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Opinion: The European Super League – the 48 hour flash in the pan, 25 years in the making

UCC’s Dr Seán Ó Conaill looks back on an extraordinary week for international football.

Dr Seán Ó Conaill

FOOTBALL HAS NEVER seen times like it. On Sunday evening stories began to break that a Super League announcement was pending. Europe’s biggest clubs were finally going to make good on a threat that they’d been making for years and form their own league, free from the shackles of UEFA who they all agreed was the enemy responsible for their collective woes (including an estimated €7 billion-plus collective debt).

What followed however quickly descended into an omnishambles of historic proportions and within 48 hours the proposal was as good as dead, at least in its current format.

The proposed breakaway league was intended to have up to 20 teams with 15 permanent founder member teams and five invited qualifiers each year with six English teams, three Spanish and three Italian teams all confirming their participation with coordinated late-night tweets.

These were apparently designed to embarrass UEFA who were due to announce their own revamped plans the next morning. Even prior to the official announcement the reaction of fans of all the clubs and football fans more generally was overwhelmingly negative.

Misguided plans

The proposal for the Super League did not contemplate the clubs breaking away from their own domestic leagues but instead was designed to replace UEFA’s Champions League. Almost immediately however the focus shifted onto whether the clubs would break away entirely from their domestic leagues or whether they would be expelled by their respective leagues/football associations.

UEFA, FIFA and domestic football sensed weakness and pressed home their advantage announcing that clubs and players would potentially be banned from domestic and international competitions – the legal basis for such a threat is questionable at best but the plan worked.

Supporters were vocal in their opposition and despite games being played behind closed doors, made their presence felt at stadiums and online via social media. Within hours, cracks appeared and the English clubs withdrew like dominos, leaving the proposal dead in the water.

Although this particular proposal came somewhat out of the blue and was made public in a haphazard and fairly farcical manner, the notion of a European Super League is not a new one and the development of the proposal can easily be mapped onto the changes that have been made to UEFA’s Champions League over the years.

Changes in the Champions League were usually made to respond to demands from leading clubs with a view to staving off what most presumed to be idle threats to break away. A few factors combined in more recent times to shift the conversations from those threats to the breakaway clubs feeling like they had to move.

Did ‘people power’ win out?

Without a doubt, the financial impact of Covid-19 on clubs was a factor, however, plans were in train long before it impacted football. The global pandemic might have brought the breakaway plans to the fore sooner but it was not the deciding factor in advancing those plans.

The real factor was the desire of the leading clubs to have a bigger slice of the pie, to try to develop additional revenue streams and crucially exercise greater control over the governance model of the league.

The clubs, many of whom have American owners, wished to be able to have a greater say in how the league was to be structured and run including deciding who gets to compete and how much each team was allowed to spend on players. The NFL model was expressly mentioned as the ideal standard.

The role played by fans has quite correctly been recognised as the key here, however, the way their protests had an impact is a matter of debate. Football fans are what drives the business model of modern professional football. Without fans watching their teams play either in person or more importantly (from the big clubs’ point of view) on pay to view platforms the clubs would be devoid of any real revenue.

Sponsors are only interested in paying huge sums of money to clubs because of the number of people who engage with the clubs, particularly those who tune in to watch the matches or engage with their teams online.

Although all of the members of the proposed Super League are very well supported teams who in normal times sell a large number of tickets to their fans to attend their matches in person, the real revenue-earning potential was in the viewership figures and the fans who engage from a distance rather than those who attend the games.

Fans of Chelsea and Tottenham took to the streets to exercise their opposition, other groups were similarly outraged and protested in different ways, however, one might be forgiven for thinking that if the football authorities and other interested stakeholders were fully behind the proposal the views of fans may not have been so important.

Football clubs and football authorities are often accused of adopting the ‘mushroom philosophy’ when dealing with fans – keep them in the dark and feed them some manure every now and again. There is certainly no shortage of irony that UEFA, much derided by football fans for not taking their opinions into account, were placing themselves as the champions of football supporters.

With the benefit of hindsight, this proposal was always doomed to fall flat on its face. The failure to have any German teams on board seriously undermined the legitimacy of the proposal. By not engaging with FIFA or UEFA the Super League virtually guaranteed failure.

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The legal questions

Football occupies a very curious place legally where the law makes all sorts of accommodations (particularly around the area of employment law and competition law) for the game because the law recognises the cultural and societal value of the game.

In exchange for this accommodation legal authorities such as the European Commission make certain asks of the football authorities in their rules to protect the grassroots and lower levels of football.

The proposed Super League was to exist outside of this ecosystem and would have had a much harder time justifying that they should be due the same special treatment that FIFA and UEFA get. The European Commission would have a hard time explaining how a Super League did not raise serious anti-trust issues.

As the fallout continues, we’re left with more questions than answers. The British Parliament and Prime Minister Boris Johnson are making soundings that the German model of ownership, whereby fans always own a majority of their clubs might be something to consider going forward.

The leading Spanish clubs – who are all in serious financial difficulty – are clinging to the possibility that they might be able to bring the proposal forward again. The Oligarch and State-funded clubs are happy to wait and bide their time until the proposal comes around in the future.

Will the events of the last few days radically change football? Probably not. Will we see another Super League proposal again? Almost certainly. Could it ever go down as badly as this one went? Probably not. But what is for certain is lessons will have been learned – don’t expect the next attempt to be so farcical.

Dr Seán Ó Conaill, School of Law University College Cork and member of the UCC Centre for Sports Economics and Law.


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Dr Seán Ó Conaill

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