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The rise and collapse of the European Super League

The past few days have been an emotional rollercoaster for football fans. Billionaire owners agreed to form a breakaway league that would destroy competition in the game, before backlash from fans, senior figures within the game and the threat of legal repercussions forced clubs to back down.

On Sunday, it was another of many frustrating days this season for an Arsenal fan, watching us scrape a draw against relegation-threatened Fulham. This loss soon faded into the background as the day was turned on its head. News started to break of 12 clubs, including mine, forming a new, American-style franchise competition. It would be named, in predictably American terms, the ‘European Super League’.

The Super League is an idea that has been in the making for decades, as ‘elite’ clubs have tried to protect their revenue from smaller clubs attempting to displace them. Arsène Wenger, legendary former Arsenal manager and current Chief of Global Football Development at FIFA, was one of those who foresaw the formation of a Super League.

In a 2009 interview, the Frenchman predicted, ‘I see more a European league developing over time…the national leagues will survive but maybe in 10 years, you will have a European league…there are some voices behind the scenes coming up to do something about that’.

The form this finally ended up taking was the group of twelve, quickly nicknamed the Dirty Dozen, forming an invitational league. None of these teams could be relegated, no matter their performance. The league would be financed by $4.6 billion from investment bank JP Morgan, with each club receiving $350 million as a golden handshake upon joining.

The explanations for this change were pathetic. The Chairman of this new organisation, Florentino Perez of Real Madrid, could only make weak excuses. He argued that this was modernisation to adapt to a new audience, saying ’16-24 year-olds are no longer interested in football’, suggesting that games be made shorter to appeal to our generation, as well as only being between marquee teams.

It was patently clear to everyone that the only concern in forming the Super League was to collect cash for mostly American owners with no interest in football. Perez, as the spokesperson, sounded like an old, out-of-touch billionaire disconnected from reality.

The Super League would quickly become a stale and boring format. With no variety, seeing big clubs play one another repeatedly would quickly lose its novelty. It would remove any possibility of seeing the upsets and underdog victories that are as are seen in the domestic leagues, as well as in competitions like the FA Cup. This leads to into the greater issue, which is that the ESL would be inherently anti-competitive.

The idea of any team working their way up and superseding the big clubs is one of the most entertaining aspects of football’s tier system. In a Super League, a story like Leicester getting promoted to the Premier League in 2014 and winning it in 2016 could never happen, and football would be significantly worse off for it.

The arrogance of the owners to declare themselves to be Europe’s elite without contest was also aggravating. Tottenham, for example, last won a league title in 1961., and They have never won a European title. Yet, by unmerited invitation, they would permanently be amongst the top 12 teams in Europe if a Super League went ahead. On the other hand, a team like West Ham, who came 16th last year, are currently 5th and have a strong chance of qualifying for Champions League football in the current system. Removing the ability for teams to compete would not only be unfair, but it simply would not reflect football as it currently exists in the modern game.

On Tuesday, senior figures in the game, such as Pep Guardiola, Jordan Henderson and Bruno Fernandes, started to speak out against the project. Fan backlash was even more intense, culminating in around a thousand Chelsea fans demonstrating outside Stamford Bridge. Clubs began to cave, starting with Chelsea and ending in all six English clubs folding by the end of Tuesday evening. 

Clubs then issued grovelling apologies, with club PR departments demonstrating varying levels of skill in backtracking on their betrayal of fans. It felt like, for once, after years of being ignored, ordinary fans had triumphed over the interests of billionaire owners. It was a good day to be a football fan.

While the demise of the Super League is great news, it has also brought attention to the hypocrisy and greed of almost all of the key footballing institutions.

UEFA, the main target of the Super League, is itself a deeply corrupt institution that has repeatedly failed to take action against big clubs that have broken financial rules. It has also now passed reforms to the Champions League format that benefit big teams in order to generate more revenue.

Sky Sports was one of the key platforms leading the charge against the Super League, however, it was and still is responsible for helping create the modern structure. By pumping huge amounts of TV money into football, it has contributed in attracting parasitic American sports owners and oil moguls from around the world to English football in the first place.

However, there has never been a better time to reform football. The Super League drew bipartisan opposition, with both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer strongly opposing the move. The government announced a review into football governance, with the PM being open to the German model where fans must legally own 51% of the club. As well as ownership, there are other major related issues such as extortionate ticket prices. Arsenal, for example, charge as much as £97 for big games despite declining investment from the club and increasingly poor performances on the pitch.

Popularity of owners is at rock-bottom. Some sponsors have begun pulling their financial backing from clubs due to the reaction from fans. Liverpool’s timing partner Tribus has cut ties with the club, and other sponsors are considering their options. If enough sponsors act, this current batch of owners will have their pockets hit, the only real way of convincing them to sell the club.

Fans have had their eyes opened, and the momentum is with us to apply pressure to owners, sponsors and the government. Only if the pressure is kept up can the game enact the changes football needs, to stop owners like the Glazers, Kroenkes and FSG trying and succeeding with another attempt in the future.