Sunday, August 1, 2021

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Europe’s Super League Is Gone. What Now?

The plan hatched by Europe’s elite clubs was wrong on almost every level, but its architects got one thing right: Soccer’s economy, as it stands, does not work.

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After all that, there is one thing we still do not know. We know what the dozen venture capitalists and industrialists and petrochemical princelings behind the Super League intended to do. We know what the future they had mapped out would have looked like. We know, or we can at least imagine, the damage they might have done.

What we do not know, not really, is why.

We have the platitudes, of course, the blandishments offered by Florentino Pérez, the president of Real Madrid, in that brash appearance on a gaudy Spanish talk show: that this was the only way to save soccer, that the rising tide lifts all boats, that there was no other option.

And we have the presumption, too, the Occam’s razor explanation: that deep down this was about nothing more than money, the relentless, insatiable, metastasizing pursuit of it, a cynical and grasping attempt to hoard as much of it as possible, made by those who already have far more than most, and far more than they need.

But while one of those points is considerably more valid than the other, neither quite satisfactorily explains what united these 12 disparate club owners behind a single, slapdash scheme like the Super League. They have, after all, spent much of the last decade quarreling among themselves. Their motivations, priorities and concerns are all quite different. They are, in the cold light of day, not so much one another’s solutions as they are one another’s problems. So the question stands: Why?

It is easiest, perhaps, to divide the 12 into three groups. In one, there are the English teams under American, or American-inflected, ownership: Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham. Their aim is not just to make more money, it is also to spend less of it. They want cost controls, salary caps, financial regulation. They want stable income, and restricted expenditures.

Their issue is the presence, in European soccer, of the second group: the outlier teams, Manchester City and Chelsea, backed by owners who would favor the abolition of such limitations. Their principal interest is in using their private wealth to gain a competitive edge. They are not involved in soccer to make money. They care little for the bottom line. They are here to win popular acclaim, and, through it, obtain cultural and political legitimacy.

And then there is the third group, comprising the six Spanish and Italian teams. Their problem is not only the bottomless wealth of Manchester City and Chelsea and a few others, but also the existence of the first group. The financial juggernaut that is the Premier League has inflated salaries around Europe. It has placed Real Madrid, Barcelona and the rest at a disadvantage in the transfer market. It has forced them to build up mountains of debt, leaving teams that believe themselves to be in soccer’s front rank facing a second-class future.

Florentino Pérez and Real Madrid are in the middle of extensive renovations of the Bernabéu. The Super League was going to help pay for them.
Emilio Naranjo/EPA, via Shutterstock

Clearly, they all decided — some with rather more consideration than others — that a superleague was their way out. The first group could write in various cost-control measures, denting the power of the second group, leveling their private playing field; in exchange, City and Chelsea would get the prestige that made their projects work. The third group, meanwhile, would no longer have to gaze longingly at the Premier League’s broadcasting deals.

That it did not work is a blessing, of course. That it was scuttled within 48 hours of its launch — undone, almost immediately, by a startling combination of amateurish planning, botched communications and underestimated backlash — was greeted as a victory for the sport as a whole, a blow delivered by the masses to the aristocrats, a bloody nose for the forces of global capitalism.

And, to some extent, that is precisely what it was. The threat of a superleague, in one form or another, has hung like a cloud over European soccer for decades. It has been wheeled out every few years, surfacing in every negotiation over how the money generated by the Champions League, in particular, should be divided.

Now that has gone. It is possible that, by the end of this weekend, as either Manchester City or Tottenham celebrates winning the League Cup, as Bayern Munich inches ever closer to yet another Bundesliga title, as Inter Milan closes in on a Serie A crown, all of this will feel like a fever dream. On the surface, it will be behind us. The insurrection will have been defeated, condemned to the past. Everything will be back to normal.

Pool photo by Neil Hall

But that is an illusion, because though the Super League never had a chance to play a game — it barely had time to build out a website — it may yet prove the catalyst to the salvation of soccer. It has, after all, stripped the elite of their leverage. They played their cards, and the whole thing became a bluff. Now, for the first time in years, power resides in the collective strength of the game’s lesser lights.

They will need to use it. The Super League was wrong on almost every level, but though its architects never quite had the nerve to come out and say it, they did get one thing right. Soccer’s economy and ecosystem, as they stand, do not work.

This was recognition of what ultimately explains how 12 teams, in those three distinct groups, could stand together under the same flag, albeit briefly, albeit without seeming to notice that it was adorned with a skull-and-crossbones.

The status quo does not work for the American owners who need cost controls. It does not work for the grand old houses of continental Europe, who cannot compete with the Premier League’s riches. And infinitely more important, it does not work for almost everyone else.

It does not work for the teams condemned to life as cannon fodder for Manchester City or Paris St.-Germain, or for the domestic competitions withering in the long shadows of the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga, or for the famous names — Ajax and Benfica and Red Star Belgrade — reduced to bit-part roles in European tournaments, ever farther from a return to their glory days.

Aleksander Ceferin, the president of UEFA and the man who led the counterattack in what will come to be known as the Sunday-Tuesday War, knows that. The issue of competitive balance is the one that animated his rise to his current position. One of the many ironies of this whole sorry farrago is not only that those whom Ceferin fought know it, too, but that they have given him the perfect opportunity to do something about it.

Richard Juilliart/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Those governing bodies that resisted the Super League make for unlikely heroes. UEFA has, after all, been no less complicit than the domestic leagues and national federations in selling out soccer to the highest bidder. It has, for decades, not only sat by and watched but also actively encouraged the influx of money into the game, never once questioning where it might all be heading.

