The world of football may never be the same again. On Sunday 18th April 2021, 12 of Europe’s biggest clubs came together to announce they planned to form a breakaway competition called the European Super League, circumventing European football’s traditional governing body, UEFA.
The traditional football governing hit out immediately at the proposed breakaway, threatening to fine, deduct points, expel teams from their domestic leagues, and ban players from international tournaments all being mooted. It is unclear whether any of this will happen, but the proposed Super League clubs have already petitioned European courts against the legality of banning players from international tournaments.
Football has been almost unanimous of their opposition, with reports suggesting that the Super League will give guaranteed spots to the main teams who take part, meaning that they will not be promoted or relegated, acting as a safeguard for future profits. Despite the backlash, a board member for one of the clubs suggested that the Super League clubs do not care and are fully focused on the potential financial rewards.
“Our job is to maximise our revenues. The wider good of the game is a secondary concern. The clubs don’t care about the backlash and opinions of the fans”.
“This isn’t a civil war, it’s a nuclear war. To be honest though the owners are not worried about bad PR, they were expecting it”.
What has happened?
Today (Monday 19th April 2021) UEFA were due to announce a series of wide-ranging changes to the Champions League, a Europe wide football tournament featuring the best teams across the continent. The changes were due to come into effect as an appeasement to several major clubs who had previously proposed a ‘Super League’, that UEFA soundly rejected back in 2020.
However, it appears that Florentino Perez, the President of Real Madrid, went behind the backs of UEFA in order to secure the support of some of Europe’s major clubs, forming a breakaway Super League that will run alongside domestic competition and largely usurp the existing Champions League competition. Perez had long been a proponent of a Super League system and was reportedly the main driver behind the plan that had been rejected by UEFA.
The plan was announced yesterday, just 24 hours before UEFA were set to announce the changes to the Champions League, and faced universal condemnation from footballing governing bodies, clubs, fans and even governments; Boris Johnson is reportedly working on options to try and prevent the Super League. One of the most prominent critics is former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson said;
“Talk of a Super League is a move away from 70 years of European club football. Both as a player for a provincial team Dunfermline in the 60s and as a manager at Aberdeen winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup, for a small provincial club in Scotland it was like climbing Mount Everest.”
In the day since it was announced, a number of the clubs involved, including Chelsea FC and Manchester United have both withdrawn from the European Club Association, the body that represents football clubs that are within UEFA. Manchester United’s chairman, Ed Woodward, has also resigned from his role on UEFA’s Strategy Council.
UEFA President Aleksander Seferin has since confirmed that UEFA will ban any Super League players from competing in international tournaments, which could include this year’s European Championships, with reports suggesting that the Super League plans to begin as early as August 2021.
UEFA has also subsequently approved their own plans for a renewed format for the Champions League, which will feature a system more similar to the Super League, but it has been overshadowed by the breakaway.
What are the planned changes?
The proposed changes are less changes and more unilateral action to take competition away from Europe’s elite footballing competition.
It is expected that the 12 clubs who have already confirmed they will take part, alongside potentially three other founding members, would be given permanent status within the league, unable to be promoted or relegated, in a system that mirrors the MLS football system in the United States.
However, there are expected to be five further spots given out each year based on a qualifying mechanism, perhaps for winning domestic leagues, or by a coefficient that calculates the best teams in Europe outside of the Super League.
This is what one of the major criticisms has been – not an opposition to a replacement to the Champions League that features a more traditional league format – but the permanent status of likely 15 clubs that are considered of special status. This is despite the fact that some of the founding members have not won titles in over a decade, and excluded clubs being more successful than some of those in recent years.
Will it happen, or is it a power play?
Some have suggested that the move is simply a power play by some of the big clubs to force UEFA’s hand in implementing a league style system into European football competition, forcing a watered-down version of the Super League to the top of the agenda.
However, given the backlash, it appears unlikely that clubs would be willing to sacrifice goodwill with their own fan base – from whom matchday attendance makes up a significant portion of revenue – simply for a power play to create minor changes.
Although the Super League has confirmed that they wish to work with existing governing bodies to make it work, it seems unlikely that they would cause this much of an earthquake unless they were completely confident that they could make the Super League happen and in the form they want it to take.
We likely will not know for some time whether the Super League will take shape as it is alleged to and whether the bans, points deductions and other proposed action will take place.
It is likely that governments will try to involve themselves in the matter and could throw significant weight behind the actions proposed by the Football Association (FA) and UEFA in order to force the clubs to back down. There will no doubt be protracted legal action, potential competition law investigations over the clubs acting as a cartel, and litigation by the Super League against any proposed bans.
This may result in the clubs backing down, but with the fees involved it seems unlikely that the clubs will reverse course, even if the playing staff at the clubs baulk at the idea of betraying the traditional roots of the sport they dedicated their lives to.
The clubs who have all planned this breakaway are: AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Arsenal, Barcelona, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Tottenham. 6 from the English Premier League, three from the Spanish La Liga and three from Italy’s Serie A. The big clubs in Germany and France have announced they will not take part, and Portuguese club FC Porto, announced that they had declined an offer to be in the Super League.
What happens next?
The likelihood is that there is little that can be done to stop the creation of the league. Although governments, particularly the U.K., where 6 half the current teams are from, are threatening severe action, including under competition law, it seems inevitable that the league will be created.
With some major teams refusing to take part, notably Paris Saint Germain, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – who would likely play in the current Champions League – there will be two different footballing systems within Europe. The Super League, with some of the figures being invested by major banks, including JP Morgan, will inevitably be the more financially powerful, and talented players could drift across towards the Super League clubs.
Alternatively, with the threats to remove the clubs from domestic competition and ban players from international tournaments, it is entirely possible that despite the allure of astronomical salaries in the Super League, players who wish to compete outside of the league will attempt to move to clubs outside of the system, potentially damaging the Super League teams.
With the Super League allegedly supposed to operate in midweek, with the teams remaining in their domestic competitions, there has been discussion of expelling sides from competitive domestic football. This would mean sides like Manchester City are simultaneously facing the biggest opposition in Europe, as well as competing in non-league football until they make their way back up the football pyramid.
This is a bizarre situation and probably won’t happen, and may see the final result being these clubs removed from domestic football altogether and the Super League operating as a separate entity.
Whatever happens will likely not be fully known for several months. Maybe is a power play, maybe the Euros this summer will not feature some of the world’s biggest stars, or maybe a compromise will be found.
Either way, it is likely that football will change significantly, possibly forever.