Unraveling the Super League fantasy

The Express Tribune looks into what led some of world’s top clubs to almost form a controversial breakaway competition


Abdul Majid April 25, 2021
Real Madrid's Welsh forward Gareth Bale (C) controls the ball during the UEFA Champions League football match Sporting CP vs Real Madrid CF at the Jose Alvalade stadium in Lisbon on November 22, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that ‘money often costs too much’ and if we look at the implications of this saying, it further elaborates the idea that trying to make more and more of it will only lead to increased greed. Greed is one of the cardinal sins in Christian teachings, but nearly all other religions are repulsive to it too. A vice can never reap great rewards, instead it is considered to be the foundation on which further immoralities pile up, eventually leading to disaster.

On Monday, April 19, 2021, the beautiful and universal game of football fought a war against the vice of greed, when 12 big clubs announced that they would be participating in a breakaway league – European Super League – and walk away from one of the biggest and historic football event, UEFA’s flagship Champions League.

While the fight didn’t last more than 72 hours as nine out of the 12 clubs who initially said they would be participating pulled out, the build-up to it wasn’t just a result of raucous planning. Instead, the seeds of such a rebel league were sown more than two decades ago in 1998 and football is still trying to cut off that wild weed.

While Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez believes that European Super League was meant to ‘save football’ with innovation in format and also with big clubs playing other big clubs more often resulting in increased interest, the main incentive behind it was nothing else than guaranteed money.

All participating clubs were guaranteed a pool of billions of dollars even for just saying yes to the idea. They were promised money at the start of the European Super League, confirmed participation each year for founding members without having to go through extended qualifying, which meant confirmed Euros in bank accounts every year. The formula to attract clubs was simple: show them money, some more money and then a lot of money and it worked too, sadly for only a couple of days.

The question here however stands that why did it come to this? Why is football being exploited by the rich to become richer, rather than the game being used to enrich the life an individual who falls in love with this sport, be it watching it or playing it.

The answer lies in the year 1998: the very first time a rich conglomerate explored the idea of using football to fill its coffers and that is when the idea of a European Super League emerged. The Italian corporation Media Partners investigated the idea to form a breakaway league from Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). At that point the Champions League had recently opened (in 1997) the gates for more teams to get a chance to play in the tournament by expanding the number of teams, so the idea, however lucrative it sounded, couldn’t be turned into a reality.

Earlier in its starting days, the Champions League would only allow the winners of the each domestic league of Europe to participate in a knockout competition.

While the idea of a parallel body that regulates a parallel league has its own pros, the difference in the motivation behind organising such a tournament, which eventually gives shape to the defining essence of the league, is where the whole problem lies.

 

If the motivation would have been to better the quality of football or find a way to include more teams and more players in the current football calendar, then the European Super League may have given UEFA a run for its money. However, the sole purpose of the 2021 efforts behind making the European Super League a reality was recovering losses and making profits.

There are two main problems that convinced and/or forced the owners of the some of the biggest clubs in Europe to be willing enough to take on a mammoth UEFA and also the world football governing body FIFA. One was created by the owners themselves, while the other one was due to a natural disaster.

Striving to become ‘the best’

They say football is a beautiful game because anyone can play it. You just need a ball. This inclusivity makes football one of the most loved games across the globe.

However, they also say that money ruins everything beautiful. And in the case of football money did two bad things for the universal sport.

First of all, the increased market value of football due to its universal appeal and also thanks to spectators’ eyeballs stuck to TVs for games or in stadiums brought more money into the game, which led to big investors buying football clubs. And investors, by habit, demand profits for their investments. It is pertinent to mention that they might love the game too before investing in any club, but amorous feelings do not reap you better rewards on your investment, smart decisions do.

At the start of the age of ‘football on TV and in big stadiums’, club owners turned into billionaires overnight due to the lack of leagues and an ever-increasing interest in matches.

However, with the advent of national leagues, FIFA-led national tournaments and UEFA-led Champions League and Europa League, the war for eyeballs started firing up.

National team rivalries started building up, fans of city-based clubs started thronging stadiums to see their team face a neighbouring rival or other team from the European region. Player versus player comparisons starting taking shape, statistics jumped in and turned football stars into legends. It won’t be wrong to say that technological advancements and the various aspects involved in playing and watching football, including players’ training and conditioning, and better pitches and broadcasting quality on TV moved forward hand in hand.