A charitable interpretation would be that all of them were in thrall to, or in fear of, the elite teams. Suddenly, though, there is no longer need to be afraid. Behind Ceferin there is a confederation of governments and executives and players and fans, all of whom have made plain their objection to soccer’s inexorable journey down this same path.

Now there is the impetus and the appetite for change: not their change, the kind that would barricade the elite in their palaces, insulating them from the currents and the crisis outside their gates, but change that might allow more teams to benefit from the rewards the breakaway clubs sought to cordon off for themselves.

What form that might take is open for discussion. The rolling back of the reforms to the Champions League, passed this week while soccer was engulfed by civil war? A rebalancing of the way money is shared in the Premier League, after years of gradual erosion of the egalitarian principle that stands as the competition’s bedrock? Increased solidarity payments from UEFA across the Continent?

Whatever the next move is to be, it requires more than the commitment of all of those who stood against the Super League and the willingness of lawmakers to take action, rather than just to score cheap political points. It also needs fans to establish, among themselves, quite how far they are willing to go, exactly what they mean by change.

Matthew Childs/Reuters

In those first few hours after the Super League was announced, a narrative took hold, particularly in England. This was, it went, an attempt by American owners to remake soccer in their own image: They wanted a closed league, one more like the N.F.L. or the N.B.A., one in which stability of place brought security of income.

The parallel was imperfect, of course; it was, really, nothing more than a shorthand to explain and to demonize the structure of the proposed breakaway. Indeed, if anything, it is the suggestions for changes made in the aftermath of the Super League’s launch and swift collapse that might remake European soccer along more American lines.

The prime difference between sports in the United States and soccer in Europe is dynasty. Dominant teams will, occasionally, surface in the major leagues of North America: The Golden State Warriors will win three championships in four seasons; the New England Patriots will sustain their success over nearly two decades.

But as a rule, there are checks and balances in place — through player drafts and the presence of a salary cap — to ensure that today’s weak have at least a chance to become tomorrow’s strong.

Soccer has no such mechanisms. It is, instead, driven by a desire not just for success now, but for success in perpetuity. It is a sport defined by dynasty. It is that which encourages not just teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid — owned, in theory, by members, and therefore run by presidents who must seek re-election — but also private entities, like Juventus and Manchester United, to spend recklessly in the pursuit of success.

It is not possible, the executives of those teams know, to sit out a season. It is not possible to rebuild slowly and carefully toward some distant aim. Teams are expected to compete now, to contend now, to win now. If they do not, managers are fired and players are sold and new managers are hired and new players are bought.

A season in which Bayern Munich does not win the Bundesliga is a disaster. Juventus, this summer, might fire a rookie coach because he has not won Serie A — not just in his first season at the club, but in his first season, full stop. Liverpool has been treated, at times, as a laughingstock because a lengthy injury list stopped it from winning a second Premier League title a year after claiming its first in 30 years.

This is the sport’s dominant ethos: That, as Alex Ferguson used to put it, once a trophy is won, you forget about it and seek to win the next. But while that is part of soccer’s appeal — that one victory is never enough — it gives those that run its clubs a problem: There is always another triumph to plan, always another peak to conquer, always another player to buy. That is, ultimately, what fans have been conditioned to expect, and so that is what they demand.

Pérez, instinctively, understands that. It is why, in his second television appearance of the week, he mentioned that, without a Super League, Real Madrid could not countenance signing players like Kylian Mbappé or Erling Haaland. The finances, in his eyes, simply do not work (though that has, in fact, never stopped him before).

It was a transparent ploy, a form of emotional blackmail. Pérez knows that what matters most to Real Madrid fans is that the club should be making the sort of signings, building the sorts of teams, that can win the Champions League — not just this year, but next, as well. Give us what we want, he said, and we can give you what you want.

But that approach is not sustainable in a model where wealth is spread more evenly. That does not make it bad; it does not even make it worse than what soccer has now. But that does make it different and, without changes in the way the sport is governed and in fan expectations, might also make it unsustainable.

Jose Breton/Associated Press

It would not be possible, of course, for the elite to be forced to relinquish more of their revenue in a game that was still open to investments of the sort that supercharged the rise of Chelsea and Manchester City. It would not hold: All that would happen is that Everton or Newcastle United or Harrogate Town, with the aid of new backers, would trample unencumbered across the landscape.

More complex is that fans would have to redefine what success looks like. When Manchester United fans ask for the introduction of the admirable 50+1 rule — borrowed from German soccer — are they prepared to tolerate what follows? A watering-down of their own team’s chances of trophies?

Will the Liverpool fans sincerely decrying their owners’ greed be happy to have a year or two of seventh-place finishes as the team rebuilds? Do the Chelsea fans on the streets want a world where a good decade means one league title? It is this that Pérez was driving at: He has to spend money because his fans demand it, so to meet that demand, he needs more money.

The desire to share more of the lavish fruit of soccer’s growth is sincerely held, and it is morally sound. The idea of a dozen or more teams harboring genuine championship hopes at the start of every season — rather than the handful of clubs that do so now — sounds faintly idyllic, like a return to soccer’s roots.

But it would come at a cost: It would mean that at the end of the campaign, your traditionally elite team would be less likely to be the one standing tall. The redistribution of wealth means the redistribution of success, too.

Here, then, is another thing we do not know: Do those fans who stared down their owners this week for their greed and their ambition and their hubris want this to be the start of something new, or simply the safeguarding of the old? How much soccer can ever change will depend on the answer.

That’s all for this week: There has, after all, only been one story in town. I’ve had plenty of communication on the Super League, but perhaps it is best gathered together next week. Any thoughts on the week that shook soccer should go to Say what you like about the whole thing, but it’s been great for my Twitter interactions. And you’ll never guess the subject of this week’s Set Piece Menu.

Have a great weekend.

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