40 fans outside Stamford Bridge in protest, and indicated they were all planted by detractors like La Liga President Javier Tebas. Defiantly he continues to espouse the European Super League. He was joined by Barcelona, who indicated their decision to stay even as clubs withdrew, and Juventus, who have said they'll wait until further developments.
As always, there are reasons why the clubs did indeed sign up for the European Super League. The pandemic has affected every club in the world. Clubs have registered losses due to lack of matchday revenue. Mediapro, the media giant televising matches in France, went bankrupt. This has caused huge losses in revenue for French sides. Indeed, Bordeaux went into administration after their owners decided not to fund the club anymore owing to pandemic losses. Clubs like Arsenal and Spurs have taken huge loans from the Bank of England, while the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid are suffering big losses and debts.
With all that in mind, the financing provided by US banking giant JP Morgan seemed like a boon. It would bring these clubs out of the red zone and allow better investment into the squad. This would have a knock-on effect for the non-ESL clubs too. As the top clubs invest more into buying players from smaller clubs, it allows the selling club to gain much-needed revenue for improving their own clubs. This point, of course, doesn't always hold. The Bundesliga is an example of that. Bayern Munich regularly buy the best players from other clubs, creating their own monopoly in the league. The likes of Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig all have remained far behind Bayern. Lewandowski, Hummels and Götze were all poached from Dortmund. Neuer, Goretzka, and now Alexander Nübel from Schalke, Süle from Hoffenheim and Pavard from Stuttgart. What's the guarantee it'll keep everything ticking?
UEFA just as culpable
UEFA themselves are no saints. In fact, the furore they raised over this issue wasn't out of the goodness of their hearts. It was not out of concern for the fans or the game itself. UEFA were furious because they themselves would face huge losses of revenue. Broadcasters would revolt if top clubs left the Champions League. Who would watch a competition without the global fanbases of top European sides? Not many. It's the expected loss of revenue that spurred UEFA into action. Where's this energy when there are incidents of racism in the game? If UEFA had been this active in countering racism, then we would have seen perpetrators punished heavily and sanctions issued. Alas, money is the only thing that speaks to them.
In fact, masked by the outrage against the European Super League, UEFA passed amendments to the Champions League format from 2024. There'll be 36 teams instead of 32, and no groups. The Swiss format will be applied to a single league, and each team will have 10 group stage games to play. With players fatiguing under the stress of football games already, adding four more games is hardly a good thing. All it will do is sound a death knell to a historic competition like the League Cup in England. This is not a good format, and already people have begun speaking against it, like Thomas Tuchel. This is another money-grabbing move by UEFA, and the suggestion of keeping two spots open for clubs with great history who couldn't qualify through the league is just as outrageous as the European Super League.
There's really nothing new in breakaway plans. Through the ages, there's always been some sort of breakaway talk, and sometimes they have come to fruition. Way back in 1888, a consortium of clubs had broken away to form the football league. A century later, 22 clubs would resign from the Football league in 1991 in preparation for the Premier League's formation.
When the European Cup began, there was a similar outcry to its formation, with the notion that non-champions should not play it. Manchester United were offered a spot in 1958 after the Munich air disaster, and the English FA debated punishing them in some form. In 1992, that transformed into the Champions League, another move made for money-making. In the 1980s, English football's then "big-five" - Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham and Arsenal - held similar talks along with Manchester City and Southampton. Once again, in 1998, the same clubs met for another round of such talks. This is just the latest incarnation, and the outcry is just the same as always.
As one might expect, the reaction was violently against the Super League, particularly in England. UEFA threataned to ban the participating players from international football. The leagues discussed moves that included expelling the clubs from the league structures. The Premier League clubs who weren't included in this brought out statements denouncing the European Super League.
So did the Supporters' Trusts of all six Premier League clubs involved. Jordan Henderson led a meeting of Premier League captains and released a statement condemning the move.
Both Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp spoke out against this inspite of their clubs' involvement in the European Super League.
One of the most important, and inspiring sights was outside Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea were slated to play Brighton in the league. Contrary to Perez's count of 40, there were actually close to a 1000 fans outside Stamford Bridge.
Some of them were even fans of other clubs. There was a moment, where Chelsea legend and current Technical Director Petr Cech came out to the streets and pleaded with the gathered supporters. He asked them for time, and urged them to clear a path for the team bus to arrive. About half an hour later, the news came through that Chelsea had moved to withdraw from the European Super League. Manchester City soon followed suit, and the rest fell like dominoes soon after.
Roman Abramovich and Manchester City's owners did not buy the clubs for profit, unlike the Glazers or Stan Kroenke. They have, instead, pumped millions into the club. They joined the European Super League not because they were convinced by the vision, but because they didn't want to be left behind. Faced with fans' protests as well as harsh words from the players who weren't consulted, both pulled out. For the rest, it was a matter of saving face.
All the clubs have put out statements by way of apology, but it will take a long time before fans trust the boards again. For now, the structure of football and the jeopardy of competition survive. But there's the sense that it won't be long before another plan comes to fruition.