European performance underlines how ludicrous a super league seems

THE concept of a European Super League refuses to go away; as expected, the advocates are regrouping and formulating what they believe will be a more palatable solution for the good of the game. Of course, it still smacks of elitism and will undoubtedly look like a group of big clubs with self-interest at heart. They’ve also tried to make statistics work for them, claiming that young people don’t really like watching the game so much, that their supposed low attention span has made the game too demanding to meet their requirements. This data was taken from the US, which is not the prime audience of European football. Javier Tebas, president of La Liga, has rightly called this research as “fake news”.

Many people believe the very idea of a super league is a product of entitlement, arrogance and presumption. So it is quite comical that when you look at this season’s European competitions, so many of the original 12 clubs are hardly living up to their status. Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Juventus have all tumbled out of the UEFA Champions League, Arsenal and Manchester United are playing UEFA Europa League football and Tottenham Hotspur and AC Milan have yet to secure their place in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Over the five seasons prior to 2022-23, only four clubs from the 12 have made it through to the last 16 in every Champions League campaign: Liverpool, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Juventus. The average number of the rebel 12 that have successfully negotiated the group phase is around eight. This season, it could reach a low of five or six, but most likely, it will be seven. Barcelona, as cash-strapped as they are, have just missed out on the EUR 9.6 million awarded to teams that make the last 16.

While the English clubs have gone quiet on the subject, perhaps realising that any attempt to introduce a super league may be the biggest public relations disaster they have ever experienced, the persistent trio of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus are still hoping their dream project comes to fruition. If it does happen, they may struggle to find willing partners. It would seem unlikely that the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool will be involved, so that would leave the ESL with the task of finding other clubs that will not damage the viability of such a scheme.

There is a strong feeling the ESL will by-pass English clubs and looking at big names like Celtic and Rangers. Maybe a revamped league with these Scottish giants and Ajax, Benfica and Porto would fill the gaps? The narrative also seems to have shifted and, supposedly, the ESL is primarily about combating the growing menace of English clubs, who are increasingly dominating European football.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and clubs invariably go through cycles that change their status. Manchester United and Arsenal, for example, have fallen from their pedestals in recent years, and Tottenham’s position among the elite is quite tenuous and Chelsea are a shadow of their Abramovich peak time. Now Liverpool are having a tough period as they suffer the consequences of lack lustre rebuilding. The Italian clubs have all experienced a fall from grace and suddenly, Barcelona look a very vulnerable club. Only Manchester City and Real Madrid of the 12 seem in truly robust shape at the moment, although Arsenal’s start to 2022-23 suggests the trajectory has turned positive for the north London club.

Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid remain dogged, however, and they have taken UEFA to court, claiming they have abused their power in blocking rival events. The decision won’t be revealed until mid-December, by which time, the ESL story may have taken another twist or two. Meanwhile, the company that is handling the ESL, A22 Sports Management, have appointed a new CEO, Bernd Reichert, who is confident that his clients will get their way.

In reality, will they get what they want? How will these clubs look their peers in the eye if the creation of a self-serving model inclicts mortal damage on domestic football right across the continent? How can they remain members of their local association and their confederation? And most of all, can they honestly tell their stakeholders they are acting in the best interests of the world’s most popular sport?

Super League: Is this the self preservation society?

THE main protagonists in the European Super League saga have all had their say this past week and I’m sorry, gentlemen, your arguments are not convincing. They say that statistics can be made to reinforce any argument and you cannot help thinking that using a US survey to determine how Gen Z and Millenials feel about watching live sport just isn’t accurate in analysing the future appetite for European football. Moreover, the current landscape has been shaped by the very clubs that want to float their boat off into the sunset.

The football establishment, which doesn’t just include Real Madrid and Barcelona, has long felt uncomfortable about new competitors to their position at the top of the game. Chelsea, Manchester City and, particularly, Paris Saint-Germain are hated by clubs that enjoyed their position at the summit for decades upon decades.

