It was just a rumour. Everybody knew that. Or, at the most, it was a trial balloon. A negotiating tactic. A bargaining chip. A bluff. For a decade or more, discussions over a lucrative breakaway league featuring the continent’s biggest clubs had been part of the mood music of European football.
The dance went a little like this: the big clubs mischievously floated the idea of a breakaway, everyone panicked and eventually the governing body Uefa threw them a few concessions – generally a bigger share of revenue or a slightly easier route into the Champions League. And so, for as long as anyone could remember, any talk of seceding from European football’s leading club competition had remained just that: talk.
On the evening of 18 April, that fragile compact was blown to pieces. Twelve clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus – solemnly announced they would be forming their own imaginatively titled “European Super League”. They would be joined by three other clubs – still to be announced – to create 15 permanent founding members. Five more clubs would be invited to compete on an annual basis. But essentially the levers of power would rest with those 15 clubs alone: no qualification, no relegation, just lifetime membership of European football’s VIP circle and exclusive access to its revenue streams.
If you’re not a football fan, you may be wondering why this apparently arcane tale of sporting governance has been dominating the news in recent days. Even to point out that this is quite possibly the most seismic moment in the history of the world’s most popular sport doesn’t quite explain it. The reason the European Super League has inspired so much genuine disquiet across the continent is because of what it represents. It is arguably the most resonant and emblematic example yet of the struggle defining global capitalism in the 21st century: between the unfettered free market and the safeguards that are supposed to protect us from it; between public good and private interest; between an opaque billionaire class and the rest of us. It is, at its core, a question of who runs our lives.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the breakaway movement is the coldness with which it was unveiled: a choreographed statement on the websites of the interested clubs, with precious few details, no PR and no invitation for further correspondence. This is how power operates in its most unaccountable form: a hand grenade tossed into the heart of European football by a group of unelected billionaires, ranging from the Agnelli family who own Juventus, to the royal family of Abu Dhabi, who own Manchester City. Here you are. This is what’s happening. No, we won’t be taking questions.
The reaction within the game was one of widespread revulsion. Virtually every governing body expressed disgust. Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain – last season’s Champions League finalists – said they would not take part. Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer pledged to scupper the competition by any means necessary. Most strikingly of all, given the fierce and innate tribalism of English football, fans and players of the Premier League clubs involved in the breakaway were practically unanimous in their condemnation. “I don’t like it and don’t want it to happen,” said Liverpool’s James Milner. “It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed,” said the Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. “It is not a sport where it doesn’t matter when you lose.” Faced with this anger, the English clubs withdrew.
If the league still attempted to go ahead in some form, the obstacles would remain considerable. There will be inevitable legal challenges from Uefa, the television companies, the national federations, perhaps even national governments. It remains unclear whether players who feature in the rebel league will be banned from the Fifa World Cup. The deluge of negative publicity and the threat of boycotts will not have gone unnoticed among the broadcasters and sponsors the Super League needs to court. And time is a factor: ravaged by the pandemic and often by their own inept management, many of Europe’s top clubs are in debt to the tune of billions. Many can scarcely afford to drag this through the courts for years on end. They need this to happen now.
And so, for all the revulsion and the resistance, for all the rumours of fraying nerves and cracks in the edifice, the Super League remains a going concern at the time of writing, its architects determined to will it into existence by any means necessary. If it succeeds, it will smash the understanding upon which football has been built for more than 150 years: that by graft and merit, any team can ascend to the elite, and any team can plummet by the same token; that accolades are won and lost on the pitch, not in the boardroom or secure WhatsApp groups; that the first duty of any club is to its fans, to the town and the region, to the people and the passions that birthed it.
Perhaps none of this has really been true for a long while. Perhaps this is simply a consecration of a trend decades in the making. But equally, the stirring reaction against the Super League indicates that the values of fairness, opportunity and common interest are not dead in us, however much our politicians and cultural commentators would like to tell us otherwise.
This is why it matters. If European football’s horsemen of the apocalypse can force this league upon us, in the face of near-unanimous denunciation, against the massed forces of public sentiment and political will (and the withdrawal of several clubs), then what does it say about their power? And what does it say about ours?
This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.
This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical