Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

An American's Guide to the Super League Saga

Last week was a whirlwind for European soccer, and by extension, world soccer after the richest clubs in England, Spain, and Italy announced the creation of "The Super League"... and then it folded two days later.

In the Super League’s first official press release on April 18th, it announced that 12 of the top European football clubs had created a new midweek league. The league would be governed by the founding clubs, including AC Milan, Arsenal FC, Atlético de Madrid, Chelsea FC, FC Barcelona, FC Internazionale Milano, Juventus FC, Liverpool FC, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid CF, and Tottenham Hotspur, and anticipated to have three more clubs join ahead of the inaugural season.

While those additional clubs are unknown, a solid guess would be Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, and Borussia Dortmund, which rank fourth, tenth, and twelfth, respectively, on Forbes’ “World’s Most Valuable Soccer Teams” list for 2021.

The announcement was immediately met with near-universal condemnation, including from the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the domestic leagues of the involved clubs, club managers, players, pundits, and fans. Even politicians, such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, chimed in to condemn the league.

“I’m going to do everything I can to give this ludicrous plan a straight red,” Johnson said. “You only need a pulse to know that football is not a brand or a product. In fact, it’s so much more than even a sport. Football clubs in every town and city and at every tier of the pyramid have a unique place at the heart of their communities, and are an unrivaled source of passionate local pride.”

Yet, the Super League died as abruptly as it was born when Chelsea announced their withdrawal on April 20, two days after the league’s announcement. Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, resigned later that day after 16 years with the club. By the end of the day, all six English members were out. By the next morning, the Super League was no more.

A Not-So-Super League

For just a moment, let’s take a look at the pure entertainment value of a potential Super League relative to what it would replace, the UEFA Champions League. The Champions League is an annual competition, separate from regular domestic competitions, that brings together the best performing clubs from leagues across Europe.

Since we’re looking at the concept of a Super League in its ideal form, all invited clubs would be involved, which reportedly  includes Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, and Borussia Dortmund. In that case, the Super League would include every single Champions League finalist since 2004. The only participant that has not appeared in a final is Manchester City, who is on track to win the English Premier League for the fifth time in the last decade, and is the heavy favorite to win the Champions League this year.

What this means is that rare high-profile matchups would occur more frequently. For example, after Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure from Real Madrid for Juventus in 2018, he and FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi didn’t go head-to-head again for over two years. The streak broke when they played in the Champions League last December. In the Super League, they would be guaranteed to play each other every year.

However, if the appeal of such a league is seeing the best teams and the best players matching up every week as opposed to just a few times a year, then a Super League doesn’t even achieve this much. Currently, in the English Premier League, there are four clubs sitting above tenth-place Arsenal that would not be guaranteed to participate in the Super League. Neither would a quarter of the Champions League semi-finalists from the last three seasons, as only five out of 20 spots would be reserved annually for external qualification. While the permanent members of the Super League would arguably be the most likely to be competitive in any given year, excluding other challengers would eliminate opportunities for entertaining competition and upward mobility for smaller clubs.

Lost in Translation

Still, to the uninitiated American observer, the Super League might not look like such a bad thing because it looks a lot like an American sports league.

The key difference that one needs to understand between American sports and international soccer is that the latter is highly decentralized. Each American sports league operates entirely under one governing body, with one major entry point for new talent (a draft), a fixed number of teams, and has no legitimate competition from other leagues within the same sport. New talent can be distributed to the lowest-performing teams and spending can be capped to limit the dominance of the best performing teams. Thus, a remarkable amount of parity is achieved. In the NBA, for example, a small-market team like the Milwaukee Bucks can acquire and keep two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, in Europe, overachievers can instead expect to see their best players quickly poached away, such as the leaders of the 2019 Ajax team that made the Champions League semi-finals, who are now playing for Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester United, and Juventus, among others.

In contrast to American sports, soccer clubs are mostly governed by domestic leagues and only very loosely by FIFA. With such decentralization, inter-league recruiting competition is fierce, meaning that measures such as salary caps and drafts would disadvantage individual leagues. Thus, most leagues opt to participate in the laissez-faire player movement system known as the transfer market, in which one team pays another a sum of money to, in effect, “buy” a player, who then negotiates a new contract with that team if he so chooses. The result is that the richest clubs in the world typically have the best players in the world, and if they don’t, they usually get them eventually. For this reason, the vast majority of players representing countries such as Argentina and Brazil in the World Cup play for European clubs; that’s where the money is. Money almost always translates to success in European soccer.

The irony of The Super League, presumably a replacement for the Champions League, is that it planned to employ the American closed-league model to preserve parity among the richest clubs while shutting out most of the rest, thereby magnifying the power of money in the sport. To take baseball as an example, this model can work in the United States because minor league teams aren’t knocking on the door of the MLB trying to surpass it in terms of revenue. In the United States, there is no question of which teams should be invited to the party and which ones shouldn’t. The Super League is like if the Yankees, Red Sox, and the other richest teams tried to form their own separate league (which they actually did attempt). Thus, concern over the Super League is that it would solidify an elite class of clubs by granting them an oligopoly on high-revenue international matches.

David vs. Goliath?

Despite the outrage, the Super League is in many ways a natural progression in the trend of outside money flooding the sport. Paris Saint-Germain is owned by Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the monarch of Qatar, while Manchester City is owned by Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. Since 2003, Chelsea has been owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. Under their current owners, these three clubs have transformed from underwhelming sides with mostly local fan bases, to domestic and international champions with fans around the world.

A great deal of money has also come from America. JPMorgan Chase was a top financier of the Super League, while would-be league member Liverpool FC is a subsidiary of the Fenway Sports Group, a company owned by John Henry, owner of the Boston Globe and the Red Sox. Notably, LeBron James also recently became a partner at FSG.

For several years now, there has been a growing sentiment among European fans against big money, especially foreign money, in the sport. This conflict between Boris Johnson’s ideal of an “unrivaled source of passionate local pride” and that of soccer as a global industry isn’t going away any time soon, even after the stunning failure of the Super League.

Last week’s events illustrate the detriments of allowing investors to have their way with the sport, and while the fans seem to have claimed the moral high ground in this matter, neither can they be fully entrusted with setting the agenda.

Of course, soccer fans are a notoriously unruly bunch. Common behaviors range from lighting fireworks inside stadiums to outright violent hate, such as the islamophobic violence regularly perpetrated by Beitar Jerusalem’s supporters group, “La Familia.” The latter is an example of the dangers of giving fans such a significant role in setting club culture, as Beitar is “the only club in the Israeli Premier League never to have had an Arab player on its roster.” While an extreme example, Beitar is by no means the only club with discrimination issues. In fact, racist abuse by fans has become such a problem in Europe that it caused Mesut Özil to quit the German national team and the English Premier League to put a “No Room For Racism” patch on their shirts last year.

Nor can governing bodies be trusted with the future of the sport, as they often perpetuate the same racism as fans, while also bending to the machinations of investors.

Fan outcry is a blunt instrument that can often amplify the darkest tendencies of the loudest voices. Indeed, foreign money has changed the game, in many ways for the worse, but those anti-capitalist sentiments can easily turn into nationalist ones. It’s no coincidence that figures like Boris Johnson were so quick to pick up this issue, as it fits squarely alongside his isolationist and Brexit agendas.

Still, a blunt instrument has its uses, as it did last week. Soccer fans may be notoriously hateful, but they’re also famously diverse. And sure, big money isn’t going anywhere, but if anything, the rise and fall of the Super League represents a historic moment in the sport when big money lost and did so in humiliating fashion. Football is for the fans, and as a fanalbeit a soulless American oneI can only hope that fans will continue to be a positive force in shaping the beautiful game.

Unashamed Boston sports homer. History nerd. I've had a PS5 since day one, so I'm also pretty cool.