In Defence of the European Super League
As the beautiful game reels from aftermath of the proposed breakaway European Super League, was it really such a bad idea? Does European football have to face up to the reality that a reckoning is coming and that the current model is no longer fit for purpose?
The spectre of a European Super League (ESL) has always been the logical final destination for where football has been heading for at least two decades.
It may have seemed more aspirational in earlier times but not anymore. Football has globalised, the financial rewards from the game ever greater and all parties want more and more money and control. Covid-19 only expedited a reckoning that was always coming.
In reality, where else could the game go?
The Champions League
The Champions League was already the logical starting point for the ESL. The competition has been tweaked over the years with the sole purpose of enriching the super clubs while keeping the rest of the European football pyramid somewhat intact.
It’s been a de facto Maginot Line where UEFA bestow a little bit more of the financial and competitive advantages to the elite every few years to keep them sweet and sweep away super league talk — until now.
The qualification, the formats and the prize money allocations benefit the elite over the many other European clubs trying to break this cartel. But it’s for the greater good UEFA tell themselves as they also reap the financial benefits of this cash cow.
The natural end point is a system where Ajax and Barcelona can both reach the Champions League semi finals in 2019 and yet Barcelona get twice the prize money. Ajax’s additional prize for bringing life and colour to this closed shop is to lose their star player Frenkie De Jong to Barcelona that summer.
If the super club can’t beat you on the field, they’ll beat you in earnings and by swooping in to buy the cream of your playing squad.
It’s not quite daylight robbery as Ajax get well remunerated for De Jong and others like Ziyech (Chelsea), De Ligt (Juventus) and Van Der Beek (Manchester Unitted) who fly the nest but it defeats the purpose of fair competition.
At various stages, Monaco, Borussia Dortmund, Lyon, Porto, Bayer Leverkusen and others have threatened to disrupt the established order and also quickly descended back into mediocrity in the same fashion.
Football in essence is the perfect sporting embodiment of free market capitalism in action.
There are no rules, no protections and no ways to control predatory capitalism as the big clubs have been allowed to get bigger and bigger. The small and medium players have just hung onto their coattails, grateful to get a trickle down of the commercial explosion in the game.
A bubble has been allowed to form where millionaire owners have been replaced by billionaires and even now trillionaires. Your local businessman owner has been replaced by a Sheikh, a Chinese self made billionaire or US venture capitalist.
Each TV deal must be bigger than the last or else you stagnate, die or your institutional shareholders become irate. And here again the big clubs just negotiate the rest out of existence.
In Spain, it’s a closed shop where Real Madrid and Barcelona hoover up all the TV money on a 10:1 ratio versus the rest. In the Premier League, the traditional relative equality of how TV money is distributed is being eroded as the bigger clubs grab more and more of the pie.
Commercially, the super clubs are also on another level. Manchester United can leverage their name recognition to have thirty “official global partners” for items such as wine, medical systems and coffee.
For those clubs looking to compete with the elite, the search and desire for an even wealthier billionaire than your rivals seems the only strategy that will help you succeed now. And that can mean being bought by arms dealers, chicken tycoons or individuals whose wealth can be built on very shaky foundations.
And even then many clubs across Europe have given up competing in a real way and are happy to lounge around mid-table knowing that this is all they can aspire to. The real achievement is staying in the top tier, putting out reserve teams for cup competitions and keeping the revenue streams secure. The dream is to survive rather than thrive.
As it stands
And thus an inequity is engrained in the system that manifests in a selection of national leagues that no longer make much sense.
- Juventus have won nine Scudettos in a row.
- Bayern are unbeatable in the Bundesliga and if they are beatable they’ll just buy the best players and managers from their domestic opposition.
- PSG have more cash on hand than probably the rest of Ligue 1 combined.
- Spain is a shootout between Barcelona and Real Madrid with occasional guest appearances from another ESL member Atletico Madrid.
- The Premier League has been won by four teams since 2005 (and Leicester) and you can nearly predict the one or two realistic title contenders each season without fail.
Counter arguments will say that Atletico Madrid or Sevilla might win in Spain this year, same with Lille or Lyon in France, Inter Milan in Italy……but will this new order sustain itself beyond this most surreal Covid season? I doubt it.
Football as it stands is broken and there are no realistic solutions to fix it.
Financial Fair Play (FFP) meant well but in the end, it just reinforces and accepts the commercial advantage the big clubs already have. Most of them also saw more benefit in breaking the rules as it has no long term effects.
Ask Man City, Chelsea and Real Madrid who have openly flouted FFP rules in various ways and find themselves in the Champions League semi-finals this year.
It isn’t as if there aren’t obvious solutions to most of the fundamental issues in the game but that means going against the fabric of how the sport has been run since it began.
- Commercial sponsorship revenue and TV money could be put in a collective pot and shared more equitably amongst all partners.
- You could have a form of a draft system where the best young talent doesn’t just get hoovered up by the elite clubs.
- A form of salary cap could be introduced which addresses wage inflation which has meant top players getting increasingly unsustainable earnings.
These are all solutions that have gone some way to protecting competitiveness in US sports, ensuring unpredictable outcomes and allowing new teams to emerge as contenders for the major prizes.
Money, money, money
The problem is none of these solutions will ever be adopted as there’s no incentive to do so amongst the elite who run football. All these super clubs are money junkies. Always have been, always will be. They can’t be weaned off this drug.
PSG or Manchester City with their unlimited oil money crave the status that Neymar or De Bruyne bestows upon their respective footballing projects and will keep fuelling transfer inflation.
Florentino Perez will blame the above and Premier League TV money for distorting the marketplace and impoverishing his Real Madrid. All the while, he’s adopted and championed a “Galácticos” model for the last two decades that has seemed no more sophisticated than paying shed loads of cash for whatever world superstar is in vogue on a given summer.
Who needs a sporting director or a player development strategy when you can pay Gareth Bale to sit injured on the bench for £600k a week?
So you have this charade where big clubs spend like drunken sailors and show no fiscal responsibility while simultaneously blaming other clubs and Covid for their plight.
The inevitability of a European Super League
If there is no other solution, no real governance and no desire for change, why not embrace a super league?
With a ESL, these clubs get a huge injection of cash, you’re guaranteed world class competitive fixtures on a weekly basis and having the world’s best playing against each other. The Champions League knockouts in recent years has given us so much entertainment and a ESL enshrines this further.
Why shouldn’t we embrace Bayern Munich v Barcelona or Liverpool v Real Madrid games on an annual basis rather than hoping they might meet in a Champions League knockout game every few years?
It’s the ultimate acceptance of what football now is. It’s a global commodity rather than a national game with working class roots in the community.
Is it obscene greed? Yes. Would it destroy the footballing pyramid as stands? Yes. Would it destroy the fabric of football clubs like Liverpool or Barcelona who would become glorified franchises with no geographical identity? Yes.
But when the current football system is already tethering on the edge and held together by an ever more far fetched illusion of fair competition, why keep this marriage of convenience?
You either seek to fix the current system or it will inevitably collapse from this lack of competitiveness and the desire of the wealthy few to profit more from the game unencumbered by the obligations of helping the weaker clubs.