BE PART OF THE TEAM

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 12°C Thursday 13 May 2021
Advertisement

The Super League has collapsed at the end of 'football's craziest 48 hours' - What happens now?

We look at why the Super League proposal collapsed, and the changes it may bring to football.

A banner hung outside Anfield.
A banner hung outside Anfield.
Image: Jon Super

FAREWELL, THEN, TO The Super League (2021-2021), which has collapsed 48 hours after its late-night launch under the weight of its own arrogance and stupidity to ambient howls of fury and, ultimately, laughter.

If you don’t follow the day-to-day machinations of European football administration and are wondering why this has cut through to dominate the news media this week, understand The Super League as the parable of a gilded but greedy few seeing their daft plans for domination foiled by a scale of people power that left them slinking away as ashen-faced, humiliated fools.

The plan was a product of the deeply complex and volatile power dynamics across European football, but its collapse can be explained fairly easily: it was a bad idea that everybody hated.

Let’s start with the first part of that epitaph.

The Super League left ‘European’ out of the title and neglected most of Europe in its make-up: there were 12 named founder clubs, six of whom were from England with three each from Italy and Spain.

The principle the elite deserve to be sealed off from the rest of Europe by virtue of their quality and status was undercut by the fact that the notion these sides are the 12 best teams in Europe is laughable. Instead they were a coalition of sides acting out of a mixture of greed, desperation, FOMO and, in Spurs’ case, a George Costanza-style mingling of arrogance and insecurity.

And like the team selection for a GAA match programme submitted four days before the game, they left three ‘founder’ spots for AN Other.

The Super League has been a long-mooted idea largely used as a bargaining tactic, but this has reportedly been in development for months, with outgoing Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu announcing it in his valedictory address last October.

If it had been in development for months, its launch was remarkably cack-handed.

A press release was sent after midnight European Central time, and it had all the narrative depth of the back of a cereal box.

Their Twitter handle was the cumbersome @TSLComms as somebody had already taken @TheSuperLeague, the logo seemed to have been designed on MS Paint, and the Guardian later found an unpublished document hidden in the website code.

They announced the format of the competition with 15 permanent members and five external qualifiers; that the clubs would aim to remain in their domestic leagues; that the founder clubs would get a chunk of €3.5 billion for signing up; and that while the clubs were detaching themselves from ‘the ‘football pyramid’, they claimed they would be sustaining it as they would be kicking down more money to everyone else in Europe than Uefa had been handing out in solidarity payments, given they’d be making as much as €10 billion.

What were these revenue projections based upon? Did they have a broadcast partner in place, for example? Would there be external oversight on the solidarity payments? For how long would they be guaranteed? Could these payments be increased or decreased on the whim of the clubs? How would they be distributed? Would the use of the payments be audited?

The42 sent that list of questions to the PR firm representing The Super League and received no response.

florentino-perez-defends-super-league Source: Borja B Hojas/AlterPhotos/ABACA

Then again, not many people connected to the Super League were saying anything. Ratio-minded Manchester United didn’t even tweet their statement confirming their participation, and none of the club owners came out to say anything until Real Madrid president Florentino Perez did a softball television interview on Monday night. (Again, it was after midnight Spanish time.)

Perez said it was necessary to pursue this league not only to bail Madrid and the other clubs out of the financial hole into which they are staring, but also to “save football.” Perez told us that young people are “no longer interested in football” given the abundant other distractions in their lives, at one point saying a 90-minute game is simply too long for their diminished attention spans. 

So, a single day after claiming the Super League would serve an audience of four billion, here was Perez’ justifying the breakaway as the necessary gambit of a dying game. Which is it?

Perez also denied that Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were even invited to join in the first place. That was a dubious claim, but let’s take it on its merits: how are these guys supposed to run a continental competition having forgotten to invite Germany?

Florentino was set for another interview the following night, but pulled out as his concept was dead, killed off by the sheer ferocity of its opposition at the end of what one long-serving English football executive described to The42 as football’s “craziest 48 hours.”

Literally everyone condemned it: Uefa, Fifa, domestic leagues, national associations, governments, coaches, players, supporters, Micheál Martin.

Uefa were blindsided by the announcement but played their cards cannily on Monday and Tuesday, with Aleksander Ceferin riding the public wave with stunning theatre, condemning those behind the breakaway as “snakes” and “liars.” (The Super League might at least have a decent board game if they break into merchandising instead.)

Ceferin was betrayed by Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, with whom he had cultivated a close bond – Agnelli was promoted to the Uefa board while Ceferin was made godfather to one of Agnelli’s children – partly through the pragmatism of trying to ward off a breakaway. As chairman of the European Clubs Association (ECA), Agnelli led the agreement of the reformatting of the Champions League which had been agreed two days before the breakaway was announced.

