Super League threat has been seen off but what happens now?
Can smaller clubs and fans bring about real change or does the status quo remain?
Supporters protest against Arsenal’s US owner Stan Kroenke ahead of the Premier League clash with Everton on Friday. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
After all that, there is one thing we still do not know. We know what the dozen venture capitalists and industrialists and petrochemical princelings behind the Super League intended to do. We know what the future they had mapped out would have looked like. We know, or we can at least imagine, the damage they might have done.
What we do not know, not really, is why.
We have the platitudes, of course, the blandishments offered by Florentino Pérez, the president of Real Madrid, in that brash appearance on a gaudy Spanish talk show: that this was the only way to save soccer, that the rising tide lifts all boats, that there was no other option.
And we have the presumption, too, the Occam’s razor explanation: that deep down this was about nothing more than money, the relentless, insatiable, metastasizing pursuit of it, a cynical and grasping attempt to hoard as much of it as possible, made by those who already have far more than most, and far more than they need.
But while one of those points is considerably more valid than the other, neither quite satisfactorily explains what united these 12 disparate club owners behind a single, slapdash scheme like the Super League. They have, after all, spent much of the last decade quarrelling among themselves. Their motivations, priorities and concerns are all quite different. They are, in the cold light of day, not so much one another’s solutions as they are one another’s problems. So the question stands: Why?
It is easiest, perhaps, to divide the 12 into three groups. In one, there are the English teams under American, or American-inflected, ownership: Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham. Their aim is not just to make more money, it is also to spend less of it. They want cost controls, salary caps, financial regulation. They want stable income, and restricted expenditures.
Their issue is the presence, in European soccer, of the second group: the outlier teams, Manchester City and Chelsea, backed by owners who would favour the abolition of such limitations. Their principal interest is in using their private wealth to gain a competitive edge. They are not involved in soccer to make money. They care little for the bottom line. They are here to win popular acclaim, and, through it, obtain cultural and political legitimacy.
And then there is the third group, comprising the six Spanish and Italian teams. Their problem is not only the bottomless wealth of Manchester City and Chelsea and a few others, but also the existence of the first group. The financial juggernaut that is the Premier League has inflated salaries around Europe. It has placed Real Madrid, Barcelona and the rest at a disadvantage in the transfer market. It has forced them to build up mountains of debt, leaving teams that believe themselves to be in soccer’s front rank facing a second-class future.
Clearly, they all decided - some with rather more consideration than others - that a superleague was their way out. The first group could write in various cost-control measures, denting the power of the second group, levelling their private playing field; in exchange, City and Chelsea would get the prestige that made their projects work. The third group, meanwhile, would no longer have to gaze longingly at the Premier League’s broadcasting deals.
That it did not work is a blessing, of course. That it was scuttled within 48 hours of its launch - undone, almost immediately, by a startling combination of amateurish planning, botched communications and underestimated backlash - was greeted as a victory for the sport as a whole, a blow delivered by the masses to the aristocrats, a bloody nose for the forces of global capitalism.
And, to some extent, that is precisely what it was. The threat of a superleague, in one form or another, has hung like a cloud over European soccer for decades. It has been wheeled out every few years, surfacing in every negotiation over how the money generated by the Champions League, in particular, should be divided.
Now that has gone. It is possible that, by the end of this weekend, as either Manchester City or Tottenham celebrate winning the League Cup, as Bayern Munich inch ever closer to yet another Bundesliga title, as Inter Milan close in on a Serie A crown, all of this will feel like a fever dream. On the surface, it will be behind us. The insurrection will have been defeated, condemned to the past. Everything will be back to normal.
But that is an illusion, because though the Super League never had a chance to play a game - it barely had time to build out a website - it may yet prove the catalyst to the salvation of soccer. It has, after all, stripped the elite of their leverage. They played their cards, and the whole thing became a bluff. Now, for the first time in years, power resides in the collective strength of the game’s lesser lights.
