The Elitist Super League That Wasn’t
After a messy 4 days, ideas of creating the ESL were quickly disbanded as teams dropped out one after another. But what's the point of the ESL, and why do fans perceive it as a threat to football?
The ESL: European Super League - or is it Elitism Super League? - That seems to be the question on everyone’s mind! When the league was announced on the 18th of April, it faced immediate backlash from everyone – fans, former players and even governments. The clubs involved in the new project – three from Italy, three from Spain and six from England – have been heavily criticised. Each of the teams involved are household names with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United leading the charge, and other clubs to have signed on to the competition include Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Inter, Milan and Juventus.
So, what is the European Super League?
The European Super League is what commentators have referred to as the ‘Americanisation’ of football. In major U.S. sports, franchises and legacy teams have a guaranteed place in elite competitions – as in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and even the MLS - India’s closest comparison to this would be something like the IPL.
While the concept of a continental competition that incorporates all of the most famous names from Europe’s domestic leagues every year into an event of their own has been played around with for decades, it’s only just come into fruition. Essentially, the aforementioned 12 teams, along with 3 more (reports state that the 3 other teams that were asked by the founding members were Bayern Munich, Dortmund, and PSG, all of whom refused) would form the league’s bedrock. The full allotment of 20 clubs each season will be fleshed out by a rotating cast of five more teams, chosen through some sort of formula that the organisers haven’t gotten around to deciding just yet. Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is chairman of the new league, with Joel Glazer of Manchester United and Andrea Agnelli of Juventus acting as vice-chairmen.
How is it different from other leagues, like the UEFA Champions League, the BPL, or La Liga?
When it comes to football, participation at the very top of the sport has been dependent on results on the field. To put it simply, each team competes on the basis that if they perform poorly, they will be excluded from the elite competitions, and could face relegation to lower divisions below the top domestic leagues, such as the Premier League in the U.K. The same principle applies for smaller teams too, who can dream of future successes as they advance up the football pyramid based on sporting merit alone.
The Super League, on the other hand, exists outside of the principles of relegation that domestic leagues follow – the teams will have permanent members who face no risk of missing out on either the matches or the profits. The teams on the Super League roster still want to play the domestic leagues though; although that may not be the sentiments shared by the domestic leagues. For instance, all 6 Premier League teams backed out after FA threatened to issue a ban on them playing in the domestic leagues – but more on that later.
Wait, what’s that about profits?
Like everything else in the world, the ESL is all about the moolah. (Shocker, we know.) There’s a few ways that regular football clubs make money – apart from having billionaire owners who are willing to spend exorbitant amounts to take ownership of big name clubs, that is. There’s broadcasting and TV deals, sponsorships, transfers, ticket sales, merch, and prize money. But when so much is spent on acquiring new fans, maintaining the existing ones, keeping expensive players... the list goes on - it’s safe to say that running a football club is a rich affair, and thanks to the pandemic, clubs have lost hundreds of millions in revenue already.
The ESL, on the other hand, according to their own estimates, ensures that each founding member stands to gain around $400 million merely to establish “a secure financial foundation.” For reference, that’s four times more than Bayern Munich earned for winning the Champions League last season. But that’s just the start, really; the clubs believe that selling the broadcast rights for the Super League, as well as the commercial income, will be worth billions. And it will all go to them, rather than being redistributed to smaller clubs and ‘lesser’ leagues through European soccer’s governing body, UEFA. At the same time, the value of domestic leagues and their clubs will diminish drastically. So it’s a win-win for the ESL.
But that sounds pretty good for the founding clubs! Why are the fans upset?
First off, fans are upset, because they see their clubs as "selling out", and chasing money instead of listening to the wishes of the fans. In an almost rookie-like move, no fans were consulted in the creation of this competition, and it seems like no teams apart from the 15 ‘chosen ones’ knew about it either – as Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said on Monday that he only found out about it on Sunday, along with everyone else.
While some might see the idea of the best teams going head-to-head every week as attractive, it also eliminates a lot of what makes football so appealing – the underdog narratives and sense that anything can happen, no matter how unlikely. For example, this season both Leicester and West Ham are in a good position to potentially qualify for the Champions League, by finishing in the top four of the Premier League. Under the Super League proposal this achievement becomes somewhat meaningless, as Europe’s premiere competition would be contested by the same clubs every year – because they are rich, rather than because they are necessarily successful.
Similarly, supporting local teams has a massive cultural importance in Europe, with many often suspicious of outside investment, as teams – especially lower down the professional leagues – are expected to represent the values of their local communities. And with something like the ESL in play, the teams who may not be on the top of their leagues can never get in. There’s an overarching sense of elitism that plays into the creation of a league like this – which takes the beautiful out of the ‘beautiful game,’ and instead, makes it all about the money and an aura of exclusivity that exudes almost a sense of gatekeeping – and you best believe fans have taken note of it.
What’s the backlash been like?
At this point, everyone and their mother has an opinion on the ESL. Former player and current coach Gary Neville was widely praised for his brutal assessment of the clubs joining the league and in particular his former club, Manchester United, as well as Liverpool.
The UK government also expressed its displeasure over the plans, stating that plans for a European Super League would be very damaging for football and they support football authorities in taking action. PSG’s Ander Herrera was the first top player to speak out against the plan, saying he “cannot remain silent” about the project. Mesut Özil, Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson also condemned the plans. UEFA president, Aleksander Ceferin, also spoke out against the ‘disgraceful’ clubs, and reiterated that players who participate in the new competition will not be allowed to represent their countries in the Euros and the World Cup. And on Tuesday – 2 days after the announcement – the cracks in the Super League started to form.
After fans protested Chelsea’s joining of the league at the club’s game against Brighton on Tuesday, the club decided to withdraw from the ESL altogether. Manchester City followed suit. Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham also issued statements saying they were pulling out, on Tuesday itself. Arsenal went even further, writing, “We made a mistake, and we apologise for it. We know it will take time to restore your faith in what we are trying to achieve here at Arsenal.” Which, while being a ‘save your butt’ kinda move, is inherently good for them.
And this isn’t where the dominos stop toppling either; with rumours swirling that some Italian and Spanish clubs are also set to withdraw, the Super League issued a statement.
Statement issued by the ESL
That’s it then?
For now, yes. But one needs to keep in mind that this idea wasn't born into a vacuum; as early as 1998, European powerhouses had been planning a venture like this – so, it’s probably not going to disappear overnight. Agnelli has vowed to “reshape the project” and remains “convinced of the beauty of that project.” The elites of European football will probably continue to work on this, and possibly generate a more appealing and fan-pleasing version of it. ESL’s creators will most probably regroup, and no doubt come back – but it’s on the fans, the players, and the heads of major football governing bodies to not let something as close-doored and elite as the ESL to return to the game again.