Sports

Barcelona! Man U! Bayern! Juventus!

How a rumored Super League could upend European soccer.

Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona, Paul Pogba of Manchester United, and Joshua Kimmich of Munich.
Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona, Paul Pogba of Manchester United, and Joshua Kimmich of Munich.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images; Jeroen Meuwsen/Soccrates/Getty Images; Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Every December, a gaggle of European bureaucrats and a handful of handsome retired soccer players pack into a crammed, multilevel auditorium somewhere in Switzerland. They gather around a gleaming, silver, mouse-eared jug, stare at multiple televisions beaming out the word “RESPECT,” and then watch one of those former players and one of those current bureaucrats sort through eight clear bowls filled with miniature, hollow, plastic soccer balls. The balls get unscrewed, a piece of paper gets pulled out of each one, a name gets read aloud, and after about 20 minutes, the knockout round for “the best club competition on the planet” has been set.

Next week, they’ll all get together and do it all again, with the draw for the next stage of the 2018–19 Champions League scheduled for Monday in Nyon, Switzerland. Over the past 20 years, the Champions League has become the pinnacle of the planet’s most popular game. The same teams tend to win all of Europe’s domestic leagues, while the World Cup lacks many of the world’s top players and most of the top coaches. The knockout round of the Champions League, by contrast, features teams that marry elite technical and physical ability in a way we’ve never seen before. The games have taken on a remarkable kind of frenetic grace, with every moment having the potential to rewrite a narrative in real time.

Can Real Madrid, which lost Cristiano Ronaldo this past summer and fired its manager after just two months in the job, win a record-tying fourth-straight title? Will Paris Saint-Germain finally pay back billions in Qatari investments and advance past the quarterfinals for the first time this century? Do any of the English clubs have what it takes to bring a European title back to the United Kingdom? And can Bayern Munich make up for Germany’s embarrassing World Cup showing by besting its continental competitors?

Or, what if we just stopped asking all of those questions? What if we stopped going to Switzerland at the end of every year because it was a special occasion? What if we just made international competition the only occasion? If some of the bureaucrats who will be in the audience on Monday get their way, that’s what’s going to happen.

The threat of a breakaway league for the soccer elite has been looming since the late 1980s. It’s why the Champions League became the Champions League, and it’s why so many domestic leagues have allowed for broadcasting deals where the top two or three teams receive an outsize percentage of the annual TV revenue. Push back on our demands, and we’ll just go form our own league. The “Spanish first division” wouldn’t make much sense without Barcelona or Real Madrid, now would it?

In 2009, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez proposed a kind of Super League that would not abandon the domestic leagues but would “guarantee that the best always play the best—something that does not happen in the Champions League.” That same year, then–Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger predicted that there would be a super league within 10 years. In 2016, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross reportedly met with a group of top Premier League clubs to discuss the possibility of forming a new compact among the best of the best.

And then came “Football Leaks.” Since late October, the German newspaper Der Spiegel has been releasing a steady stream of reports on the malfeasance of various high-profile clubs, players, and agents based on information from leaked documents acquired by a whistleblower who goes by the unforgettable name of … John. One of the first reports claimed that Real Madrid, AC Milan, Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, and Manchester United discussed forming a breakaway league with “an option for leaving the national leagues and their football associations behind entirely.” Per the report, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Paris Saint-Germain would also be invited to join the league, which would begin in 2021. Those 11 teams would be guaranteed membership for the first 20 years of the league, and Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Marseille, and Roma would also be invited on a conditional basis. Bayern Munich, according to the report, went so far as exploring the legality of leaving the German Bundesliga and asking a lawyer whether it would be required to release its players for German national team duty if the club was no longer a member of the continental governing body.

With its pervasive, barely hidden tribalism, European soccer has always had more in common with college football than any of its pro-sports counterparts in America. (In case you’re wondering: Yes, Manchester United is Texas.) The sports also share a similar infrastructure. NCAA football has the Power Five conferences: the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. Soccer has a clear group of five elite leagues: England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, and France’s Ligue 1. If you think of winning a domestic competition as a more meaningful version of collecting a conference title, then the Champions League is European soccer’s version of the College Football Playoff, an imperfect-but-wildly-successful-and-money-printing knockout tournament between the best teams in the sport.

Most of Europe’s domestic leagues were founded in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, but European soccer did not have a unified governing body until almost a decade after the end of World War II. UEFA was formed in 1954, and that December, English club Wolverhampton Wanderers, managed by Stan Cullis, one of the original adherents of the British long-ball game, defeated Hungary’s Honved, 3–2, in a match that took place on, as David Goldblatt writes in The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer, “a pitch deliberately saturated with water” in order to stymie the Hungarian’s short-passing style. Cullis and co. claimed themselves to be “Champions of the World,” and such unearned grandiloquence spurred French journalists Gabriel Hanot and Jacques Ferran to craft a proposal for a truncated annual pan-European competition to determine the best team on the continent. UEFA heard and approved the plan in the spring of 1955, and the first European Cup took place the following year. From 1956 until 1991, the competition essentially included only the champions of the various European leagues and the previous season’s European Cup winner. With domestic leagues already playing most of their games on weekends, these Cup games took place on weekdays throughout the season.