They will need to use it. The Super League was wrong on almost every level, but though its architects never quite had the nerve to come out and say it, they did get one thing right. Soccer’s economy and ecosystem, as they stand, do not work.
This was recognition of what ultimately explains how 12 teams, in those three distinct groups, could stand together under the same flag, albeit briefly, albeit without seeming to notice that it was adorned with a skull-and-crossbones.
The status quo does not work for the American owners who need cost controls. It does not work for the grand old houses of continental Europe, who cannot compete with the Premier League’s riches. And infinitely more important, it does not work for almost everyone else.
It does not work for the teams condemned to life as cannon fodder for Manchester City or Paris St. Germain, or for the domestic competitions withering in the long shadows of the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga, or for the famous names - Ajax and Benfica and Red Star Belgrade - reduced to bit-part roles in European tournaments, ever farther from a return to their glory days.
Aleksander Ceferin, the president of Uefa and the man who led the counterattack in what will come to be known as the Sunday-Tuesday War, knows that. The issue of competitive balance is the one that animated his rise to his current position. One of the many ironies of this whole sorry farrago is not only that those whom Ceferin fought know it, too, but that they have given him the perfect opportunity to do something about it.
Those governing bodies that resisted the Super League make for unlikely heroes. Uefa has, after all, been no less complicit than the domestic leagues and national federations in selling out soccer to the highest bidder. It has, for decades, not only sat by and watched but also actively encouraged the influx of money into the game, never once questioning where it might all be heading.
A charitable interpretation would be that all of them were in thrall to, or in fear of, the elite teams. Suddenly, though, there is no longer need to be afraid. Behind Ceferin there is a confederation of governments and executives and players and fans, all of whom have made plain their objection to soccer’s inexorable journey down this same path.
Now there is the impetus and the appetite for change: not their change, the kind that would barricade the elite in their palaces, insulating them from the currents and the crisis outside their gates, but change that might allow more teams to benefit from the rewards the breakaway clubs sought to cordon off for themselves.
What form that might take is open for discussion. The rolling back of the reforms to the Champions League, passed this week while soccer was engulfed by civil war? A rebalancing of the way money is shared in the Premier League, after years of gradual erosion of the egalitarian principle that stands as the competition’s bedrock? Increased solidarity payments from Uefa across the continent?
Whatever the next move is to be, it requires more than the commitment of all of those who stood against the Super League and the willingness of lawmakers to take action, rather than just to score cheap political points. It also needs fans to establish, among themselves, quite how far they are willing to go, exactly what they mean by change.
In those first few hours after the Super League was announced, a narrative took hold, particularly in England. This was, it went, an attempt by American owners to remake soccer in their own image: They wanted a closed league, one more like the NFL or the NBA, one in which stability of place brought security of income.
The parallel was imperfect, of course; it was, really, nothing more than a shorthand to explain and to demonise the structure of the proposed breakaway. Indeed, if anything, it is the suggestions for changes made in the aftermath of the Super League’s launch and swift collapse that might remake European soccer along more American lines.
The prime difference between sports in the United States and soccer in Europe is dynasty. Dominant teams will, occasionally, surface in the major leagues of North America: The Golden State Warriors will win three championships in four seasons; the New England Patriots will sustain their success over nearly two decades.
But as a rule, there are checks and balances in place - through player drafts and the presence of a salary cap - to ensure that today’s weak have at least a chance to become tomorrow’s strong.
Soccer has no such mechanisms. It is, instead, driven by a desire not just for success now, but for success in perpetuity. It is a sport defined by dynasty. It is that which encourages not just teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid - owned, in theory, by members, and therefore run by presidents who must seek re-election - but also private entities, like Juventus and Manchester United, to spend recklessly in the pursuit of success.
It is not possible, the executives of those teams know, to sit out a season. It is not possible to rebuild slowly and carefully toward some distant aim. Teams are expected to compete now, to contend now, to win now. If they do not, managers are fired and players are sold and new managers are hired and new players are bought.