When the murmurings began about a breakaway on Saturday, Ceferin phoned Agnelli, who reassured him they were just “rumours.” Agnelli then turned his phone off, made the breakaway and resigned from the ECA and Uefa board. Ceferin, a former criminal lawyer who has served in the Slovenian army said of Agnelli, “I’ve never seen a person that would lie so many times.”

europe-soccer-super-league Ceferin (left) and Agnelli (right.) Source: SALVATORE DI NOLFI

Ceferin’s Monday fury was more nuanced by Tuesday, where he locked down Fifa’s support and extended an olive branch to the English clubs, targeted, according to one source, as Uefa believed the clamour of opposition among their supporters would ultimately be irresistible.

So it proved, and it was an opposition buttressed by the firm commitment of Boris Johnson to drop a “legislative bomb” to prevent the breakaway.

(As to whether Johnson would actually follow through on his promise is highly debatable – curbing private ownership and regulating spending isn’t exactly a founding Tory principle – but this was a PR gift from the heavens, given it distracted from those ugly Greensill/lobbying headlines and would also be a vote-winner among the former Labour heartlands he won with Brexit.)

Elsewhere, there were various reports of players confronting or rebuking their owners, while the Liverpool squad orchestrated a social media campaign against it as Pep Guardiola said the proposed relegation-less format was “not sport.”

Jurgen Klopp’s admission on Monday night that he hadn’t been told about the plans proved more seismic than initially thought: that the owners did not inform some of the most important people at their clubs about earth-shaking plans is utterly staggering.

Their play seemed to simply rely on an arrogant assumption of the market: that they would release wildly unpopular plans into the world, and that the great, irresistible tractor beam of money would pull it through any and all opposition.

Their faith was in the market and the market alone, a rationale that began and ended with the notion that their competition would make money.

That it failed is an important and potentially transformative lesson for football: it does not need to submit to the grip of hypercapitalism. Critic Mark Fisher coined the phrase ‘capitalist realism’ to describe the phenomenon in which everyone believes capitalism is the only viable economic system; likening it to a kind of gravitational pull to which everything – including professional football – must inevitably submit.

The remarkable resistance to the Super League showed that elite football does not need to be governed by this, that supporters may simply choose another way. This has kicked off fundamental discussions about what a football club is, what purpose does it serve, and to whom it belongs.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

There is a loud clamour in England to mimic Germany’s 50+1 model in which supporters have the majority say in the running of their clubs, and there may now be enough momentum to pursue it more vigorously than ever before.

It’s impossible to predict whether anything will substantially change, and perhaps these last few days will be remembered as a brief spasm of disunity before everything goes back to how things were. 

But this drama ultimately showed things can change. 

The club owners, meanwhile, have begun licking their wounds and issuing their grovelling apologies. There has been some bloodletting – Ed Woodward resigned amid the carnage last night – and there is likely to be calls from within the domestic leagues and Uefa for at least a change of personnel attending meetings, if not quite heads on plates.

The breakaway clubs have quite a decent consolation prize, mind: the Champions League has been remodelled to a bloated, 36-team competition with two places reserved for under-performing giants.

Will change be brought to bear here? 

Uefa are coming under pressure to take away these two spots, and perhaps the governing body will ultimately be forced to do so. They should, but at the moment there seems little appetite to punish the “dirty dozen” beyond allowing them experience the diminution of influence which comes with their failed gamble.

Agnelli and Juventus have lost their seat on the Uefa board, which has been taken by Karl-Heinze Rumminege of Bayern. PSG’s Nasser Al-Khelaifi is on the board too and has now been appointed as President of the ECA in Agnelli’s place. His club, and by extension the Qatar project, were one of the big winners of this, having turned down the breakaway.

(It made sense that they did – Qatar want exposure rather than profits at PSG, and the breakaway proposed a salary cap designed to allow clubs keep pace with PSG’s spending power.)

It is difficult to take the ECA seriously, though, given it has spent the last few months as a trojan horse for the breakaway.

It is accepted at Uefa that Ceferin’s trust in Agnelli at the head of the ECA failed as a tactic to ward off a breakaway, and it will be interesting to see how Uefa communicate, negotiate, and build relationships with clubs from now on. They may choose to follow the model they use with national associations, and communicate directly with individual leagues and/or clubs, which has the potential benefit of dividing and conquering ahead of the next mooted breakaway. 

To that end, it was interesting to see another Ceferin ally, Zvonimir Boban, this week appointed as a special adviser to the Uefa president, having previously worked as an adviser to Gianni Infantino around his Club World Cup plans.

And what of the saboteurs? What lesson have they learned from this astonishing parable?

Erm…

“I don’t think our industry is a particularly sincere, trustworthy or reliable one in general”, said Andrea Agnelli after everything came crumbling down.

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

Read next:

COMMENTS (18)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel