The proposed new European soccer league

UPDATE: Facing a massive backlash, all six UK clubs that had been part of the new ESL have withdrawn, pretty much torpedoing the whole project.. I am amazed that they did not anticipate the fierce reaction.

The world of soccer was thrown into turmoil by the announcement of the creation of a new European Super League of the richest twelve teams in Europe. Three other teams are expected to join them. The new league insists that they will continue to be part of the existing national leagues as well.

According to the ESL, the new format will involve midweek fixtures, with all participating clubs continuing to compete in their respective national leagues, “preserving the traditional domestic match calendar which remains at the heart of the club game”.

The existing football entities are furious and have threatened to ban those teams and all their players from all national and international matches.

Uefa’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, has insisted that players who join the new European Super League will be banned from World Cups and European Championships if the breakaway materialises.

Ceferin admitted it was unlikely a ban would come into effect in time for Euro 2020, which starts in June, but left no one in any doubt at his anger at the Super League, which he called a “disgraceful and self-serving proposal from clubs motivated by greed”.

This is, of course, all about money. High level sports is always about money. Ben Joyce writes that this is just another example of capitalism at work, taking away a game from the working class that was its foundation, and is the latest attempt of the elite clubs that make up the ESL to control the game, to ensure that more games are played between just the elite teams thus generating more TV and advertising money. Joyce says that fan ownership of the teams, as is apparently the case with German football teams, is the way to go to combat this pernicious trend.

The idea of fan ownership is surely one whose time has come, however. Recent efforts by Newcastle United fans to establish a fund that can offer an alternative to a Saudi takeover should be welcomed by all who oppose the European Super League trajectory. It is absolutely clear that if football were democratized, if there were real fan ownership that delivered a meaningful say over the future direction of the game, the Super League would be dead in the water. The only alternative to a game dominated by corporate brands with little loyalty to the working-class communities which built them is a reassertion of those foundational values — and that can only happen if power is taken from the hands of those who see the game as little more than an excuse to profit.

In the meantime, the European Super League itself may well be blocked by the existing interests tied up in the game. FIFA and UEFA have stated that any players in a breakaway league would forfeit their right to represent their countries internationally, following a similar line to cricket boards in the 1970s and ’80s responding to the first Kerry Packer’s World Series and then “rebel” tours to apartheid South Africa during the sporting boycott. Players may well have to choose between the financial rewards this competition will promise and the glory a successful Euros or World Cup could provide.

But the response to this problem cannot be to circle the wagons around the existing structures. The reality is the European Super League proposal is the inevitable conclusion of a road the game has been following for a long time: a small number of elite clubs which care more about selling an entertainment product than the history of the sport dominating football and narrowing the sphere of genuine competition. Even if the European Super League doesn’t transpire and is merely a threat or a bargaining chip, these clubs will continue to pursue their agenda within the game as it is. Yesterday felt like a decisive moment. Something much more fundamental has to change.

One thing that some commentators have emphasized, and I had not fully appreciated before, is how important the division system is to creating a large fan base for football. It enables a large number of viable teams to exist and thus allows for people to identify with, and cheer for, a really local team. At present, there are many levels of competition in the national leagues, with the top finishers in a division getting promoted to a higher division the next season while the bottom finishers get relegated. This allows lower tier clubs to keep their fan base loyal with the hope of doing well in their division and even winning it and getting promoted. As a result, there are a large number of teams that have a significant fan base. This is unlike football and baseball in the US were there is no prospect of relegation and hence the only teams that really have a large fan base are the fixtures in the NFL and MLB that are almost all located in the major cities and which most fans rarely get to see live playing in the stadiums. What football fans fear is that the creation of the ESL is the first step into creating something like the NFL and MLB, with a fixed set of elite teams, and that all the others will slowly wither away.


  1. nomenexrecto says

    As a European, and a soccer fan -- for many years a fan of Liverpool F.C.,one of the breakaway teams, and through many real world events that made it much more than sport thing, right now, I’m a bit stunned. I do not like this even a bit.
    However, much of this has been coming and been actively aided and abetted by the football associations who are now basically being the middelemen being cut out. I can’t accept any narrative where FIFA or UEFA are being cast as the good guys, the champions of grass-roots football. For decades, they have been leading the charge on football. They’ve just been overtaken.
    Breaking news have the whole shebang being rolled back, teams backpaddling out. It doesn’t mean much, I’d say, now it will happen a bit slower, less obtruesively and under the umbrella of FIFA and UEFA. For the fans, they are going to be pushed back all the same.

  2. billseymour says


    … the only teams that really have a large fan base are the fixtures in the NFL and MLB …

    I don’t think that really applies to baseball generally.  Sure, there are no “lower divisions” of the major leagues.  Instead baseball has “minor leagues” which most definitely have local fans.  For example, the Memphis Redbirds, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A team, once had 18,620 fans show up for a championship game (according to Wikipedia, probably not too wrong on non-controversial matters of fact).  I haven’t found their average attendance, but I haven’t looked very hard.

