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The botched attempt by 12 big European clubs to usurp UEFA and launch ‘the Super League’ partly failed because governments made their opposition clear. What was the motivation of politicians to resist the Super League? And will they go further and reform European football root-and-branch?
It’s not without irony that it was Real Madrid – the club most associated with the UEFA Champions League, having won it a record 13 times – that was leading the ‘dirty dozen’ clubs, which sought to effectively destroy the competition, in an ill-fated attempt to launch a new European ‘Super League’ in April.
After all, it was Real Madrid – that most political of clubs – which initiated the European Cup, the predecessor to the present-day Champions League. The club’s indefatigable President, Santiago Bernabéu, persuaded UEFA to embrace the new competition in 1955. Madrid went on to win the European Cup for the first five years, and it was that success which established the club as one of the household names of European football. “Madrid have been unchallenged and in most continents have come to represent Spanish football almost exclusively in the minds of millions,” one account at the time put it (1).
If the Champions League has made Real Madrid what it is today, then what incentive did the club have for the botched attempt to put a knife into its back with the Super League?
In 1955, Bernabéu had seen the creation of the European Cup as a chance to elevate his club above domestic rivals. In 2021, the club’s current President, Florentino Pérez, had also come to see a new Super League as an opportunity, but of a different kind. By creating a closed-shop at the top of European football, Pérez could guarantee Real Madrid’s status among soccer’s elite, at a time when the financial impact of the pandemic threatened to undermine it. And the bonus? – no longer would the money be under the control of UEFA, but instead in the hands of Pérez and the other eleven in the cabal. The Super League was the double whammy: a power grab and money grab.
The fact that UEFA, domestic leagues, fans, and other clubs did not see it the same way as Pérez is hardly surprising. What is more curious is the response of Europe’s politicians to the attempted breakaway: a negative reaction which may have been decisive in the Super League giving up its plans after just three days. What was the real motivation for politicians to stand up to the oligarchs of European football?
Brexit, Boris, and the jewel in the crown of British sport
The swiftest and most determined resistance to the European Super League came from the UK government, which stated not only its total opposition to the project but also its determination to use all means available to prevent it from happening. They even threatened the possibility of fan ownership of major English clubs in an attempt to rein in the billionaire owners of English football’s ‘big six.’
“It’s not gone unnoticed that German clubs are not in this and they have fan representation,” a UK government spokesperson said the day after the Super League was announced. “We’ll look at all options”.
For Boris Johnson’s Conservative government, fresh from delivering Brexit, the loss of its most prestigious football clubs to a new European competition would send out a miserable message. Add to the equation the damage the Super League would have done to the English Premier League – the most watched and wealthy domestic football competition in the world and a jewel in the crown of British sport – and it was a no-brainer that the UK Government would seek to put the brakes on the breakaway attempt.
Johnson is a preacher of the value of free-market capitalism, once infamously saying, “Can you think of anybody who stuck up for the bankers as much as I did?”. But as a political opportunist, when he saw the rage among English football supporters, the Prime Minister was happy to play their tune. “These clubs, these names, originate from famous towns and cities in our country,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that it is right that they should be somehow dislocated from their home towns, home cities, taken and turned into international brands and commodities that just circulate the planet, propelled by the billions of banks, without any reference to fans and to those who have loved them all their lives”.
Brexit-era Johnson has to balance his pro-banker, cosmopolitan instincts with the need to appeal to the working class in towns in the Midlands and the North of England, voters who are interested in place, community, and yes, their football clubs. These voters are crucial for the Conservatives to maintain their new electoral coalition, which delivered a majority in the 2019 General Election. For the Conservatives, there was every political reason in the world to resist the Super League.
The Spanish government’s guarded response
For the Spanish government, there was not the same frenzied determination to stop the Super League as for their UK counterparts. While Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has an interest in protecting ‘La Liga,’ the second-most popular domestic league in the world after England, Barcelona and Real Madrid are institutions that already dominate the Spanish game by taking the lion’s share of domestic broadcasting revenues. Both clubs have come out of the COVID-19 crisis in a deep debt crisis and will need to downsize – potentially reducing their competitiveness in sporting terms – if they cannot boost their revenue. However, as FIFA’s Arsene Wenger has recently said, a club like Barcelona is a bit like a big bank: too big to fail, and thus “politics cannot let them down” (see video below).
It is therefore not surprising that the Spanish Government – which is a coalition between centre-left PSOE and left-wing Podemos – was more guarded in its criticism of the Super League, which had been lead from Madrid and backed by Barcelona. Waiting 24 hours to respond and only after discussions with Real Madrid and Barcelona, the government eventually stated that it “does not support the initiative”, but there was no legal, regulatory, or ownership threats, unlike in the UK. This cautious criticism was also partly motivated by a more muted reaction from Spanish fans. “From fans of other teams there is rejection but also resignation, a kind of weary acceptance, an inevitability about it all, maybe even a sense that this is just how it is, was and will be,” football journalist Sid Lowe wrote of the Spanish reaction to the Super League. “Fans of smaller clubs may even welcome their departure, a chance to compete, even though they are under no illusions as to the damage it would do”.
