Theresa Braine @NyDailyNews
Since the inception of the world’s first soccer league in 1863, soccer has lived through its icons – Diego Maradona, Pele, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi – but also through rowdy crowds, YouTube compilations, and pick-up games on muddy pitches. At its very core, it is a game by the masses, for the masses. A beautiful game. However, it is also a game under threat, undergoing a revolution that threatens to destroy tradition and the values supporters hold dear.
On April 18, twelve top clubs from England, Spain, and Italy announced a joint venture to create a breakaway European Super League (ESL), sparking outrage in the soccer world. The move sought to replace the established Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League (UCL), an annual competition in which participants are selected solely based on sporting merit in their domestic leagues, with a model more closely resembling closed North American sports leagues, such as the NBA and NFL.
The breakaway league proposed an all-new 20-team format, made up of 15 permanent slots for founding members and five rotating slots for teams based on performance in their national leagues. In the current format of the UCL, only teams that finish at the top of their domestic leagues are rewarded with a berth in the following year’s competition. This accommodates the possibility in any given season that a perennial superpower would falter, allowing for a smaller club having a fairytale season to fill in their slot in the tournament and deservedly compete against Europe’s strongest teams.
The motives for the new league were largely financial – a study by KPMG, an audit service, estimates a total loss of over $7.2 billion in net profits for teams in the top divisions of European leagues for the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons, to which UEFA has provided little response. Backed by investment firm JPMorgan Chase, each founding team of the new league was expected to receive $425 million for simply signing on to the deal, and over $4 billion was to be split between the clubs for future “infrastructure investments.”
However, this so-called “future of soccer” imploded after only 48 hours in the limelight. Whether due to sudden revelations by club managements, closer legal scrutiny, or simply the growing ignominy of the project among fans and players, all six Premier League clubs backed out within 24 hours, closely followed by most of the remaining clubs. During the chaos, there was hardly a peep from the ESL’s organizers. No rationale, no explanation, and certainly no address directed towards the furious fanbases was forthcoming from Florentino Pérez, the newly-appointed chairman of the ESL and president of Real Madrid, one of the twelve teams included in the proposal. The league simply fizzled out of existence, and the soccer world heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Upon reflection, it wasn’t hard to see this situation coming. There had been rumblings of a breakaway league for years, and those rumors had only grown louder since the beginning of the pandemic. Despite this sudden visibility, private-equity has been silently permeating soccer for decades. From more prominent examples such as Russian oligarch Roman Ambramovich’s takeover of the Chelsea team in financial ruin, and Neymar’s egregious world record transfer fee to PSG of $263 million, to those less so, like subtly-boosted ticket prices and inconvenient game times to prioritize TV broadcasting for international markets. The consensus, however, is clear. Soccer is looking less like a game and more like a business. This latest addition to the saga may just have been the last straw for fans who value the game for itself instead of commercialization.
Fans are justified in their anger. A handful of wealthy clubs are attempting to change the game of soccer from what makes it so beloved – the fact that a small local club could on any given day overthrow the giants of the game, that nothing is certain until 11 players fight it out on the pitch for 90 minutes. While teams can aspire towards qualifying for the UCL through sporting merit, they would be forever shut out from the ESL, which would be played out among the same fixed group of competitors every year. With no possibility of a Cinderella story or a David vs. Goliath matchup in a closed league like the ESL, the fans will lose soccer’s scintillating sense of jeopardy. They would have little hope that their childhood club could ever win against the giants of the sport, let alone be given the opportunity to compete.
The ESL was also fiercely opposed because of its harmful impact on teams not deemed to be among the elite. The lucrative new league will deeply affect the identities of the numerous people and regions inextricably tied to these teams, as clubs not only financially contribute to their local economies, but also unite people around a common passion and culture. The financial strength of the few top teams in each domestic league currently trickles down to relegation-threatened clubs, and even further still to second- and third-tier teams in the soccer pyramid, allowing them to continue operating. Clubs are rewarded with increased visibility and prize money as they climb through the ranks, but in turn have to perform well or risk being relegated to lower leagues. With the ESL, clubs could choose to opt-out of their domestic leagues, causing revenue to nosedive, and leaving smaller clubs struggling to stay afloat.
While many are quick to accuse the 12 founding clubs of greed, UEFA and FIFA deserve criticism as well. In an announcement (perhaps strategically) masked by the news of the Super League, UEFA introduced a revamped format for the UCL beginning in 2024. Not only is this projected to rake in massive amounts of money from match day, sponsor, and TV revenue, but it also introduces over 100 new games to the already-saturated soccer calendar. What has surprisingly gone under the radar is that they are also planning to introduce much of the same principles that made the ESL so despised, allowing underperforming teams that have a high “club coefficient” – cumulative points earned in European competition over the previous five seasons – to earn reserved spots in the tournament over more-qualified teams. Money also plays a key role in the upcoming 2022 World Cup, set to be held in Qatar. The Gulf State’s abuse of migrant construction workers rang alarm bells for many; however, despite multiple protests and a boycott effort by the Norwegian FA, the tournament is set to continue, allowing both the country and FIFA to reap the benefits of tourism, sponsorships, and TV deals.
It is all too clear that there are problems in the soccer world, but are there solutions? Attempting to repair the structural and economical flaws of European soccer, exacerbated by the pandemic, is a tall order, but not impossible. What we need is an end to the gross inflation of player transfer fees, the increasing prioritization of profit over people, and the lack of communication between club supporters and owners, restoring financial and ethical sustainability to the soccer ecosystem. One of the first steps in achieving this is ramping up the role of players’ unions across the continent. Several players and coaches, left in the dark about the roles their clubs played in forming the ESL, spoke up in anger about the proposal. Not only did the new league threaten to overwhelm their already crowded schedules – prioritizing profits over the physical and mental well-being of athletes – but it could have ostracized them from national teams and domestic leagues, which are under UEFA’s jurisdiction. Increased collaboration between players, team owners, and UEFA would help promote transparency and allow the athletes to have more say in new policies. Other possibilities include restructuring the hierarchy of club ownership and league organizers, enforcing salary caps, and increasing solidarity payments to clubs with less financial might, but these are solutions that would take many years to develop.
In the short term, as the Champions League final approaches and domestic leagues come to a close, it is important to hold team owners accountable and remember the roles they played as architects of this cynical project. The friction between tradition and money, as well as fans and owners, finally came to a head with the ESL, but the battle is by no means over. Soccer is undergoing a revolution – hopefully one from which the lifelong supporters of the sport emerge victorious, preserving the romance of the game we hold so close to our hearts.