    That’s not bad, since it’s a bit over 40% of the fans that the Cardinals routinely get.

    How does that compare to lower division football games?

  3. nomenexrecto says

    How does that compare to lower division football games?
    When FC Cologne last went down to Second League they still had an average of 50.000 seats filled each game, in the top 10 or 15 europe-wide. Their neighbours, Bayer (L)Neverkusen, average something slightly above half of that while being far more successful, often making it to the european competitions. But Neverkusen are stuck with the stigma of being an outgrowth of a company’s employee sports program having being grown with generous donations from Bayer AG.

  4. Who Cares says

    This is not the first step. The Bosman arrest (1995) was the first step to the elite teams. That one voided two things.
    The first it voided was a travesty; European/World wide non compete clauses that allowed clubs to demand ridiculous sums from other clubs even after a players contract with them ended, essentially forcing players to stay with the original club at whatever pittance was being offered.
    The second was; You may only have X members that are not nationals in a team. The ruling changed that to you may have anyone on your team as long as they are a (naturalized) citizen of one of the EU member states. That allowed the formation of the elite teams by having a few of the clubs buy up all the good players (and having governments more then willing to expedite the naturalization process of non EU players).

    The ESL is merely an outgrowth of this since most of those elite teams are in debt due to the expense of trying to buy those good players.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    In the English system, there are 20 clubs in the top tier (Premier League), and below that are four nationwide professional tiers with a total of 96 clubs. Below them are regional semi-pro leagues, and there is promotion and relegation between all adjacent tiers. The club I support (Leeds United) has gone up and down between the top three tiers over its 100-year existence. So yeah, this is very important to all supporters.

    One problem in England has been the buying of big clubs by foreign billionaires whose only stake in the club is financial. Manchester United is owned by the American Glazer family, who also own the Tampa Bay NFL team. Chelsea has been owned by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich since 2003. And so on. I’d love to see a move towards the German model, which encourages local ownership.

  6. billseymour says

    It’s interesting that whole clubs move up and down.  That doesn’t happen in baseball, but individual players move up and down.

    One problem in England has been the buying of big clubs by foreign billionaires…

    Old news in all sports leagues in the U.S.  Domestic billionaires, but what’s the difference?

    [The Bosman arrest] voided … a travesty; European/World wide non compete clauses …

    Called the “reserve clause” in baseball.  Even today, players are basically “owned” by the teams that they play for and often get traded, but only for some number of years (I forget the details).  At some point, players become “free agents” and can negotiate with any team.  It’s unusual for players to play their whole career with a single team, although it can happen (St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina for example).

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    billseymour @8:

    Domestic billionaires, but what’s the difference?

    I should have been clearer. Both ‘foreign’ and ‘billionaire’ are problematic. In Germany, clubs are majority-owned by official supporters’ clubs, with a couple of exceptions. Board members are local businesspeople or ex-players.

  8. mnb0 says

    “taking away a game from the working class that was its foundation”
    Actually football (soccer) started as an elite sports; only after WW-1 the working class got interested and only after WW-2 it took of seriously.

    “thus allows for people to identify with, and cheer for, a really local team”
    Though some local teams are rather unsuccessfully in The Netherlands. Dutch teams like Helmond Sport hardly have supporters. When my favourites, FC Twente, played in Eerste Divisie (second-highest tier) it alone was responsible for 25% of all the visitors to all the games.
    I have learned to like basketball, but the setup for the NBA has been rather boring for me last few years (I’m a fan of the Detroit Pistons). That’s why it’s unlikely that such a new league will take off in Europe.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    mnb0 @10: The game was codified in English public (i.e. elite) schools, but it had become a predominantly working class sport, especially in the North, by the late nineteenth century. My bolding.

    In 1882 Blackburn Rovers got to the FA Cup final, losing 1-0 to Old Etonians. However, the following year Blackburn Olympic not only reached the final, they actually won the cup, beating Old Etonians 2-1. The Blackburn Times (1883) understood very well how Blackburn Olympic’s victory was entangled with social class.

    ‘The meeting and vanquishing, in a most severe trial of athletic skill, of a club composed of sons of some of the families of the upper class in the Kingdom . . . as the Old Etonian Club is, by a Provincial Club composed of entirely, we believe, of Lancashire Lads of the manual working-class, sons of small tradesmen, artisans, and operatives.’

    Blackburn Olympic’s team consisted of three weavers, a dental assistant, a gilder, a plumber, a clerk, a loomer, a licensed victualler, and two iron-foundry workers. A team of ex-public schoolboys would never again win the FA Cup.

  10. xohjoh2n says


    Though some local teams are rather unsuccessfully in The Netherlands.

    Wow, that does sound unsuccessful!

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