The problem which Lowe alludes to is the entrenched inequality, which already exists in football, and this is one aspect of the Super League debate which has largely been missed. In the 2019/20 La Liga season, Barcelona earned more than three times the broadcasting revenue of bottom-placed side Mallorca. The Catalan club currently has an annual player wage bill of €274 million compared to €1.44 million at Mallorca, which is less than Barcelona’s star player Lionel Messi earns in a week and a half.
If the Super League had come to fruition, Mallorca would have been formally excluded from competing with Barcelona, but at a certain point financial inequality becomes so great that it becomes difficult to speak of Barcelona and Mallorca genuinely competing on equal terms. Given that all of this has been presided over by the present authorities, it is understandable that many Spanish football fans are hardly quick to embrace La Liga and the Spanish Football Federation as the good guys. Spanish fans, Lowe adds, are “not inclined to see saviors in Luis Rubiales [head of the SFF] or Tebas [head of La Liga]: the league tried to take games to Miami, the Federation to Saudi Arabia”. “There is criticism, concern too, but not much of a cause,” he concludes.
Given this atmosphere, it is perhaps not surprising that while the owners of the English breakaway clubs all had to issue groveling public apologies to their fans after deserting the new competition, the same was not true in Spain, where both Real Madrid and Barcelona (although not Atletico Madrid) remain formally committed to the idea of the Super League at some point in the future. Pérez has insisted that the project is only “on standby,” while Barcelona’s new President Joan Laporta has said it remains “absolutely necessary”. No Spanish politicians on the left or right seem keen on picking a fight with either of Spanish football’s big beasts.
European Commission opposes the Super League
Perhaps the most intriguing political opposition to the Super League came months before it was announced, in January from the European Commission.
“There is no scope for the few to distort the universal and diverse nature of European football,” said Margaritis Schinas, European Commission vice president. “The European way of life is not compatible with European football being reserved for the rich and the powerful”. Schinas made the statement after recently meeting with UEFA’s President Aleksander Čeferin. The relationship between the European Commission and UEFA – the key European bodies presiding over government and football respectively – is an important one.
After former UEFA President Michel Platini was caught up in the 2015 FIFA corruption case, accused of receiving a “disloyal payment” from then FIFA President Sepp Blatter of €1.8 million, and banned from all football-related activity for six-years (reduced to four on appeal), Čeferin has sought to build closer ties with the European Commission as part of an attempt to present a cleaner image of UEFA. In 2018 they signed a co-operation agreement, which included working together on “good governance.”
For the European Commission, UEFA represents a potential source of soft power, due to the popularity of European football within the continent and worldwide. The European Championships this summer (delayed for a year due to the pandemic) is set to be held all over Europe, in 12 different cities, and is an opportunity to present an image to the world of a united Europe recovering from the pandemic. Euro 2016 was watched by two billion viewers worldwide, with 600 million viewers tuning in for at least some of the final. The figures were an increase on Euro 2012 due to the growth in viewers in China and Brazil. If the relationship is harnessed to the advantage of both, the EU and UEFA can be useful to one another.
The threat from UEFA and FIFA to ban players in the Super League from the World Cup and the European Championships was, therefore, one that could have been politically damaging for the European Commission. A global star like Cristiano Ronaldo would have missed out on this year’s Euro 2021. There are very few industries which Europe still dominates the world in, but the football business is one of them. A split at the top of the game would have done the European Commission no good at all.
A watershed moment in European football?
The Super League was a classic example of powerful people overplaying their hand. The 12 clubs behind the plot have all amassed huge wealth and power under the present authorities, but they felt that they were now in a position to push those authorities aside and take over themselves. They were wrong, not least because above the domestic leagues and UEFA stands governments – who, though usually happy to let football govern itself, when faced with fan fury and a damaging split emerging at the top of the sport, realised they could no longer watch from the sidelines.
The question now is whether the failure of the Super League represents a watershed moment in European football, where governments will be pressured by football fans to properly regulate the game and address the huge problems around the distribution of broadcasting revenues, club ownership, and player salaries. While it was clearly in the interest of governments to take a stand against the Super League, tackling the inequalities already embedded within the sport will require a determination to challenge the whole of European football’s hierarchy, something few politicians have yet shown an appetite for. Blocking a poorly conceived, wholly unpopular coup attempt in European football is one thing, but tackling the root of the problem is quite another.
- Lowe, S., “Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona V Real Madrid”, 2013.