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19 April 2021updated 20 Apr 2021 9:21am

The big problem with the European Super League

Football without relegation is like a soap opera without unhappy love affairs: what would be the point? 

By Stephen Bush

What’s wrong with a European Super League and why are so many politicians, here and across Europe, falling over themselves to condemn it? 

For those of you who have missed it: 11 of Europe’s biggest football clubs and Tottenham Hotspur have announced their intention to establish a new midweek tournament in which the 12 clubs play each other, as a replacement for the Champions League.

[Hear more from Stephen on the New Statesman podcast]

But what distinguishes the new competition from the old is that the 12 founding clubs will have a place at the top table in perpetuity: regardless of how badly they do in either their domestic leagues or in this tournament, they will be back in the Super League next year. 

What gives sport its point is that results have consequences – that Arsenal’s 1-1 draw on Sunday with Fulham means Arsenal’s hopes of playing in the Europa League next season are essentially extinguished, and that Fulham’s prospects of remaining in the Premier League have also been brought to an end. If there are no meaningful consequences to failure, what’s the point? Football without relegation is like a soap opera without unhappy love affairs: what would be the point? 

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Of course, the big bet that the owners of the 12 club are making is that their global fanbases won’t care about that: that they can make up for what they lose among their local supporters through global streaming – that there is an audience for soap operas without unhappy love affairs. 

As it happens, I think they’re wrong. The underlying assumption of the Super League’s founders that people in Malaysia or Zambia or the US will happily watch games without consequence between Real Madrid and Arsenal is, I think, based on a condescending and ill-judged understanding of the commonality between football fans in Stoke Newington and football fans in Kinshasa. 

Regardless, the ultimate fate of the scheme rests only in part in the hands of European governments. That’s part of why politicians across the continent – from Boris Johnson to Keir Starmer to Emmanuel Macron to the European Commission – have rushed to condemn the move, because the wheeze represents something that all European politicians are wrestling with: the loss of control created by globalisation.

Whether they present themselves as the agent of that change or the tribune of the people left behind, in different ways what they are trying to grapple with is how to maintain not only “the European way of life” but their own hold on power and relevance in an era in which global capital risks making them seem both powerless and irrelevant. The consequences of the tussle between Europe’s politicians and the Super League’s founders have implications well beyond football.