There is a myth that says the big clubs all organically evolved from natural methods such as popularity, success and honestly-earned money. There’s no accounting for British Empire mill and factory owners exploiting their workforce and funding teams, clubs built on gambling and the pools or franchise football. Because it is in the past, it doesn’t matter. Furthermore, grasping capitalism with both hands to gain an advantage over peers is also ignored. At all levels of the game, “johnny-cum-latelies” are never popular with those that has ring-fenced their status. The jibe that a club has no history is also misplaced, for history is made every day, be it successful or unsuccessful. Liverpool and Tottenham both won their first trophies in 1901, Manchester City lifted their first silverware three years later and in 1908, Manchester United did likewise. Arsenal’s first prize came in 1930 and Chelsea were on the podium in 1955. Sounds like everyone has some sort of history.

The claim that football is losing its place as the world’s leading sport is pure fancy and looks like an attempt to whip-up a level of panic. Sport becomes vulnerable when economic times are hard and the past decade or more has seen the global landscape come under enormous pressure, not least because of the pandemic, but also the overhang from the financial crisis of 2008 and now the Ukraine war. There has been a rise in youth unemployment and wages have stagnated since 2008. Economies that were built around service industries have suffered and there has been a continent-wide surge in xenophobia and racism. At the same time, football has continued to pay its players more, transfer fees have grown and admission prices have continued to move beyond the reach of many young and low-earning people. For all its virtue signalling and appetite for social causes, football has become a game of exclusion because of its pricing policies. The sport remains the most popular and attended game on the planet, there is little sign of diminishing audiences in real terms.

Indeed, the English Premier League’s crowds are at their highest level since the post-WW2 boom. In 2022-23, the average is just under 40,000. Elsewhere, Italy, Spain and Germany are all enjoying healthy gates. In some cases, the size of the stadium restricts even further growth. The Champions League, in 2022-23, has an average of almost 46,000 this season, the best since the pandemic and the third highest in the past decade.

The information that is driving the supposed concern about football’s future is based on a survey among US people. The US has a very distinct portfolio of sports that are heavily marketed and part of American culture. But baseball as a spectator sport routinely declines each year by 1%. It is widely recognised that baseball teams struggle to fill their grounds and there has been criticism that tickets are too expensive. Overall, the classic US sports have stable attendances, while Major League Soccer appears to have stalled in terms of its crowds. If the research carried out suggests the last two generations have little interest in live sport, it is not the quality of the sport that is necessarily the problem, it is accessibility and the fact that there are many distractions. Rather than further polarise football – which is part of the issue – the solution is surely to make the game more user friendly for younger generations, in other words, make it cheaper.

There is recognition now that football’s polarisation has not been healthy for the game, something that has been discussed for the past decade by those on the outside. France (PSG), Germany (Bayern), Italy (Juventus) and Spain (Real and Barca) have dominated their domestic leagues, while England, for all its money and criticism, has been the most democratic of the big five. The Champions League is the trophy they all crave, but only Chelsea of the “new money” clubs have won the competition. The other winners in the past decade have been Bayern, Real, Barca and Liverpool – all definitely part of the pre-Abramovich era. The walls are closing in, though, and it is only a matter of time before PSG and Manchester City, the dreaded “state-owned” clubs, win the Champions League. Barcelona have admitted that their financial problems were partly due to their attempt to keep pace with the clubs backed by middle eastern states.

The underlying sentiment emerging from the desire to create a Super League does appear to be mostly self-preservation, and it is no surprise that PSG, for one, have not thrown their hat into the ring. It would seem unlikely that any future attempt to create a super-elite competition would gain the approval of the Premier League clubs, which would render the project unworkable and worthless. The response from fans in England when the first attempt was unveiled said everything.

There’s another aspect to this tale which does deserve consideration. If football’s age of capitalism has peaked, then why try to preserve a system that has become bloated, unsustainable, unbalanced and downright insane? Why not use this moment in time to rework the game across Europe for the benefit of all, with more modest levels of expenditure, remuneration and expectation? Barca claimed that if they were to be supportive of a super league, it will be because it is an open competition based on meritocracy. The club also said Barca represented the people’s football, the football of the fans. That boast doesn’t seem so genuine when you consider the implications of a super league which will go some way towards raising the level of polarisation.