Who would have thought that a multibillion-dollar cash grab forged in secrecy between the 12 wealthiest clubs in European football would go down so badly in the middle of a worldwide crisis and record economic inequality?
Not the brains behind the proposed European Super League, that is for sure.
Just days after the fanfare and fury of Sunday’s announcement that the continent’s self-appointed top teams would break away from domestic competition to form their own exclusive league, with no promotion and no relegation – yet eye-wateringly lucrative potential TV rights – the plans lay in tatters.
So what went wrong?
Football fans across Europe were put in the unusual position of agreeing with former Manchester United captain Gary Neville, when his blistering excoriation of the plans on Sky Sports went viral on Sunday evening.
Gary Neville is the people's hero right now. Unreal piece of television about the European Super League. pic.twitter.com/ypdQbdQfs7
— Football Tweet (@Football__Tweet) April 18, 2021
Neville’s comments fuelled a backlash among fans angry at the billionaire executives of their clubs, with hundreds turning out to protest at stadiums around the country. The vitriol outside these famed grounds shocked players and club staff, most of whom had not been consulted over the proposed league, and players themselves started putting out statements on social media opposing the plans.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, under fire for his handling of the pandemic and weeks away from local elections, took the opportunity to speak out against the proposal, threatening to reform competition law to stop a cartel of businesses from disrupting the world’s favourite sport, and one of the UK’s greatest exports.
The club owners had gambled big, and lost.
2/ And based on the overwhelming reaction from fans, the media, pundits, players and managers, it’s hard to imagine anyone being stupid enough to bring such an idea back again.
And what killed it? We did. No, we don’t mean MUST alone although we played our part.
— M.U.S.T (@MU_ST) April 21, 2021
A victory for the fans over the power of the boardroom? Perhaps not.
“I don’t think they were expecting the ferocity of the backlash from the fans,” Paul Widdop, senior lecturer in sport business at Manchester Metropolitan University (and a Liverpool fan), told Al Jazeera.
“But I think this was more about self-preservation. We don’t know about the legal things going on behind the scenes, what sort of threats they were facing from [European football governing body] UEFA or FIFA [the world football governing body].
“They didn’t seem to have any PR going on alongside the announcement. The website seemed rushed. The whole thing seemed a bit half-baked.”
In fact, the ESL’s PR effort was being run by a former UK Conservative spin doctor. Its press release, issued at 11:30pm on a Sunday, was from iNHouse Communications, the public relations firm run by Katie Perrior – who was director of communications for Theresa May when she was prime minister. They had only been hired earlier that same day.
A half-baked idea and a last-minute PR effort. So how serious was the proposal in the first place?
“I think it was less of a debacle, and more of a distraction,” Simon Chadwick, professor of Eurasian Sport at emlyon business school (and a Middlesbrough fan), told Al Jazeera.
“A lot of people didn’t notice UEFA’s own proposals to reform the Champions League, which were revealed on Monday. And they’re not totally different from the ESL proposal. We’re talking about more US private equity, and wildcard entry for bigger clubs.”
So even if, say, Manchester City did not qualify for the Champions League by virtue of excelling in a domestic season, UEFA would not have to lose any revenue from the exclusion of a global brand from its elite competition – it could simply offer them a “wildcard” entry, and guarantee huge viewing figures among its audiences of growing affluence in China and India, among other developing markets.
“This is not the first time that a breakaway league has been proposed,” said Chadwick. “The last time it was really seriously on the agenda was 2007, and then it was used as the basis for the bigger clubs in Europe to negotiate better settlements with UEFA. So I think there’s been a lot of horse-trading and brinkmanship involved in what’s happened over the past 72 hours.”
Widdop, author of Collective Action and Football Fandom: A Relational Sociological Approach, agrees: “If you look at the teams involved, they have huge debts. I don’t know whether [the ESL proposal] is about securing the income they get from the Champions League and making sure that they have a better deal … But the fact it was rushed out the day before UEFA’s Champions League reforms just seemed quite opportunistic.”
