Q: I’ve heard about this European-style “open” competition with multiple leagues and divisions, the promotion and relegation system, etc. Why is it that so many football fans seem to prefer this format, over the American-style “closed” format?
A: There are two main reasons that I personally prefer the European-style open format, and both reasons go hand in hand. One is the theoretical possibility for every club in the country to move up to the top and compete for a spot at the highest levels of competition, and the second is the real jeopardy that’s created by that possibility of moving between leagues.
For example, there are four divisions at the top of the English league system: the Premier League at the top (20 clubs) and three lower divisions that collectively make up the English Football League (Championship, League One, League Two; with 24 teams each). The 92 total clubs make up what is considered the full-time, professional game in England. Below that are dozens of leagues and divisions that range from pub teams to semi-pro.
In my opinion, what makes this better than a system like the 30 big league and 120 minor league baseball teams in the U.S. is the possibility of rising up through the levels, and the real stakes on every game and season for the hometown fans to root for. You can be a Manchester City fan and be concerned with winning the Premier League and the Champions League or be a Dulwich Hamlet fan just hoping to generally stay around the fifth- or sixth-division and maybe advance a few rounds in a cup competition. But there’s something more meaningful at stake to your home club in the latter case, rather than being a stepping stone for players, with no chance to ever have your club earn promotions all the way up the ladder to the big leagues.
Q: The proposed Super League seems like it was going to blow up a whole bunch of what fans like about the Euro soccer system. Can you explain the basic tenets of what the Super League was that upset fans and supporters all around the world?
A: The Super League aimed to take away any possibility of these 12 clubs ever failing to reach Europe’s top club competition (the Champions League) while restricting the chances of smaller clubs to even qualify on merit at all.
As it stands right now, the top league champion of every member nation of UEFA is eligible for at least one of several qualifying rounds before the “league proper” begins in the group stage. This includes even the champions of tiny European countries like San Marino and Gibraltar.
The Champions League deck is certainly stacked against smaller nations and clubs due to the limited spots their leagues are afforded and the qualifying rounds they have to get through, but there is still a chance for those clubs to get through to high-profile matches with larger clubs. There is a chance (lately, more of a likelihood) that the AC Milans and Arsenals of the world fail to qualify due to their poor domestic league performances.
But the Super League sought to cement AC Milan’s and Arsenal’s places at the top European table forever. The history of club soccer all throughout Europe and many places around the world is so entwined with promotion, relegation, and qualification based on merit. The Super League scheme was an affront to all of this history. That is what sparked the flame, in my opinion. Decades of growing economic inequality and recent competitive inequality in the game are important underlying factors to all this as well.
Q: I couldn’t help but notice that of the dozen clubs in the scheme, there were several American owners among them. Is that a coincidence or is it notable?
A: I wouldn’t call it a coincidence for several reasons. Most glaringly, an American owner is far less likely to understand the importance of the things the Super League would have blown up. Depending on the fallout, Americans will likely either be cast as the ring leaders or as the rich-but-mostly-ignorant puppets for Real Madrid owner Florentino Pérez, who has come out of this looking as bad, if not worse, than the American owners.
Another reason is simply that America is home to a huge number of very wealthy people and very wealthy people have often gravitated towards owning high-profile sports teams. As soccer has exploded in popularity over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen more and more Americans make entries into soccer club ownership, even at the highest level (like Manchester United, Arsenal, and Liverpool). It’s likely that whoever owned those clubs, as well as England’s other three members of the “Big Six”, would have joined the Super League. But it isn’t surprising that it happened to be American-led English clubs that made up a large bulk of the rebellion.
Q: Was the backlash from fans and even supporters of the would-be Super League clubs the single biggest factor in getting the entire thing quashed within 48 hours?
A: It was definitely an enormous factor, although not the only one. I’d buy that some clubs were looking for a way out almost immediately. Here, like everywhere, there are deeper issues at each specific club that came into play. For instance, as an article at The Athletic noted (subscription required), Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich is reported to have not been an enthusiastic backer of the breakaway plans for quite a few reasons, but one of the significant ones is his sensitivity to how his decisions will play politically back home in his native Russia. On this front, next season’s Champions League final is being held in St. Petersburg, Russia, and one of the presenting sponsors is a state-owned company.
Large numbers of Chelsea supporters storming Stamford Bridge (the club’s stadium) to demand that Chelsea pull out of the Super League was, of course, a huge factor. But even the players and coaches were protesting, too. Even they were as blindsided by it as fans were, as these decisions were made by an incredibly small number of people at the very, very top of the 12 would-be breakaway clubs. Players and coaches were angry for similar reasons as fans, but also at the potential of their eligibility for international competitions to be in limbo, which led to discussions about a potential breach of contract by the clubs. Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson had a scheduled meeting with players from the Big Six clubs to gather input for a unified player response, but the Super League crumbled so fast that they hadn’t even had the meeting yet. Liverpool’s manager, Jurgen Klopp, was so furious with Liverpool’s role in the disastrous Super League plot that there are reports that his relationship with Liverpool’s American ownership group (Fenway Sports Group) may be permanently damaged now.
Q: How does soccer ultimately move forward from this, with many fans calling the attempted Super League plans a “betrayal” of sorts? Are these teams looking at any discipline from their home leagues or from FIFA or UEFA? And should they be?
A: There are many fans in England that are hoping that this moment will be used not only for preserving the status quo but for actively improving the model of ownership in the country. Many English fans want to try to implement some version of Germany’s famed “50+1” model, which essentially means that every club is majority fan-owned, with varying degrees of actual fan inclusion, from elections to board membership.
One would hope that all of this will cause UEFA to at the very least retain the current Champions League format, if not make it more equitable. However, in the midst of the Super League maelstrom, we’ve already seen UEFA slip through a mostly bad update to the Champions League format which is already getting significant backlash from players, fans, and media.
As far as punishment goes, there had been some chatter about kicking out the three semifinalists of this season’s Champions League who were members of the attempted Super League breakaway, as well as rumblings of deeming certain players ineligible for their domestic leagues and international competitions. With the Super League seemingly dead, these retaliatory threats seem to be off the table, too. The 14 Premier League clubs who were to be left behind are varying degrees of pissed off at the Big Six, with things like points deductions in the standings, financial penalties, and other potential punishments being thrown around. At this point, I’d say it’s unlikely that anything serious happens on the retribution front for now.
Q: Is the future of football on stable ground or is this whole fiasco a harbinger of things to come as sports, in general, try to evolve and expand their audiences?
A: I think this is just the first try by clubs like these to ensure they have an ever-growing slice of the pie, and I very much doubt that it’s the last try. I imagine that the goal of the Super League was to one day be the only professional soccer league that mattered, closed except to member franchises, like the NFL and NBA or India’s IPL (cricket). Unless there are massive structural changes both to how revenue is distributed and who makes decisions at clubs (and likely massive changes to how the global economy is run) this is football’s future, sooner rather than later. That may sound bleak, but if fans can stay engaged (and it should be much easier to have their voices heard as soon as they’re allowed back into stadiums) and continue to push back on these fronts, maybe reforms are possible that can at least hold off the separatists for a little while longer. Only time will tell.