A Sky Sports report claimed a consortium of financiers is assembling a $6 billion (£4.6 billion) funding package to assist the creation of what could become known as the European Super League, spearheaded by English clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United. This competition would involve 16 or 18 teams, playing each other home and away during the regular season, and it would finish with play-offs to decide a winner.

The league would consist of a dozen or so founding members consisting primarily of five of English football’s “big six”, along with Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, and Real Madrid, who would be protected from the nasty business of relegation forever.

Those involved would have to knock the Champions League on the head but could keep their hands in at home by fielding reserves in domestic competitions, unless, of course, the new competition decides it wants domestic football’s TV-friendly weekend slots and then they would probably have to ditch the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, etc, as well, disrupting the entire footballing structure which was going on for generations. The league has obtained support from world football’s governing body FIFA, who in turn is looking to implement the new league by 2022.

The proposed new league took a leaf from Real Madrid president Fiorentino Perez 2019’s idea of closed, two-tier competition in Europe that would take the elite out of UEFA and domestic competitions, with FIFA providing the extra thrills (and pounds and Euros) via a rebooted Club World Cup consisting of 16 teams with 11 founding shareholders and five invited clubs to fill out the fixtures. The league will result in UEFA giving the big clubs the lions’ share of the Champions League money (a concession to which we shall return) and compensation for releasing players to international tournaments. In return, the clubs disbanded the G-14 and formed the much larger ECA, on the understanding it would be more representative and less elitist. ECA was founded in 2008 as a result of peace settlement between UEFA and G-14 (gang of elite clubs)

The talks for this league started in the late 1980s, when big clubs everywhere started to feel constrained by old-fashioned ideas such as sharing the game’s growing broadcast income or the luck of the draw in cup competitions. It was new AC Milan owner, media magnate and future Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi who first put these gripes together in a European context, pointing out that his television companies would be more inclined to hand over big cheques to UEFA for the right to broadcast its premier club competition, the European Cup, if it could somehow stop the best teams from getting knocked out in the first round. After a few early threats to form a European Super League, UEFA decided that, if you can’t beat them, beat them to it: a round-robin format was introduced in 1991, with the Champions League rebrand coming a year later. By 1997, after more breakaway banter, it stopped being a league just for champions and became a competition for runners-up, too. Subsequent threats have seen the qualification criteria become ever more generous for Europe’s richest leagues until we reach today’s tournament, which includes group-stage passes for the top-four finishers in the English, Italian, German and Spanish leagues. That is a prize worth nearly £14 million to each club before they kick a starry ball, with £800,000 on offer for each point they earn in those six guaranteed games. Get through to the 13th game, the final, and nobody is really unlucky, as even the loser goes home with about £90 million for their European campaign, while winning teams are clearing £110 million, depending on where they come from and how successful they have been over time.

Because UEFA has not just given ground on the size and format of the tournament, it has also repeatedly let the richest clubs tweak the distribution model to their benefit via ideas like the “coefficient ranking”, a tally based on a club’s performances over 10 years, and the “market pool”, a slice of the overall pot that reflects how much broadcast cash each nation brings to the party. The glint in Berlusconi’s eye has got so big now that UEFA’s club competitions bring in nearly £3 billion a year in total, with over £1.8 billion of that shared between the clubs in the Champions League. What has happened over the last three decades is perhaps the best proof of the adage that money begets money, as those clubs fortunate to be on top domestically in the 1990s have enjoyed 25-plus years of UEFA-fuelled advantages. This has destroyed the competitive balance in leagues across the continent and created a class of super-clubs that spend an ever-increasing proportion of the game’s total outlay on talent, further entrenching their positions on the field, which enables them to earn more money. Whenever a domestic league, national association or even UEFA itself tries to point out the unfairness of all this, the big clubs dust off their Super League plans again.

Due to COVID-19, UEFA had written to its 55 member associations informing them that the pandemic sliced more £500 million off its 2019-20 income for the Champions League and Europa League meaning clubs can expect 4 per cent less than previously advertised over the next five seasons. It’s a well known fact that no matter how much money UEFA, the Premier League or any other competition organiser hands over to the clubs, it is never enough, as the cross-border competition between the elite is fierce enough to keep them in a permanent arms race for talent — great for players and their agents, bad for shareholders. The pandemic has undoubtedly delayed progress on that front, and we are still waiting for a clear plan of how and when decisions will be made, but the virus has not stopped people talking or sharing ideas. The UEFA, in response to the pandemic, is considering to increase the group stage from 32 teams to 36, with a view to giving the clubs the four extra games most seasoned observers believe is where the next iteration of the unofficial European Super League will end up.

The new breed of sports entrepreneurs don’t want just break even, but want to break free — free from restrictive broadcast deals, free from second domestic cup competitions and free from too many games against the Brightons and Burnleys of this world, when they could be playing Barca and Bayern, serving the primary motivation behind the radical plan Liverpool and Manchester United really have been working on, Project Big Picture, and it’s the driving force behind the negotiations that started at least 18 months ago between the ECA and UEFA on what to do with the European competitions after the current broadcast cycle is over in 2024.

However, currently, several footballing organisations have dismissed the idea publicly, with FIFA’s Infantino denying all knowledge of it, saying he is focused on his Club World Cup idea (a summer tournament that would take place every four years in the slot previously taken by the World Cup warm-up event, the Confederations Cup), and UEFA dismissing this latest round of Super League chat as on old tale about a “boring” idea. Even the ones who were allegedly running the show being Liverpool and Manchester United have refused to talk about it, with Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward did tell shareholders regarding this league being news to him and he is more interested in Champions League reforms than joining any new European competition.

Looking through the entire conversation surrounding this league, it has now become a cycle of simmering discontent, threat, denial, silence, compromise: changes to the Champions League. However, this does not mean people will stop talking about European Super League and that some of those people will include the bosses of elite clubs, leading administrators and serious investors eager to buy into something that combines the best qualities of Europe’s top leagues and the combined star power of their elite clubs. For the time being, that remains the Champions League and tempting any club to give that up — as well as compromising the broadcast, commercial and matchday income they earn from playing in their domestic leagues — will cost a lot more than around $6 billion of consortium money. 

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