Late Sunday evening on the 18th of April, 12 of the wealthiest and most well-known European soccer clubs announced the formation of a private, invite-only league that would play outside of their respective traditional domestic league competition. Dubbed “The Super League,” the elite entity had been subject of rumor and speculation for years. But apparently the loss in revenue brought on by the COVID-19 shutdowns and limited, fan-free competition over the last year solidified each ownership group’s determination to form this first of its kind private league. The 12 initial members put invites out to a French powerhouse and two prominent German clubs to round out the group to 15 clubs, with the remaining five each year subject to invitation by the permanent members for a total of 20 annual participants.
The move by these clubs sparked and immediate backlash from players, European soccer agencies, and especially soccer fans around the world – including those that root for one of the 12. The backlash was well-deserved. After all, what was broken? The governing body of European soccer, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), already administers the annual “Champions League,” a tournament pitting together the top finishers among the dozens of individual European domestic leagues. It is considered by some more prestigious to win the Champions League than it is the World Cup among national teams.
Culturally, European soccer fans also treat their local clubs – from small market to the large, big city teams – as their birthright. They consider themselves nothing short of de facto public owners. For billionaire ownership groups to take these elite clubs out of competition with other domestic clubs was tantamount to treason. It is not quite analogous but certainly a blasphemy on par with, if not larger than, America’s great domestic sports sin – a beloved team leaving one city and relocating elsewhere.
But beyond these organizational or cultural slights lay the most egregious: the move was nothing more than a brazen money grab. The wealthiest European clubs were forming an exclusive entity to make them even wealthier. According to Tariq Panja and Rory Smith of the New York Times, the 12 club’s own estimates predicted a whopping $400 million each under the new financial model, and billions more in television revenues secured from broadcasters competing to air Super League competition and the ad revenue that would accompany it. Normally, each domestic competition’s windfall revenues are redistributed to smaller, less wealthy clubs by UEFA. However, this new revenue would solely be kept by Super League members, leaving a gaping lack of in investment behind to strengthen the respective domestic leagues and make the books of smaller clubs whole.
Soccer fans viewed the greed and elitism for what it was, and their reaction to the official announcement was swift and merciless. Throngs of fans with clubs both in and outside the proposed Super League held rallies and marches with homemade protest signs. One Liverpool fan caught by a photographer made a sign saying “Football belongs to us, not to you.” Soccer legend David Beckham even released a statement on Instagram accompanied by a photo of him rallying with protesting fans. The statement ended with, “We need football to be fair and we need competitions based on merit. Unless we protect these values the game we love is in danger…” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson weighed in, saying, “Plans for a European Super League would be very damaging for football and we support football authorities in taking action.” His wish was granted weeks earlier when UEFA itself, along with the Federal of International Football Associations (FIFA) threatened punitive sanctions against Super League clubs if they moved forward. Calling them “snakes and liars,” UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin threatened to ban Super League clubs from also competing in domestic leagues, and FIFA threatened to bar those club’s players from representing their countries in International competition like the Olympics and World Cup. The outrage worked. Within 48 hours, the German clubs said they had no interest in their invitations to join. England’s Chelsea and Manchester City stated they were taking steps to withdraw. North London’s Arsenal Football Club Tweeted, “We made a mistake.” John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox and England’s Liverpool club, released a two-minute video apologizing to fans for his miscalculation. By Wednesday evening, the Super League was all but dead. And while it is hard to trust these owners not to try again in happier times when fans may be more carefree, it was comforting to see soccer fans adopt the spirit of protest that lit up 2020 and continue putting their voices to use and activating their feet in 2021 to defeat big-monied interests. It is unfortunately a sight we don’t see often enough, let alone owners actually listening to their fans.