European Super League 2.0? How UEFA’s reformed Champions League is a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

On the 18th of April at 1pm, the story broke that 12 clubs were forming a ‘European Super League’ (ESL). Although the idea was met with some resistance on the continent, the backlash in England upon news of this announcement was comparably brutal.

By the 21st, all six English sides had withdrawn and Andrea Agnelli, the Juventus chairman, admitted it was “impossible” for the league to proceed.

Many football fans have long-accepted that their desires and the self-interest of their club’s owner are unlikely to co-exist harmoniously, but this push for profit and for a progression towards a ESL threatened the very foundations of truly competitive sport.

Games like Football Manager play on the dream of progression – taking Stevenage from League 2 to the Champions League is obviously fanciful, yet it’s reflective of a fundamental hope of every English football league fan. That great upsets can, and will, happen.

Marcelo Bielsa, the Leeds manager, once said:

“One of the reasons that football is the most popular sport in the world is because the weak can beat the powerful.”

The funding provided by the ESL would have been the final nail in the coffin of the dream of fans of several historically successful clubs, such as Nottingham Forest, that they may one day see their side return to their former glory and once more compete with the big boys.

Sure, the TV and sponsorship deals and external funding present at the top of the game may mean that the ESL merely proposed to formalise a structure already in place at the top of football, but at least with those, smaller teams have the prospect of one day rising to those same heights. The ESL would have created a monopoly for some of the world’s biggest clubs, where they would have exclusive access to a prize pool shut off from the world’s sporting team. Sporting merit would have been thrown out of the window.

However, was Real Madrid President, Florentino Perez, the spokesman and Chairman for the ESL, correct to suggest that the new league would “save football at this critical moment”?

The debt of the clubs looking to form the league is staggering. A report by KBMG Football Benchmark looked into the clubs’ finances in June 2020. Tottenham are top of the debt league with £591.8 million worth of debt, followed by Manchester United with £452.7million and then Juventus.

The chairmen of these clubs (Daniel Levy, Ed Woodward and Agnelli) are thought to be key individuals in the formation of the ESL. Coincidentally, Manchester City and Chelsea, the two clubs with the least debt, were the first to pull out and claim to have been swept up in the decision because they feared they would “miss out on the opportunity to play in such a potentially prominent league”.

Similarly, PSG and Bayern Munich never committed to the ESL – not because of their love of the game, but because their business model wasn’t debt driven. The question is; was this Super League, with a 200-300 million euro sign up package, a necessary evil for the top clubs to sustain themselves?

When Daniel Levy built the state-of-the-art Tottenham Hotspur Stadium with an NFL pitch underneath, he may even have been anticipating the hundreds of millions in income his business would receive upon joining the league. It should be noted that the ESL was not a sudden creation; it had been in the works for some time. These debt-ridden clubs may now not only have to face this loss of income from not joining the ESL, but also possible sanctions for their breakaway move, such as possible point deductions and demands for cheaper ticket prices.

The ESL was announced on the same day as the rival reformed Champions League.

What seems to have gone under the radar is one of the terms of this extended Champions League (which is set to begin in the 2024/25 season), which reads as follows:

‘Slots three and four: awarded to the two clubs with the highest coefficients that have not qualified automatically for the Champions League’s league stage, but have qualified for the Champions qualification phase or the Europa League’.

What this means is if a big side performs below their status, they will have a safety net; if this system was in place this season Tottenham (7th) and Arsenal (10th) would qualify for the Champions League ahead of West Ham (5th). In effect, this is a super league by stealth, retaining the familiar brand, while favouring the giant clubs who bring the most viewers to the competition.

Yet no one in the world of football seems to be complaining about this, or, for that matter, seems to have even noticed it. Perhaps they all have hangovers from celebrating the cancelling of the ESL too hard.

As much as I hate to say it, Florentino Perez may be right. Football is in crisis. Some of the biggest clubs are in the worst financial state and are sustaining themselves by increasing their stranglehold on the game. They’re burning money to stay at the top, and structures around them are being created to bail them out.

The ESL was staggeringly out of touch, but was an opportunistic decision, created by a group of individuals who felt their power on the world of football had no limits.

The last two seasons have been odd. Covid-19 and VAR have created an estranged footballing experience and the attempt to set up the ESL only served to remind us how far football has veered off its former path.

The hollow sentiments plastered around the hollow stadiums about how ‘We Can’t Smile Without You’ seem all the more shallow.

Your club is pretending to be the club you fell in love with, while it profits and builds off your passion in an attempt to appeal to a global market.

The collapse of the ESL has been hailed as a victory for football, but it is surely only a temporary reprieve. All whilst the world of football continues the ESL’s downfall, UEFA are subtly enacting changes that will take football in the same direction.

I guess it’s time to become a socialist and a Norwich supporter. Up the Canaries! Viva Karl Marx!

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Sam Randall

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May 2022
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