The COVID-19 pandemic affected all industries, and sports was no exception. Teams stopped playing for months, and when they returned to action, stadiums were empty. Competitions were delayed and played in short periods of time, and some were even postponed more than a year. Teams entered into financial crisis, and suddenly, competition wasn’t as important as staying afloat.
Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid, along with 11 other leaders of top European soccer clubs, announced the creation of the Super League, which would substitute, for them, the UEFA Champions League.
Perez argued that the UCL was only attractive from the quarter finals, which is only 13 matches out of the total 125 of the competition. He has a point. The UCL follows the regular tournament format, which groups teams by ranking, meaning there is a defined best to worst team in the group stages, which makes it predictable to know who will go through. Also, the first placed teams face the second placed from another group in the round of 16. Again, predictable. Then in the quarter finals, the teams get mixed up.
The Super League proposed two groups of 10 teams competing between them. Then, the best 4 of each group would advance to the knockout stages.
Shortly after the Super League was announced, UEFA announced a format change to their competitions, to be introduced in 2024, which included more group stage matches and teams qualifying without the usual sporting merit.
However, for Perez, 2024 seemed too late to save the sport.
“With the income of the UCL like it is now, we die. Everyday less audience and less money, and with the new format that will begin in 2024, by 2024 we are all dead,” Perez said in a press conference in April 2021, two days after the announcement. “UEFA must be clear, open to dialogue and not threaten, because they have no need to threaten anyone.”
As expected, the Super League encountered fierce opposition from FIFA, UEFA, and domestic leagues, who teamed up against the founders of the Super League. They said the breakaway teams would be banned from the season’s competition, which had not yet ended. Also, UEFA, alongside CONMEBOL, said the players who joined the Super League would not be able to compete in the Euro Cup or the Copa America. The domestic federations said the teams would be banned from competing in their national competitions, such as the league and cups. FIFA said the players would be banned from World Cups.
Perez’s answer was that they could create their own World Cup. It sounds as a stretch, but it is not. The organizations do not hold the biggest power, the clubs do. That is why UEFA and FIFA’s response was so aggressive. If the teams leave, their competitions are basically worthless to the mainstream public, and that is what the teams criticize. They do not get enough money for what they do. They would be in a better position without UEFA’s intervention.
Nevertheless, fans should not worry about their favorite players being banned from the World Cup, as tensions have settled, at least for now, between FIFA and the breakaway clubs.
It is not for UEFA to decide where the teams will play. If a team wants to break away from UEFA competitions it is free to do so. In the same way, domestic leagues should not ban teams for competing outside of UEFA competitions. UEFA does not own football; the sport is run by the clubs, and they realized that the organizations have become an unnecessary middleman between the teams and the business.
UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin spoke promptly after the teams announced the competition.
“Teams will always qualify and compete in our competitions on merit, not a closed shop run by a greedy select few,” he said. “Any club and its fans should still have the dream of participating in the champions league based on their results on the pitch.”
However, at the same time UEFA had just announced the new format, with one of the changes being that two teams would qualify to the UCL by coefficient if they had qualified for UEL or Conference League. UEFA criticized the historic prestige qualification of the Super League, but they decided to apply it to their new format.
After all the criticism and noise, most teams backed up from the Super League project, leaving only Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Juventus, all of which still say the league will go on.
It must be noted that the Super League did not have a good reception by the fans, players and excluded clubs. Even political figures, such as Boris Johnson, then Prime Minister of the UK, spoke against it at the UK Parliament the day after the English teams stepped out of the project.
“I think that one of the most worrying features about the European Super League proposal is that they would have taken clubs that take their names from great famous British towns and cities and turn them just into global brands with no relation to the fans, to the communities that gave them life,” said Johnson, “and that in my view was totally wrong, saying nothing of the lack of competition.”
In European football, the Champions League is the most important tournament, but it is no longer enough for the top European clubs, as the pandemic caused a need for money, and current competitions cannot provide that.
Another issue that was highlighted after the Super League turmoil was the way UEFA is run. Nasser Al-Khelaifi, president of PSG, was named chairman of the European Clubs Association, while also being a member of the UEFA Executive Committee. It is an issue to have someone who has interests in the game to be so involved in the regulating organizations. Furthermore, Al-Khelaifi’s team has made use of the biggest loopholes in the Financial Fair Play rules, having signed Neymar Jr. for a world record fee of $263 million.
The legal battle between the historic organizations and the Super League has escalated to the highest level. As of now, a decision from the highest court for European sport is being awaited in Luxembourg, and that will decide what will happen with the project. But before that, a court in Madrid deemed it unlawful for the teams to be banned from competitions, in sight of the big organizations’ threats against the breakaway clubs, meaning that the Super League teams have legally nothing to lose by maintaining their stance, unlike FIFA and UEFA.
With the World Cup upon the soccer world this month, the Super League will be a sidenote to monitor. And with raised international awareness and publicity for the sport during the festivities in Qatar, more and more eyes will be on this debate and where it’s headed.