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The night the footballing world went into a frenzy: The European Super League controversy, explained

Football could never be the same again

UEFA set to introduce third club competition in 2021 [File] UEFA currently has two club competitions―the Champions League and the Europa League | Reuters

On Sunday night, the global footballing world was all abuzz with barely contained trepidation and disquiet. Reports flew in, claiming that some of the richest and the most high-profile clubs in the world were set to announce (before midnight GMT) the decision to create a breakaway European Super League, a controversial plan that has been years in the making and which would rewrite the future of the sport in more ways than one. With claims that the announcement was in the pipeline, both the UEFA (the European football governing union) and FIFA (the sport’s global governing organisation) came out with threats of massive sanctions against the clubs who decided to participate in the newly-formed league.

Right on cue, 12 clubs announced that the "Super League will commence as soon as possible", given that the global pandemic "has accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model". "By bringing together the world's greatest clubs and players to play each other throughout the season, the Super League will open a new chapter for European football, ensuring world-class competition and facilities, and increased financial support for the wider football pyramid," according to a statement from Joel Glazer, whose family owns Manchester United.

What would be the impact of such a high-profile defection on the beautiful game?

What is the European Super League?

As it stands now, European football consists of both national domestic leagues (English, Spanish, French, German, Italian etc) and pan-European competitions like the top-flight UEFA Champions League and the second tier UEFA Europa League. The European Super League will change all that. Nobody is privy to the complete details yet, but the new league is expected to be designed like the ongoing UEFA Champions League. That is, there would be group stages, followed by knockout rounds. The league would be completely outside the purview of the UEFA, with the participant clubs turning the organisers of the competition.

Currently, 12 elite clubs—six from the English Premier League, three from the Italian Serie A, and three from the Spanish La Liga—look all set to join the Super League. The list included the EPL’s big six in Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham, Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, and Italy’s Juventus. Only the German and French elite—Bayern Munich and PSG—are reportedly holding out against this idea.

Why would such a league be formed? To put it simply, finances. News agencies reported that each of the 15 founding members of the Super League would get a share of at least 3.5 billion euros ($4.2 billion) in initial infrastructure grants. The money would be split among four tiers of clubs, with the top six each getting 350 million euros ($420 million). It is a fact that most clubs are bleeding profusely in the aftermath of the pandemic, and the restrictions on supporters’ entry in the stadiums have essentially nullified gate receipts and fan revenue. Some clubs like Barcelona are at the absolute tipping point, while most others are hurting and in the red. The case for the Super League was simple: When the biggest names in world football faced off against one another, the broadcasting revenue would surge, which would in turn be pumped back into the participating clubs.

Also, big money is flowing into football. And, the traditional elite clubs are finding it hard to compete with their nouveau riche rivals, and their billions-heavy war-chest. In addition, the UEFA has time and again been criticised for "deficiencies" in the implementation of the Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, which ban clubs from spending more than they earn and thus prevent big-money injections from outside capital. 

The other side of the argument was that the Super League would just ensure that the richest clubs just get richer, widening the already enormous financial gap that exists between top clubs and the "rest of the bunch" in European football. As far as we know, there will be no threat of relegation for the founding 12 teams, and they are guaranteed a chance to participate in the league every single year.

Why the controversy, and what are the reasons for opposition against the Super League?

There are primarily four stakeholders: the UEFA, the FIFA, the clubs themselves, and the football fans. If the Super League comes to fruition, life will never be the same for any of them again.

Both the UEFA and the FIFA have gone all guns blazing against the participant clubs, saying the domestic leagues will "remain united in our efforts to stop this cynical project, a project that is founded on the self-interest of a few clubs at a time when society needs solidarity more than ever". "As previously announced by FIFA and the six Confederations, the clubs concerned will be banned from playing in any other competition at domestic, European or world level, and their players could be denied the opportunity to represent their national teams," according to the UEFA statement. FIFA came out with a statement condemning "closed breakaway leagues outside the international footballing structures". 

The Premier League wrote to clubs on Sunday saying its rules prevent clubs joining competitions without its approval and urging them to distance themselves from any Super League. Serie A on Sunday held an emergency board meeting to discuss the impending announcement.

If the Super League becomes a reality, the UEFA will face a disaster of unmitigated proportions. Nasser al Khelaifi, the president of PSG who is reportedly not in favour of the Super League, is on the UEFA board, as is Juventus’s Andrea Agnelli who is backing the idea. Secondly, a lack of participation of the European elite could mark the rapid demise of their crown jewel—the Champions League. Lastly, the domestic competitions would be obliterated. Take the case of the English Premier League, one of the most watched sporting leagues in the globe. Its spectatorship is largely driven by the vast fanbase of clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City, and the plethora of iconic football players contracted to them. If all of these clubs are expelled from the domestic leagues, as the UEFA is threatening to do so if the Super League became a reality, billions worth of broadcasting revenue will be in jeopardy.

As for the participant clubs, they could be entangled in hefty legal battles. Their revenue will take a massive hit if they are ousted from the domestic and European leagues, and their ability to recruit new talents will be diminished if the club’s players are banned from representing national teams.  

To put it simply, if the threats become a reality, it could mean mutually assured destruction for all parties involved.

Among the fans, anger against the Super League plan was a common sentiment in most of the fan forums across clubs. Football clubs across Europe (especially those in England) have blue-collar and working-class origins, and the over-done commercialisation and capitalisation is not a palatable prospect for many. There were worries over possible expulsions from all domestic and European leagues, and also apprehensions that ticket prices would be hiked, and even more games will be scheduled throughout the week.  

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