The European Super League and its Critics

by Emrys Westacott

The scheme

Two weeks ago European soccer world was rocked by an announcement that 12 of the top clubs had agreed among themselves to form a European Super League (ESL) to replace the existing European Champions League (ECL). The “dirty dozen” were Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham. These teams were to be joined by another 8, bringing the total up to 20. A defining feature of the ESL would be that 15 of its members would be guaranteed their place in the competition no matter how they performed the previous year or in their domestic competitions.

The backlash

The proposal unleashed a tsunami of criticism from all sides. Official organizations like EUFA and the English Premier League, clubs not included among the elite, respected players and coaches, pundits, politicians and fans all voiced their opposition. In consequence, the scheme crashed and burned on take-off. Within 72 hours the six elite English clubs involved had pulled out and their owners were issuing mea culpas and begging forgiveness from the fans.

The motive

What motivated the scheme? Florentino Perez, the president of Real Madrid, described it as an attempt to “save football.” Young people were losing interest in the game, he said, due to “a lot of poor quality games.” What he appeared to have in mind are the uncompetitive matches in the earlier stages of the current ECL when Goliaths frequently crush Davids. Watching Turkish champions Galatasaray lose 0-6 to Real Madrid and 0-5 to Paris Saint-Germain in the 2019-20 competition, for instance, did not make for a riveting spectacle.

Readers will be shocked, shocked, to learn, however, that in the end it was really all about money. The underlying avarice was cloaked somewhat by the mealy-mouthed vagueness of statements issued to defend the scheme. Daniel Levy, the chairman of Tottenham, for instance, spoke about the need for

“a possible new structure that sought to better ensure financial fair play and financial sustainability whilst delivering significantly increased support for the wider football pyramid.”

But it was pretty clear what was going on. By “financial fair play and financial sustainability” he means “more money for us.” The elite clubs think they will take in more from a super league. And guaranteed participation makes for a more amore secure investment. It’s analogous to a stock that offers the prospect of a good return while carrying the safety of a government bond.

To be fair, defenders of the ESL did express concern for the wellbeing of the “entire football community,” or the “wider football pyramid.” But to be fairer still, they probably don’t give a rat’s ass about what goes on among the lower tiers of the football community any more than Marie Antionette cared about the starving peasants.

The greed

Is it greedy of the elite clubs to want more money? The bulk of the revenues they take in from the current ECL comes from EUFA’s sale of television rights. The ECL is one of the world’s most popular sporting competitions, and the elite clubs do rather well out of it. In the 2019-20 season, here are the amounts received by individual clubs in the later stages of the competition:

last 16                – $11 million

quarter finals   – $12.5 million

semi-finals      – $14 million

runner-up        – $18 million

winner             – $22.5 million

The amounts are cumulative. So when distributions from earlier rounds, gate receipts, and the FIFA world club championship are factored in, the winners of the Champions League can hope to make around $100 million.

Is it greedy of the elite clubs to want more? Some might say so. But wait, their apologists will say. They aren’t greedy; they’re desperate. Many of the top teams have chronic debts. Barcelona, for instance, is reported by some sources to be over $1 billion in the red, Manchester United to owe over $500 million, Inter Milan over $450 million.

So the question then becomes: How can clubs that have such large revenue streams rack up such debts? But there’s no great mystery here. If you want to succeed at the top level, you need elite–i.e. expensive–facilities and, most of all, you need elite–i.e. expensive–players and coaches. And if you don’t buy them and pay them at their market value, they’ll go and play for a rival team.

The top players and coaches receive what, compared to what most people earn, look like huge salaries? Of Manchester City’s top 24 players, 19 make over $2 million a year. Are the players being greedy in wanting to be paid so much? Certainly no more than people in other fields. The CEO of the University of Southern California receives an annual salary of over $7 million. The CEO of Banner Health, a healthcare system, has a salary of over $21 million. And these are people who are employed by supposedly non-profit organizations. In the for-profit sectors of the economy, upper management of large companies often make far more. Moreover, a footballer’s career, like that of any athlete but unlike that of a white collar professional, is relatively precarious; it could be ended by injury at any time.

In the 1987 film Wall Street, the unscrupulous financier Gordon Gekko famously proclaims that “greed, for want of a better word, is good.” Gekko is a bad guy, so his outlook is understood to be morally tainted. But one has to admit, sadly, that in a capitalist society greed is normalized;  it thus becomes both expected and accepted. So while it is true that the top players, no doubt encouraged by agents working on commission, demand more than they really need, they are no different in this respect than people in the upper echelons of many professions. They may not need the additional millions; but how much one makes relative to one’s peers is a primary indicator of one’s status. It is, as they say, how one keeps score.

The objections

Why, exactly, did fans, particularly fans of the English teams involved, protest against the proposed super league? There were two basic objections. The first was summed up by a Chelsea fan’s placard that went viral: “We want our cold nights in Stoke.” A “cold night in Stoke” is shorthand for a tough fixture in which elite players are likely to struggle in difficult conditions against gritty opposition. In part, the sentiment expressed is an appeal to tradition. The fans don’t want the regular domestic matches, fixtures and rivalries that in some cases go back to the 19th century, to be devalued. But the slogan also makes a point that even the greedy ESL masterminds ought to consider. The heavyweight knock-out matches between teams like Real Madrid and Manchester United attract so much attention and are experienced as special by fans precisely because they are relatively scarce. The expectation that increasing the number of such games would increase revenues could be mistaken. Repetition can breed indifference. Rich food in fancy restaurants every night produces a jaded palette.

The second objection to the ESL is the one that has been given most attention and repeated by countless critics of the scheme, including BBC commentator Gary Lineker. It is that the whole idea of a super league with permanent members who are immune from the threat of relegation or replacement, violates a basic principle of the football world. That world is often described as a pyramid. At the bottom are the lowliest amateur teams. At the top are the Real Madrids, Bayern Munichs and Liverpools. But any team’s standing in the pyramid has to be earned through performances on the field. And all positions, are, in principle open. So, in theory at least, any team can move up or down the pyramid. The ESL contradicts this entire conception by walling off the elite from the rest.

The concept of the football pyramid

This second objection perhaps makes sense in theory. In practical terms, though, the ideal to which it implicitly appeals barely exists. The danger it depicts has in fact been reality for a long time now.

Yes, in theory, any team can move on up to the toppermost of the poppermost. But in reality, as everyone knows, the top spots in both the domestic leagues and the ECL are dominated almost exclusively by the richest teams.

Take the English Premier League, for example. The 4 richest clubs are Man. United, Liverpool, Man. City, and Chelsea, And since 2004, with the exception of Leicester’s implausible Cinderella triumph in 2016, it has always been won by one of these teams.

Elsewhere, the uncompetitive nature of the leagues is still more extreme. Juventus have won the Italian league every year since 2011. Bayern Munich have been the German champions for each of the past 8 years. The Spanish league is simply a contest between Barcelona and Real Madrid, one of whom has won the title every year but one since 2005. Paris Saint-German has won the French league in 7 out of the past 8 years.

The pyramid metaphor is misleading. A more apt metaphor would be that of a multi-story building with narrow staircases between the floors, and with the staircases becoming increasingly narrow as one approaches the upper stories. And to gain access to those upper stories you also need a big wad of money with which to bribe the attendants.

In truth, then, outrage at the notion of guaranteed spots in the super league is a bit misplaced. The rich clubs are all but guaranteed their places in the current Champions League anyway simply because they can buy the best players. And only a few other clubs from each domestic league have any realistic chance of ever playing in the ECL. What people should really be objecting to is the existing system, which fosters and perpetuates gross inequalities between teams and which makes so many games and competitions tediously predictable.

In fact, though, the same Chelsea and Liverpool fans who denounced the super league are fairly comfortable with the status quo? Why? The reason is simple They, too, are greedy–for success. And they know that success requires money; and they happen to support teams that enjoy vast resources. They don’t want a contractual guarantee of a place among the elite; but they are apparently content with a system that gives their team a de facto guarantee of elite status. Chelsea fans want both their cold evenings in Stoke and their Russian billionaire sugar daddy.

The real problem, then, is not the violation of some sacred unwritten rule that supposedly unites the entire football community. The real problem, which admittedly is hardly new, is that teams compete on a far from level playing field. The less wealthy teams are always kicking uphill.

The solution

There is a simple solution. The domestic leagues and EUFA could impose a cap on the amount a club may spend on players. Players and coaches could still be well paid, but at a level that more teams could afford. This would increase the competitiveness of games and competitions across the board. Income to organizations like EUFA from the sale of TV rights could also be distributed more equitably.

How likely is this, or any other equalizing measure, to happen? About as likely as Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook pushing for laws that that limit their market dominance and facilitate more serious competition from smaller companies.

The comparison here is intentional. It points to the way in which the world of football simply reflects aspects of 21st century capitalism. Rich dominant organizations in every sector constantly seek to entrench their dominance and increase their wealth. That’s the nature of the beast. Wealthy elites typically aren’t interested in changing the system in a way that would make them less wealthy and threaten their elite status. Ruling classes don’t usually give up power voluntarily. They have to be stripped of their privileges by some powerful agent of change, like an army of hungry peasants or desperate proletarians. Unfortunately, for the reasons given above, fans of the elite clubs are unlikely to fill this role. They have grown too accustomed to their own privileges.