The initial focus of marketers then was to market the team legacies, turn football players into stars and make them endorse products and make money through football advertising.

However, once the graph of money-making through marketing hit its peak, the owners of the clubs entered into a battle of egos. That is where football changed from just a game into a power game.

Every owner wanted the best players to wear their team jersey. Season after season transfer fee records were shattered with every new and upcoming player shifting his loyalties to another club so that the owners can sell more merchandises and also win the biggest club tournaments to rake up more money.

While the inflation in the price of players was contained till one point in the football history, the problem started to appear when clubs started spending more than they earned. Their logic was that attracting the best talent would ensure Champions League accolades, which in turn would satiate the owners’, monetary and egoistic needs. However, there’s only one champion every year from Europe, and this fact, instead of deterring their will to spend more, motivated them to throw away more money into.

The latest and the biggest example of owners trying to spend more to earn more and failing badly are Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, two clubs who were a part of the initial 12 teams who signed up for the European Super League.

PSG brought in Brazilian striker Neymar from Barcelona for a world record transfer fee of 222 million euros and they thought it was enough to help them win the coveted Champions League. They did enter the final of the competition in 2020, but lost 1-0 to eventual champions Bayern Munich. Before that, in 2019, they were beaten by Manchester United at the last 16 stage and in 2018, they had also lost at the same stage against Real Madrid.

Point to be noted, spending hundreds of millions on Neymar didn’t pay any dividends as PSG only won the French Ligue 1 and the French Cup since the arrival of the Brazilian striker at the Parc de Princes, something they were winning even without his presence.

Another recent case of extravagant spending in an attempt to serve the ego and fill the coffers through big tournament prize money is that of English Premier League club Chelsea.

While the Blues’ fans may say that the players brought in have created an impact, spending £263m over three transfer windows still isn’t a smart move.

Chelsea brought in their former midfielder Frank Lampard as manager in 2019 at the Stamford Bridge and opened up their wallet for the former England international to spend as much as he can on world class players, but with a caveat of ensuring Champions League football and a Premier League title. Lampard did the first job perfectly as he spent too much money on too many players; however, Chelsea had to sack him after nearly one and a half year in charge due to no show of considerable results.

The important point to note here is that Lampard spent nearly all of the 263 million in the summer transfer window of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic had already started making an impact in the world and on football.

The cases of PSG and Chelsea are a clear sign that smart decisions will always trump big money moves in football. And to cover the losses for these rash decisions, breaking away from the well-set football structure is another stupid idea.

The pandemic losses

Real Madrid’s Perez, after the idea of European Super League was brought to a halt due to fans’ interference and 48 hours of intense media criticism, said that the event is still not doomed, but is facing a setback for now.

Some may say it is difficult for him to accept defeat, hence such a statement, but on an honest note, he may be looking at that slight window of opportunity which many cannot peak through.

At the end of 2019 and the start of 2020, the whole world was brought to a standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic. While it may sound insensitive to say that sports was the most affected industry due to the characteristics of the virus, contagiousness and inability for crowds to gather at places, it is still a fact that the billion-dollar market was completely closed down.

When the world went into a complete lockdown in March 2020, football had to close its door to fans and for nearly three months, football was shut down too, completely.

The pandemic did for Perez what even billions-of-dollars promise couldn’t do. All football clubs, big and small, bore the brunt of the absence of fans which lead to loss of gate money and membership fees for clubs. This and the nearly no earning from merchandising since pandemic powered down the buying power of people due to loss of jobs, brought football to its knees.

It was at this point that Perez once again brought forward the idea of the European Super League to some of the biggest clubs of Europe, all of whom were covered in losses due to the pandemic. Even though most of the clubs have now pulled out, but the their monetary positions dictate that if the symptoms of the pandemic stay longer than a year or two, the idea of the European Super League may well turn into a reality, by hook or by crook.

Talk about hitting the iron when it is hot.

All in all, football like any art form was ruined the day it was commercialised. Greed seeped in through the cracks and turned the beautiful game into a money-making exercise. Some may say the players are to blame too for asking inflated salaries, while others criticise owners for expecting too much – money and accolades both. But who is responsible shouldn’t be the question. The right inquiry would be that how can we reinstate the real essence of football, not of money and accolades, but of inclusivity and of universal love for the game, the beautiful game of football.

 

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