In 1992, UEFA re-branded the competition as the “Champions League,” employed a marketing agency to create the now-ubiquitous star-ball design, and expanded the number of games in the tournament. UEFA took centralized control of the television rights, sold them globally, and saw revenues explode. Every club that qualified was given a chunk of the profit based on how far it advanced. “Within two years it was becoming apparent that any club that could not get regular access to the tournament would be systematically disadvantaged in national competitions,” Goldblatt writes. So the richest clubs in the biggest domestic leagues lobbied UEFA to include not just the champions of those domestic competitions, but the runners-up and beyond. Today, four of the big five leagues get four teams in the Champions League, while France gets three. Overall revenue for last year’s competition was $2.5 billion. The name of the tournament has lost all meaning, but the rebrand has been an unmitigated success.

Right now, UEFA gets all the revenue and apportions some of it to the teams. Why shouldn’t Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, et al. break away and keep all the money for themselves? And rather than playing Champions League games every few Tuesdays and Wednesdays, why not make it the main weekly competition?

Stefan Szymanski has been asking this question for more than a decade, but his answer has changed.

A professor at the University of Michigan and one of the co-authors of Soccernomics, Szymanski wrote a paper with co-author Thomas Hoehm back in 1999 arguing that the best teams in Europe were leaving lots of money on the table by not playing each other more often. “I always used to believe [a super league] was inevitable,” Szymanski said. “But in the mid 2000s I changed my mind—when it became clear that the Premier League is so far ahead financially. … I think we’re well on the way to that world—in which the EPL is the super league, and all the other leagues are minors.”

In 1992, the top 22 teams in what was then called Division One broke away from the Football League, the pyramid that housed all of England’s professional teams, and formed the Premier League.* They were free to negotiate their own television deal, and as Goldblatt writes, it was awarded to “the subscription satellite channel BSkyB owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International Group, for the then astronomical figure of over £304 million over three years.” The Premier League was the first to capitalize on the growing global interest in the sport afforded by television and soon the internet. In 2016–17, its TV deal brought in $3.7 billion, more than double that of any other domestic soccer league on the planet.

The latest Super League rumblings, then, could be seen as an effort by Europe’s top continental clubs to keep the Premier League from reaching exit velocity. Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, PSG, Barcelona, and Juventus all still rank in the top 10 in global revenue, but the other five teams on that list are all British. Among the top 30, 15 are from the Premier League; no other league has more than five.

Plus, while at first glance it seems like a no-brainer to have Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, and Paul Pogba play against each other every weekend, the novelty might wear off quickly. We don’t get to see Bayern Munich and Real Madrid play all the time, so it feels special when they do. Every little moment gets saturated with an entrancing kind of pressure that’d be impossible to replicate over the slow burn of a week-in-week-out season.

“If you think about it like an economist, is there some kind of demand that’s not being met right now?” said Chris Anderson, author of The Numbers Game and a soccer industry strategy and investment consultant based in London. “Amongst European viewers and consumers, they enjoy the Champions League, but they’re not passionate about it. Most of the people’s emotional focus is still on the national top division, then the local teams or regional teams.”

A Super League would also drastically change the way fans conceive of various clubs. According to FiveThirtyEight’s underlying rating system, Borussia Dortmund is currently the 14th-best team in the world. Dortmund is probably not an elite team, but it does have a ton of exciting young talent (including the Great American Hope, Christian Pulisic), and the club has roared out to a seven-point lead in the Bundesliga this season thanks to some good luck and an off year from Bayern Munich. While Dortmund could probably knock off anyone in Europe over a two-leg matchup, it likely wouldn’t stand a chance in a weekly grind against more talented teams. In the current setup, they’re one of the best teams in the world. In a super league, they’d be the New York Giants.

Then there’s the issue of what would happen to all of the leagues outside of the super league. Right now, every European club—whether it’s the second division in England or the fifth division in France—can dream of one day playing the Champion League thanks to the promotion-and-relegation system. If the top of the food chain officially gets closed off from everybody else, would all those leagues die on the vine?

“Home league structures would suffer financially as TV companies shifted their resources,” said Rob Wilson, an expert in football finance at Sheffield Hallam University in England. “That said, home leagues may well end up more attractive as competitive balance would naturally improve when disparately large clubs moved out.”

Given the tenuous but still existent solidarity inherent in the European system, the politics of a Super League wouldn’t really work, either.

“It would be too easy for national politicians to raise a stink about it with the European Union,” Anderson said. He added: “I just don’t see any Germany politician saying to Bayern Munich that it’s OK for you to go play with Real Madrid and leave the Bundesliga.”

Even if all of these obstacles were to get surmounted, any potential Super League is still likely years away. Last month, Juventus President Andrea Agnelli and UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin held a press conference to say that there would not be such an entity at least until 2024. But if the history of European soccer has told us anything, the richest teams will keep pushing for a bigger chunk of the rewards. So, if a Super League ever comes to be, Goldblatt offered me a final piece of advice.

“They can fuck off,” he said, “and we will get on with life.”

*Correction, Dec. 14, 2018: An earlier version of this article misstated that the Premier League launched with 20 teams. There were 22 teams at the league’s inception.