UPDATE: Facing a massive backlash, all six UK clubs that had been part of the new ESL have withdrawn, pretty much torpedoing the whole project..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.
We go live now to the European Super League pic.twitter.com/S6RCBygWRw
— Tom Williams (@tomwfootball) April 20, 2021
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.