Mutually Assured Destruction? The European Super League
I remember playing a football manager game on the Amiga around 15 years ago that was based around a European Super League. It seemed pretty exciting at first; I was managing Real Madrid, and watched a 17-year old Raul pile up the goals. It seemed exotic at the time; in the nascent days of the Champions League, and with England’s years of exclusion from European football after Heysel still a recent memory, regular matchups between Europe’s best seemed a rare treat in computer games and in real life.
Soon, though, the thrill of playing Liverpool or Milan wore off in the virtual world. I don’t even remember what the game was called anymore; Championship Manager (now Football Manager) was a far more addictive long-term game, simply because one could take a small club from the bottom of European football to the summit, just as the Run of Play recently demonstrated with their brilliantly amusing series on Pro Vercelli’s rise to become European champions.
In real life, the excitement of Europe’s top teams taking on each other has gradually gotten less exciting as well with every passing season of the drawn-out Champions League, with more-or-less the same teams playing each other every season, particularly in the past few years.
As you’ll have heard, Real Madrid’s President Florentino Perez said last week that he wants to extend this monotony to ensure no big club (like Milan this year) misses out on the big time: “What we need to work out with UEFA is a European Super League that guarantees all the top teams play each other all the time. That is something that does not happen in the current Champions League.” Perez is apparently willing to abandon UEFA to get his wish if they object and set-up a break-away “closed-shop” league.
Would the rest of Europe’s elite be interested in following Perez’s dream? It’s not surprising the Old Firm would back such a move, and it would presumably also suit a few other teams who dominate weaker domestic leagues. Writing in The Times, Matthew Syed argues every English owner has been just waiting for this opportunity as well:
The problem with the status quo — speaking commercially now, and God knows that club bosses see the world in such terms — is simple: Europe’s top teams play against each other too seldom. A Super League replacing the existing European and domestic fixtures would allow Europe’s best teams to play against each other twice a week, providing them with huge additional income.
Why else have American owners piled into the Premier League? Why else do they think they can drive up profits when the Premier League collective bargaining structure is squeezing maximum value from the television rights? Why else are they confident of increasing turnover when match-day and merchandising revenues seem to be maxed out?
Two words resolve an otherwise unresolvable conundrum: “biding” and “time”.
These owners have not said it in so many words, but is it credible that they have not considered the financial potential of a breakaway league operating on the model of the American conferences, where the likes of George Gillett Jr, Tom Hicks and Malcolm Glazer cut their teeth? Could they have failed to factor in the prospect of a group of top European clubs operating a closed shop protecting them not only from irksome competition but opening the door to market restrictions that could transform profitability?
By making it a closed-shop, Syed argues, clubs could finally implement an NFL-style salary cap and PROFIT.
It’s a simple idea, and we can be sure that it’s been studied and considered by the likes of Hicks and Glazer, and there’s no particular reason why non-American owners would be less interested in making more money as well.
Indeed, it was only earlier this year that the European Clubs Association seriously discussed the prospect of a Super League with three divisions and promotion and relegation between them. Given the fierce competition the top 20 European clubs would provide each other, it seems unclear if this would suit the likes of Perez — how could Real Madrid still claim to be the top team in the world if they were playing in the second division?
If not — if it were only a 20 club closed league — how could they implement a salary cap when the rest of the world would still have strong enough clubs and competition to compete financially? Wouldn’t a billionaire just come along and pay superstars enough to draw them to the new Man City and away from Madrid in the Super League?
In all probability, Perez and the ECA are priming the pressure on UEFA by raising the prospect of an unlikely breakaway to force Platini to reverse course away from opening the Champions League to smaller clubs, as he’s done to some degree, and guarantee more ‘big club’ participation in the lucrative group stages. Maybe Platini will be asked to allow all former winners of the tournament automatic entry? That would certainly suit Madrid and satisfy Perez. Maybe Scotland will be awarded two automatic places in the group stages instead of one? That would suit the Old Firm, and remove the need for them to back a break-away.
This is all very similar to a decade ago, when Milan led the calls for a breakaway European league as a scare tactic to force UEFA to give the big countries more places in the Champions League. It worked, just as the top English clubs threat to break-away and form their own elite competition twenty years ago forced the F.A. to approve the creation of the Premier League as a more profitable entity for the big clubs. Perez and the ECA are simply playing the same game of high stakes poker with Platini and UEFA to get more of the loot in European football guaranteed to them.
The danger to the principle of the sport is pretty obvious should a breakaway European Super League ever happen, and UEFA has to weigh the consequences if they end up playing a game of chicken with the clubs threatening a breakaway and lost. If it actually ever happened against UEFA’s wishes, it would tear apart world football; FIFA would have to ban players competing in such a renegade European league from international competition, putting the World Cup at risk.
Of course, UEFA knows the big clubs themselves would face intense pressure not to destroy world football for their own greed, and that players would have lucrative sponsorship contracts of their own at stake if they were banned from the World Cup — one imagines Nike and Adidas would hardly be happy if their biggest superstars were not on the biggest stage.
The question is who will blink first.
If UEFA caves and creates some kind of permanent Super League structure, it would all be as depressing for local supporters of big clubs as it would be a final defeat for the dreams of fans of smaller clubs. The still sporadic excitement for Manchester United fans when they take on Barcelona would become routine fixture list fodder. Travel expenses would skyrocket and every last penny drained from supporters to pay for the endeavour in higher ticket prices and new pay TV deals. Atmosphere at games would collapse with less travelling fans every week.
It’s pretty obvious that such a closed league and expanded European fixture list at the expense of the domestic calendar would destroy the entire principle of European football as based primarily on domestic football and a pyramid to the top, even if this principle is only hanging by a thread on the coattails of Super club hegemony as it is.
If it happens, I’m certainly not looking forward to the release of the European Super League video game.