NEWS
19/04/2021 12:05 BST | Updated 20/04/2021 17:48 BST

European Super League: What It Is And Why Everyone's So Angry About It

Six British football teams are among 12 clubs who have committed to a breakaway league.

Monday’s revelation that 12 top European football clubs, including six British sides, are to launch a breakaway “Super League” sent shockwaves across sport and politics.

Sounds like a fun idea, right? Not exactly: it has ignited a bitter battle for control of the game and its lucrative revenue, sparking outrage among fans.

The move sets up a rival to UEFA’s established Champions League competition, currently the top European league, potentially undermines the domestic game, and was widely condemned by football authorities and political leaders.

Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus are among the leading members of the new competition, but UEFA has threatened to ban them from its own national and international competitions in retaliation.

How on earth could something as seemingly anodyne as a new football competition spark such widespread fury? Read on.

What’s the actual plan?

The Super League said it would eventually aim to secure 15 founding members, with five other clubs qualifying to make the number up to 20.

Premier League clubs Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur – the self-styled Big Six – have signed up to the plans.

Barcelona and Atletico Madrid from Spain join Real. AC Milan and Inter Milan make up the trio from Italy along with Juventus.

The clubs would share a fund of €3.5bn (£3.03bn) to spend on infrastructure projects and to deal with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The money would not be available to spend on players.

The League said it would make “solidarity payments” to the rest of European football that would exceed those currently offered by UEFA and which “are expected to be in excess of €10bn [£8.66bn]” over the 23-year commitment period the clubs have entered into.

“We will help football at every level and take it to its rightful place in the world. Football is the only global sport in the world with more than four billion fans and our responsibility as big clubs is to respond to their desires,” said Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, the first chair of the Super League.

No German or French clubs have so far been associated with the breakaway.

Why is this so divisive? 

While the organisers claim it will generate more money than the Champions League that will result in a greater distribution of revenue throughout the game, critics argue it will create a “closed shop” of elite clubs.

In short, the new setup will guarantee clubs a place in the League regardless of their performance, while making it harder for other clubs to break through. That means removing the peril and uncertainty that currently makes it so exciting to watch the world’s biggest clubs, as well keeping smaller teams down, none of which sounds very sportsmanlike.

Damian Collins MP, the former chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, said: “The idea of creating a closed franchise league of elite football clubs must be stopped.

“This is a self-serving proposal by a small number of clubs seeking to maximise their revenues from the global audience of football, and to the detriment of everyone else.”

The controversial plans have sparked criticism from fan groups, too, who are united in their opposition and feel the move is based on financial gain and “represents the death of everything that football should be about”.

The timing of the statement is incendiary, too, coming ahead of an anticipated announcement from UEFA confirming changes to the Champions League format.

What’s behind the decision?

A love and respect for the fans and spirit of the greatest game on earth? Only joking – it’s all about money, apparently. 

Former Football Association and Manchester City chair David Bernstein said he believes there are two driving factors attracting clubs to the Super League, adding: “I think there are two things in play here: one is greed and the other is desperation.

“And it’s because some of these clubs have incurred enormous debt. I believe certainly Barcelona and Real Madrid, and I think at least one of the English clubs, are approaching £1bn of debt.

“I think they’re in a desperate situation. One of the things they haven’t done during the pandemic is to impose some sort of wages control. They’ve got themselves into a bit of a predicament.”

What do the fans think?

Fan groups from all the clubs involved have expressed disgust at the move.

The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust said it was “deeply concerned” at their club’s involvement while Arsenal’s Supporters’ Trust described it on Twitter as “the death of the club as a sporting institution”.

“Along with fan groups at Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea, we wholeheartedly oppose the move to create a closed shop for Europe’s elite.”

The Supporters’ Trust said a poll of its members in 2019 found that 81% were against Tottenham joining a Super League with only 3% agreeing.

In statement the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust said: “Our members and football supporters across the world have experienced the ultimate betrayal.

“This is a decision of greed to line the pockets of those at the top and it has been made with no consideration for the loyal supporters, our history, our future and the future of football in this country.

“This is unforgivable. Enough is enough.”

On Monday night, despite games being played behind closed doors, fans across England began protests outside stadiums.

With Liverpool in action at Leeds on Monday night, fans of both clubs gathered outside Elland Road before kick-off.

At Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium, fans displayed a banner reading: “Created by the poor, stolen by the rich.”

At Anfield, banners called for the removal of American ownership group FSG and others declared “LFC RIP 1892-2021”, while a fan arrived at Tottenham’s training ground with a placard reading: “Say No To Super League.”