A clash of economics
“UEFA is always in a difficult position, because its revenues are driven by this handful of wealthy teams, but it doesn’t exist to serve the needs of just 12 or 15 clubs, it’s there to represent 55 member associations,” said Chadwick.
“Like in the Premier League, a segment of the broadcasting revenue for the Champions League gets shared among UEFA’s members. When Real Madrid and Manchester United play in a Champions League final, there is a financial windfall also for the Maltese and the Faroe Islands football associations. So there is a collective spirit.”
While the mooted league would have been a closed shop with revenues shared only between its clubs, there’s a more fundamental difference of philosophy at play.
“What the Super League has done is to highlight once again some of the ideological fault lines that exist in global football right now,” said Chadwick. “You’ve got to keep in mind that obviously Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal are all American-owned. So you’re talking about liberal free-market capitalism, which is driven by business interests. Now, that stands in contrast to, if you like, the social democracy of Europe, particularly Germany, where there’s a more social-democratic model of governing football.
“We’re living in the age of a new geopolitical economy of sports, because what we have is an intersection of economic, commercial, industrial and political interests.”
Football “is a mirror on society”, said Widdop.
“Society has changed and football in Europe has welcomed money from overseas in the past 30 years with open arms,” he said.
“And capitalists want to grow. Fundamentally, they need to grow constantly, looking for new markets. And when they start to see markets stagnate, they obviously need to look for new products. What better way to do that than to develop a new league?”
Before the dust settles, it is inevitable that the lawyers will be involved. As it all began to collapse around them on Tuesday night, clubs wanting to remain in the league must have been rueing the lost potential earnings of a 23-year deal and setting their lawyers’ crosshairs on those clubs who were the first to pull out.
But any clubs trying to sue for damages could face a legal minefield, with clubs’ ownerships located in very different jurisdictions. Manchester City’s ultimate owner, for example, is the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment (PDF), a private equity firm that employs just one person and has its headquarters in a free zone in the UAE.
“The ESL is or was – given the current situation – going to be governed by contractual relationships between those clubs involved. Essentially the clubs were going to be self-governing – this will have invariably created various future legal and commercial issues,” William Bowyer, a solicitor in the Sports and Entertainment team at Mackrell Solicitors, told Al Jazeera.
“Despite their best efforts, UEFA or FIFA would also struggle to have any direct control over the ESL. This was clearly a concern for both UEFA and FIFA as seen by the strong statements released over the last few days.”
And it would not just be the clubs considering legal action.
“One of the key stakeholders, the players, appear to have been left behind in the thoughts of the clubs,” added Bowyer. “There are likely to be issues with the existing playing contracts should clubs breach their league, UEFA or FIFA rules. It would have put the players in a position to obtain legal advice on where they stand should they participate in the ESL and also be prevented from playing in the Euros or a future World Cup.”
The wheels of justice groan agonisingly slowly at the best of times and in the simplest of cases. And with any case likely to drag on for years, it will likely be the lawyers, billing by the hour, who will benefit most.
Club owners may have had a huge setback with the collapse of the league, but it is unlikely many will be selling up any time soon. European football may now seem slightly less attractive to US-based investors, said Chadwick, but it will continue to be a lucrative investment.
“I think the popular revolution against capitalism that took place on the streets of Europe this week was entirely misplaced,” said Chadwick. “I think it was naïve and simplistic. We’re still talking about a deeply polarised sport. And no government in the UK or European Union is going to intervene with measures that economically disadvantage clubs in their country and give up some national competitive advantage. Look at government efforts to tax some of the giant companies and we see that these corporations are very difficult to actually control.”
Widdop also thinks government action is unlikely.
“I find it really incredible that this government pursues a neo-liberalist agenda with every other industry apart from football, that football should suddenly become socialist,” he said. “It’s laughable, really, it’s all populist rhetoric when the government get involved. Come August, everything will be forgotten and ultimately there’ll be no change.”
James Brownsell is a former Europe editor for Al Jazeera, and a long-suffering fan of Watford FC. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell