Sports

The Thrilling Collapse of the European Super League

How the biggest teams in global soccer drew up an incredible fiasco.

Messi curled up on the pitch with his face in his hands crying
Barcelona’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi reacts during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg football match between Paris Saint-Germain and FC Barcelona at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris on March 10. Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

Farewell, European Super League; we hardly knew ye.

Beginning with the announcement of your existence on Sunday, you lifted global soccer above your head and promised to send it all crashing down. For less than 60 hours, your international cabal consisting of the biggest soccer brands from England, Spain, and Italy threatened to override the sport’s premier competition, the Champions League, and supplant its central structure of rewarding teams that perform well and punishing those that do poorly. By Tuesday afternoon, your dream of “saving” global soccer by building a permanent dominant caste of teams that, regardless of their performance, would hoover most of the sport’s available money into itself using techniques borrowed from college and professional football and EuroLeague basketball had collapsed. What happened to ye?

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The short answer is that the teams lost their nerve. Reaction to news of the Super League’s creation was swift and devastating, with fans staging protests across the continent, even blocking the Chelsea team bus on its way to its home stadium Tuesday, forcing club legend Petr Cech to get out and plead for peace, understanding, and the resumption of orderly traffic patterns. Legends of the game came out nearly unanimously against it. Coaches like Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp found diplomatic ways of expressing their distaste for the idea while retaining the future possibility of drawing a paycheck from it. Players, perhaps seeing news of a potential salary cap, mostly shook their heads at it. The German clubs and their executives, which refused invitations, cast aspersions from the moral high ground. UEFA, which organizes the Champions League and so had perhaps the most to lose from the Super League, threatened to throw an entire library at the clubs and their players, including the possibility of anyone playing for a Super League club being banned from future World Cups.

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In other words, it was a lot. Too much, too fast, too little thought through. The first two clubs to announce their departures from the Super League were Chelsea and Manchester City, whose petrochemical billionaire owners seemed to remember at nearly the same time (Chelsea’s news broke first, if you’re counting) that if they had gotten into soccer ownership for the money, they would have done things very differently. A few hours later, all six English clubs—half of the 12 teams that had already been announced as Super League participants—were out. By the following morning, only Juventus, Real Madrid, and Barcelona were left. The Super League put out a statement saying it would “reconsider the most appropriate steps to reshape the project, always having in mind our goals of offering fans the best experience possible while enhancing solidarity payments for the entire football community.” Brings a tear to the ear, doesn’t it?

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It is possible these clubs didn’t anticipate this level of blowback. On the one hand, for a fan, more games between teams you’ve heard of featuring players you definitely know is tempting. Few people load FC Krasnodar into their created tournaments when playing FIFA. But the Super League seems to have underestimated how central soccer’s league and tournament designs are to its appeal. There’s almost always something to play for in the big leagues. If it’s not a title, then it’s a place in one of the European competitions. If those are out of reach, then teams are trying to avoid getting relegated to the league below. This setup of tiered rewards and escapes is arguably what’s sustained the game as it’s grown more hegemonic, with only a handful of teams in each league challenging for the title each year. But by placing that handful of clubs into a permanent upper crust, the Super League threatened everything else.

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The ease and speed with which its participants folded doesn’t speak well for the idea’s brain trust, led publicly by Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez and Juventus’ Andrea Agnelli, or for its master plan. Those teams had to know that their titanic upheaval’s potential fiduciary victories weren’t going to get cheered from the (still mostly empty) terraces. For all the billions that were potentially on the table, the clubs didn’t even try to ride it out, to let the outrage dissipate over time, to wait for the news cycle to get distracted or try to swing it the other way. It’s like they’ve never dealt with bad press before. Ken Early called the idea “a gamble on the nature of fandom” in the Irish Times, but the clubs couldn’t even call the fans’ bluff for three days. No one told them to hold the line, to trust that no matter how angry they might be about the break from tradition, high-level soccer will always find an audience.

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Maybe there was little there there to hold out for. There may never have been a middle step between 1) Shatter a system that is already tilted heavily in our favor, perhaps irrevocably, and 3) Profit (and maybe kill off the lower divisions forever). A PowerPoint presentation where the dollar signs come flying in from all different angles does not make a good schematic for a sporting revolution, even if it was put together by J.P. Morgan. When your scheme for a plutocrat-driven exodus can’t even get Boris Johnson on board, something has gone horribly wrong.

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Journalist and author Simon Kuper says we shouldn’t be surprised that the Super League went so poorly, since most of the brains behind soccer clubs did not get their positions for their brains. How could you announce a league with 15 permanent members at a moment when you can only name 12 of them? It could not have been more obvious that the remaining slots were reserved for Germany’s Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and France’s Paris Saint-Germain, but when those three clubs refused to sign on, it was clear the Super League had no backup plan beyond waiting them out and maybe trying to lure them in by waving stacks of cash in their faces. What was it going to do instead, invite Everton?

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We may never know whom the brains in charge were planning to sell the broadcast rights to—just that even Amazon felt compelled to deny its involvement with this particular effort at establishing an unbreakable monopoly. We may never find out what mechanism the Super League would have used to elevate five plebeian teams into its ranks each year to make an even 20, nor what trapdoor it would have pushed them out of after feeding them to the lions. The whole thing has fallen apart as quickly and as comically as an Acme product, and now we just have to wait to see whether this is one of the cartoons where all the pieces will come crashing down on top of the perpetrators after they themselves have hit bottom.

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The first blow may have fallen. The Super League was the logical endpoint in the career of Manchester United executive Ed Woodward, whose entire time at the club has been spent treating its fan base as an input by which sponsorship amounts can be calculated. The club announced Tuesday as the Super League was collapsing around it that Woodward would be departing at the end of 2021, though it later claimed the two events are unrelated. Reports of Juventus’ Agnelli resigning from the club that both his father and grandfather had led before him turned out to be premature. Rumors flew that the owners of many of the clubs involved, including Manchester United and Liverpool, were looking to sell their teams after the idea was scuttled.

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But for some, punishment far more drastic than a series of executive pink slips is called for, from points deductions to an abrupt ouster from this year’s Champions League. Historian and author David Goldblatt says that now is the time to push back on the influence of extreme wealth on the game. “We must rewrite the rules, remake the institutions and reassess our role as fans—for we all, collectively, allowed them to contemplate this gambit, and to believe they could get away with it,” he wrote. Without further consequences or other disincentives, there’s always the chance that the next breakaway effort, one with competent leadership and more than one idea, will succeed. The stakes might be too high for them not to try again. “I remain convinced of the beauty of that project,” Agnelli told Reuters, nailing a line from an audition for a supervillain role.

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For this moment, the status quo is largely unchanged. UEFA is indicating the prodigal clubs will be welcomed back into the fold. The big teams may even get a new expansion to the Champions League. It will feature more teams and more games than ever before, and thus is sure to generate more money than ever before. As such, some have suggested that the whole Super League was a smoke screen to make those reforms appear more palatable. Which might be true, but it is nonetheless exhausting to think about. There are precious few good guys to root for at the suit and boardroom level of the game. UEFA makes for a poor white hat. FIFA is still corrupt. The 2022 World Cup is still being held in Qatar, where thousands of workers have died preparing for it. There is and will remain plenty to be cynical about in soccer.

But for a brief, ugly moment, we got a glimpse of a world that would have been even worse, and we managed to step back from it, despite the rocket-powered roller skates we were wearing. Farewell, European Super League; we knew ye were trouble.

Listen to this week’s episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, which discussed the Super League’s creation before its collapse, below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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