European Super League falters, showcasing power of fan activism

Courtesy of Peter Glaser via Wikimedia Commons.

There had been rumors for years. A whisper here, a behind-closed-doors offhand comment there. A new American ownership group at this club, rising debts at that club. A call for change in format for one tournament, reform in another. And then COVID-19 hit. After a year of empty stadiums, disruptions in schedules and the reality that no sporting event (and the income that comes with it) is ever guaranteed to come to fruition, the shadowmen behind the rumors were finally ready to step into the light. In the late evening of April 18, The European Super League, or ESL, was announced. And by April 20, the ESL was dead.

The 24 hours following the announcement of the ESL will go down in Twitter history. Soccer communities around the globe erupted as anger, shock and memes flooded the timeline⁠—soccer as the world had known it would cease to exist. Backlash, jokes and disbelief were shared by fans, players and managers alike on Twitter⁠—from comical comparisons of the league to singing competition shows, to pressure to continue illegally streaming games and predictions of the United States as the next World Cup winners⁠—the tweets were relentless, cruel and purely entertaining. After scrolling through only a few tweets from Trending, it was clear that it was the ESL vs. everybody else. Not a great PR start for any launch.

But, Twitter was right. This new league wasn’t simply a re-creation or offshoot of a previous league like the XFL or the NBA G League. This would be a complete restructuring of European soccer⁠—and because of its implications⁠—the global soccer industry. European soccer, both leagues and tournaments, are composed of an open competition format in which no one is guaranteed participation in the top flights. All national league systems, like the English Football League and Italian football league system, are set up like a pyramid with a top division (Premier League for the English, Serie A for the Italian) and multiple divisions below. In order for clubs to stay or advance in these leagues, they have to win, so if a club places first in the second division, it then advances to the top division. If a club performs poorly and places last in a division, it is relegated to the division below. For national tournaments, like the FA Cup in England or the Copa Del Rey in Spain, the format is also open, where any club can enter and advance through the rounds. Finishing high in the top national divisions and tournaments has advantages beyond allowing a club to retain its place: Winning or finishing high in their respective leagues and tournaments allows teams to participate in the UEFA Champions League, a cross-continent tournament that sets up the best teams across all leagues to participate against each other. Participating in cross-continent leagues earn clubs prizes and recognition, both of which are critical for maintaining the lives of clubs across Europe. In these open and pyramid competitive formats, the ideology dictates that no team is guaranteed top competition;you have to play and earn it. In reality, the biggest and richest teams such as Manchester United, Juventus and Bayern Munich can easily maintain their standing in the top placements, but the sheer possibility that any team has a chance to earn those top prizes is what makes all of it so meaningful.

Of course, this is in direct opposition to how American professional sports are set up. For the NBA, NHL and NFL, for example, it is a closed format where the same teams compete every year no matter their record, and if a new club is to be introduced, it must be approved by all the current teams. These teams find incentives to participate in other ways, like qualifications for league playoffs, their own type of tournament that teams compete for.

This American sports logic became the basis for The Super League⁠—which is why soccer fans were unhappy. The Super League proposed a Champions League-like competition, but with a closed format of 15 founding member clubs and five new clubs invited each year. These 15 founding clubs were said to be the best across the continent and the attraction would be the frequency with which these top clubs would play against each other. When the League was announced on that fated Sunday, it had only confirmed 12 of its founding members⁠—the “Big Six” of England (Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham), the top three of Spain (Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid), and the top three of Italy (Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan). The three additionally invited teams were Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund of Germany, and Paris Saint-Germain of France, but they all initially rejected. These clubs would compete in this League as their priority competition, and of course, would have a place in it every year. The existence of the League directly opposes the survival of the Champions League and the rest of national leagues because it draws media power and streaming rights away from these competitions. It would also create subsequently even larger financial gaps between smaller clubs and the clubs involved. Many clubs would no longer be able to sustain themselves.

Fans and skeptics quickly figured out that this proposition was not just for generating more exciting “entertainment” by setting up the top teams more frequently, but was a back-stabbing ploy for more guaranteed profit. What the owners (almost all billionaire finance groups) of the largest clubs don’t like about the open format is that it doesn’t guarantee them access to the huge markets like the American sports format does. It is possible that their team does not qualify for the Champions League and the subsequent access to those globally-screened games in any given year. One smaller club like Sevilla or Leicester City could sneak in and knock a Real Madrid or Chelsea out of the Champions League, which would mean a loss of games and profit for that bigger club. That mere chance of a smaller club besting a bigger club for qualification (the possibility that makes European soccer so exciting) was just enough to push these billionaire-backed groups over the edge. 

The kicker was that these huge clubs had just finished negotiating new reforms with UEFA’s President, Aleksander Ceferin, which would allow a new expanded tournament format for the Champions League. The reforms would include more teams and more games, with these new spots more likely to go to the bigger clubs. The increase in the number of games would generate more income and media attention. Everything that these clubs were seeking was provided in these reforms⁠—they would continue to cement their place in the top tournaments and line their pockets with cash. Apparently these new changes were not enough, because before UEFA could even announce the new reforms, Andrea Agnelli of Juventus, who was the lead negotiator, and Florentino Perez of Real Madrid went forth and dropped the bombshell of The Super League.

I’m not sure if it was arrogance or stupidity that prompted Agnelli and his fellow leaders to drop the release of a league that would shake the soccer world to its core without the needed preparations to survive. But either way, they went with it, and the ESL was dead within 48 hours. All hell broke loose. Fans across the continent immediately revolted on Twitter, and in front of their own stadiums. Chelsea fans flocked to Stamford Bridge to protest hours after the release, and even blocked the team from entering the front gates in their bus. Players and coaches, who were kept in the dark about the whole thing, publicly opposed the formation. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson called for an all-league captains meeting. Harry Maguire of Manchester United confronted the club’s vice chairman Ed Woodward. Liverpool coach, one of the top managers in the world, Jurgen Klopp has been openly critical of a super league format in the past and reiterated these criticisms about the ESL. UEFA announced that any player that participated in the ESL would be banned from any of their competitions, and FIFA warned clubs involved that there might be repercussions if they went forward with the new league. Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain (the three proposed teams to join alongside the 12 announced founders) all declined their invitations. And within 24 hours, word leaked that Chelsea was looking to pull out. 

So, the launch of ESL was followed by drastic backlash, three fundamental clubs declining their invitations and the almost immediate withdrawal of one of the founding clubs. I am not sure how Perez and Co. thought that releasing this bombshell without locking all the teams into a contract and hiring desperately needed public relations help would allow their enterprise to survive, but ultimately, they failed miserably. If anything, they garnered more consolidated support for the current system and face sharper opposition they did before. Their actions empowered a new generation of fans who truly believe that they saved soccer as they know it with their protests over the two days. It is frustrating that fans came out in such force for this announcement, when the calls to dismantle the racism so present in the sport are not answered. Hopefully, the actions fans forced will allow them to see how important they are in controlling the future of soccer and will lead to other changes as well. 

Tweets of headstones reading “RIP ESL: April 18, 2021 – April 20, 2021” were found across Twitter after the league was officially shelved. The idea of the super league might be dead for now, but fans are wary that another scheme like this will pop up again in the future. Yet, if the ESL has taught us anything (or perhaps the owners anything), it’s that sports cannot be played on paper⁠—the magic of sports lies in the cinderellas, the underdogs, the teams that remind fans of themselves. No one wants to see Messi vs. Ronaldo every other week. We want the upsets, the miracles and the teams with heart. Not the teams with money. 

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