The European Super League’s 48-hour lifespan, explained
Over the course of about 48 hours, the world of European soccer went through an absolute roller-coaster. On Sunday, plans were revealed that 12 of the richest clubs were breaking off to form their own Super League with the idea of supplanting UEFA’s Champions League as the preeminent club tournament in the world. By Tuesday afternoon, the plan was in tatters with at least half the teams disavowing involvement and several others ready to drop out. On Wednesday — with just four teams not officially pulling out — Juventus chairman and founder of the Super League Andrea Agnelli confirmed the obvious: the Super League was at least temporarily dead.
There’s a lot of ins and outs. But in the hope of helping a non-soccer fan better understand what happened, SB Nation’s hockey editor Steph Driver interviewed soccer editor Jeremiah Oshan. This is their conversation:
Steph: My understanding of the Super League is that all of the big teams decided to break off and start their own league for their own competition, is that right?
Jeremiah: That’s basically the gist of it, at least most of the world’s biggest clubs agreed to do it anyway. That’s the so-called “Big Six” in England (Arsenal, Chelsea Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham), the three biggest clubs in Spain (Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid) and the three biggest clubs in Italy (AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus). There were supposed to be three more “founding” members that had not yet been named and then five more rotating clubs. In hindsight, those three missing teams should have been a pretty big red flag but it now all seems a bit moot now.
Steph: And this made Big Soccer big mad?
Jeremiah: In a word, yes. In many words, very, very, very, very, very mad. Basically, the whole of the soccer world — with a few notable exceptions — lost their collective minds over this. We’re talking fans of the teams who broke away, fans of like literally every other team, players of all stripes, heck even some of the coaches and players of these teams — guys whose livelihoods depend on being employed by one of these same teams — were less than enthusiastic about it.
Steph: Hold on, it wasn’t just fans and players that weren’t included in the Super League that were mad at being excluded, it was everyone?
Jeremiah: I’ve been working in soccer media for over a decade and can say without a doubt that I’ve never seen the soccer world agree on anything quite like they agreed that this was literally the worst idea that someone had ever come up with (which sounds hyperbolic, but I think accurately articulates the tone of the collective reaction). When I say, “everyone” was against this, I should mention that AMAZON!!! Released a statement that basically said “Look, we love money but this is crazy.”
Steph: That’s incredible, I love when people get collectively angry at a thing. From what I saw, the soccer officiating bodies all said no thank you and started announcing plans to exclude the teams and players from big events?
Jeremiah: That part was more expected. This was a plan explicitly hatched to cut out many of those organizations, after all. I think the Super League folks planned for that, in fact, and figured that even if UEFA and FIFA went through with the nuclear options of expelling them from the current Champions League and banning the players from events like the World Cup that ultimately money would smooth everything over and they’d still have a product so popular that they’d be able to print money off of it. What they didn’t anticipate was the groundswell of outright hatred for the idea.
Steph: At the end of the day, was this all about money?
Jeremiah: Oh, undeniably yes. The powers can talk about how this was a necessity born out of Covid-19 or, more cynically, an acknowledgement of the soccer world order as it is, but this was from beginning to end a decision born and fueled by the desire to consolidate money into as few teams as humanly possible.
Steph: What happened Tuesday? I went out to get Taco Bell for lunch and by the time I was in front of a computer again, the whole thing was dead.
Jeremiah: I’ll be completely honest: I did not foresee such a swift reversal but it does now look like the Super League is dead. Led by Manchester City — a team effectively owned by the United Arab Emirates — all six Premier League teams have now pulled out. Manchester United’s chairman has apparently resigned over this fiasco and their owners — the Glazers of NFL fame — are saying they might sell. Barcelona is now claiming they’ll only join if their fans sign off on it. Basically, it appears as though everyone is having second thoughts as it becomes apparent that this might not be the wildly popular league they need it to be in order to make the Money Printer go Brrrr.
Steph: How did the talks get this far without anyone either finding out or anticipating this type of reaction?
Jeremiah: I suspect that JP Morgan’s willingness to kick in $4 billion to this venture was what convinced them it was an idea worth trying over any objections. But beyond that, wealth has a way of creating quite a bubble. While the league’s announcement did come as a bit of a shock, the idea has been swimming around forever and it’s unpopularity should have never surprised anyone. But these are people who don’t hang out on Twitter or fan forums and probably don’t even pay attention to the punditry. They are not the class of people who are used to anyone telling them that their ideas are bad and certainly aren’t inclined to listen to what fans might want. I think this was soccer’s “Let them eat cake” moment and it could well result in a similar outcome, narratively speaking.
Steph: What’s next? Do you think they’ll try again?
Jeremiah: That’s definitely a big and interesting question. There’s a lot of talk of punishing these teams regardless. Maybe that means docking them points or kicking them out of European competitions or, heck, maybe even relegating them to lower divisions. I tend to think most of that is somewhat counter-productive since it mostly hurts fans and players, two groups who actually seem to have helped keep this from happening. We might see a bunch of the owners or leaders of these organization sell, resign or get fired — and it looks like we’re already seeing that — which probably gets us closer to a resolution most soccer fans actually want.
But will any of this stop future billionaire owners from trying something similar? I doubt it.
Steph: Do you think any of these ideas will have a ripple effect across other sports or other leagues?
Jeremiah: Somewhat ironically, the Super League is broadly modeled on a more American vision of sport where you have teams who don’t move up and down between divisions. So, in a sense we already see this model at work in places like the NFL and NBA. I suppose it’s good for sports teams owners to be reminded that their investments are only as valuable as the people consuming their product allow them to be, but I don’t have much hope of some sort of grand awakening or anything. Even before the Super League imploded, UEFA announced changes to the Champions League that gives big teams even more sway and was probably designed to keep this from happening.
This proposal failed in part because it was so brazen. I’m sure some future owners will try something similar but maybe a bit more plausibly equitable. Money, as they say, always finds a way.