Meanwhile, Leeds United players wore provocative T-shirts reading “Champions League – Earn It” prior to the Liverpool game.

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PAUL ELLIS via Getty Images
Anfield stadium.
Tim Markland - PA Images via Getty Images
Football fans opposing the European Super League outside Old Trafford in Manchester.

What about former players?

Former players have expressed similar sentiments, with Ian Wright describing it as “absolutely shameful”.

The former Arsenal striker spoke out passionately against the Gunners’ decision to be involved.

“I literally can’t believe it when I saw Arsenal’s name come up on the screen as one of the teams,” he said in a video posted on Twitter.

“That we are getting into competitions because we are not good enough to get into them, so at the detriment of the English game we are getting the seat to the table we have no right to be at.”

Ex-England captain and now owner of Major League Soccer franchise David Beckham warned that fans would be the ones to suffer if plans go ahead.

“I’m someone who loves football,” he wrote on Instagram. “It has been my life for as long as I can remember. I loved it from when I was a young child as a fan, and I’m still a fan now. As a player and now as an owner I know that our sport is nothing without the fans. We need football to be for everyone. We need football to be fair and we need competitions based on merit. Unless we protect these values the game we love is in danger.”

What has been the political reaction?

Pretty huge, with the Big Six uniting the UK’s main political parties in condemnation of the plans.

The plans were discussed in the Commons on Monday after Boris Johnson warned against the “very damaging” change. In parliament, culture secretary Oliver Dowden accused the clubs of being “tone deaf” and said he would not stand by and “watch football be cravenly stripped” of what the fans love about it.

 

On Tuesday, the language intensified as the prime minister said he was ready to “drop a legislative bomb” to stop the six football clubs joining a breakaway league.

It is understood the prime minister told football officials at a Downing Street briefing that the ESL proposals were “anti-competitive” and that he was ready to change the law to stop it.

The PM at one point told the meeting: “We should drop a legislative bomb to stop it – and we should do it now.”

Following the meeting, Downing Street said in a statement that the PM “confirmed the government will not stand by while a small handful of owners create a closed shop”.

What about the Premier League, domestic game and Champions League?

It’s unclear what a new Europe-wide league would mean for the domestic game in the UK.

The six English sides insist they remain fully committed to the Premier League, and the clubs involved in the project believe signing off “solidarity payments” demonstrates their commitment to the wider game.

But their participation in another league with greater financial incentives raises questions over whether weaker teams would be fielded in the Premier League, undermining the competition.

There may also be huge implications for smaller clubs even further down the English football pyramid, with television and sponsorship revenue monopolised by the elite band and money trickling down to a lesser extent than even now. 

There are concerns that ultimately it could mean clubs being separated from their communities, with games eventually played in places such as New York, Dubai or wherever is most profitable.

Unsurprisingly, the proposals have been “unanimously and vigorously” rejected by the other 14 members of the Premier League.

Similar questions are being asked about the European Champions League, and whether two elite continent-wide competitions could exist at the same time.

The announcement came just hours before UEFA is due to sign off on its own plans for an expanded and restructured 36-team Champions League.

UEFA issued a strong statement jointly with English, Spanish and Italian leagues and football federations, saying they were ready to use “all measures” to confront any breakaway and saying any participating clubs would be banned from domestic leagues, such as the Premier League.

“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,” UEFA said.

“We thank those clubs in other countries, especially the French and German clubs, who have refused to sign up to this. We call on all lovers of football, supporters and politicians, to join us in fighting against such a project if it were to be announced.

“This persistent self-interest of a few has been going on for too long. Enough is enough.”

Will it work?

Some have suggested the proposal is a red herring, and is effectively a shot across UEFA’s bow designed to get a better settlement from the Champions League re-negotiation. The new UEFA proposal will see each participating club featuring in a minimum of 10 league stage games against 10 different opponents, instead of the usual six matches against the same three teams in the group. More games against diverse opposition is likely to be more lucrative for those involved.

Whether it works could depend on how sincere the rebels are.

There appeared to be cracks emerging by Tuesday afternoon with bosses at at least one club – Tottenham – reportedly said to be “shaken” by the backlash. 

Their commitment may also be tested by the punishments meted out to clubs and players, with some stars already expressing misgivings at the idea.

Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford notably shared an image carrying a quote from the club’s great former manager Sir Matt Busby which reads: “Football is nothing without fans.”

Three of the four Champions League semi-finalists this ye – Chelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid – are part of the breakaway while Arsenal and Manchester United are in the Europa League semi-finals. They could all be expelled.

There also remains the possibility of players belonging to those 12 clubs being banned from Euro 2020.