The war has been won, and decisively so. Football, for now, remains more than content produced to enrich club owners. The scenes outside Stamford Bridge as word swept a demonstrating crowd that Chelsea had withdrawn from the Super League will not quickly be forgotten, and neither will the shambling, tone-deaf apology from Liverpool owner John Henry. Fans, players and pundits had come together in a way that was genuinely uplifting to assert what they believed football should be.
What matters now is what happens next. What is the settlement? Will football just return to muddling along in the same slightly unsatisfactory way it did before? Will the super clubs attempt another breakaway? Or will the revolutionary mood, the sense of an enemy in retreat, lead to genuine change?
Perhaps first of all it’s worth asking why this happened. Greed, obviously, is part of the answer, perhaps even the largest part of it, but even people as greedy as the owners of elite football clubs aren’t consistently greedy all the time. So why now? What provoked this move—one that even the elite must have had some sense was an enormous gamble—at this precise moment?
The interview Florentino Pérez, the Real Madrid president and Super League chairman, gave on Wednesday night was somehow even more nonsensical than the one he had given on Monday, which perhaps can be marked as the moment the project really collapsed. Here was the chief of the new league speaking gibberish, unable to offer any legitimate rationale for the Super League, moral or financial. There were countless misunderstandings and claims that simply aren’t true, and absolutely no detail; it was a moment at which the rest of football seemed collectively to realize that their great rival was a buffoon.
The whole proposal was bizarrely amateurish. Joel Glazer, co-chairman of Manchester United, spoke of the Super League generating annual revenues of €5 billion. The Champions League in its last full pre-pandemic season generated €3.3 billion. Of that, €2.4 billion came from broadcast rights. Yet Pérez has spoken of a collapsing TV market as a reason why action is needed now to “save football.” So where is that 50% increase in revenue coming from? What broadcaster or platform would invest so heavily in an untried product at a time of great economic uncertainty, particularly when it might have been facing an organized boycott?
The lack of detail means it’s still unclear whether there had been any serious financial planning at all. The PR strategy was a disaster, as within a few minutes of the proposal being announced the argument had been lost. Any legitimate reasons the super clubs have (and perhaps they really don’t have any) were overwhelmed by the torrent of fury at their greed. Why, then, would Pérez—or indeed the Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli—ever be trusted again, either by UEFA, by other cubs, or even by the people they were supposed to be representing?
In Wednesday’s interview, Pérez did mention Financial Fair Play, and that does seem to have been key. For the past decade, the traditional elite have been troubled by the petroclubs, by Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, whose wealth is not dependent on football or the market. They blamed them for the inflationary spiral that really came to a head with the world-record transfer of Neymar from Barcelona to PSG. Suddenly it became apparent to everybody that, if they wanted to, the petroclubs could effectively buy anybody.
Financial Fair Play regulations were supposed to check that, and they have made the biggest clubs more profitable. But when the Champions League ban imposed on Manchester City for breaching regulations was overturned last year by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, that seems to have caused the elite to realize that UEFA has little appetite or perhaps capacity to enforce the rules. The pandemic has created additional financial pressures, with the result that the elite wanted a means of securing not only increased but guaranteed revenue. It’s significant that PSG did not sign up, and that Manchester City and Chelsea were the last two English clubs to join and the first to leave.
None of those tensions have gone away. The goals of the elite have not changed. The elite will still want more money, and still have no concept of solidarity with those lower down the pyramid, no sense of the greater community of football. Pérez made that clear on Wednesday, insisting quite falsely that the smaller 14 clubs in the Premier League make a profit while the top six do not and bleating about how without a Super League, Real Madrid wouldn’t be able to sign Kylian Mbappé or Erling Haaland.
All across Europe, hearts were shattered by the poignancy. But beyond the laughable self-pity, there is a point here. What do you do when certain clubs have essentially unlimited wealth? And, even harder, how do you begin to rebalance a system whose structures have created a self-perpetuating elite?
Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, has spent this week insisting football has a pastoral role and must not be subject to the whims of the market. There are two obvious responses to that, which are that such an acknowledgement is diametrically opposed to his policies in any other sphere and that it’s nice he’s noticed, but it’s also about 30 years too late. Nobody should be shocked that when hedge funds take over football clubs they act like hedge funds.
How sincere the British government is about a full review of football’s finances and whether it has any intention of legislating to protect clubs as community assets is doubtful. There are countless examples of Johnson leaping aboard a popular bandwagon, saying the right things, and then hopping off once the spotlight has moved on and the time comes for actually finding a solution. But right now, with even sponsors expressing their disquiet, there is momentum behind a movement to try to re-democratize football, to return clubs to their communities and to try to institute a fairer system.
It’s a moment UEFA must seize. Europe's governing football body will meet on Friday, ostensibly to discuss Euro 2020 and if any cities may have to be stripped of hosting rights because they are unable to offer guarantees on how many fans they may be able to admit in stadiums. But clearly a response to the Super League proposals is required.
UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin’s fury with the rebel clubs and their executives on Monday was magnificent and unfeigned, but on Tuesday, as the project fell apart, he welcomed them back to the fold. There must be some sort of sanction. You can’t simply ignore an attempted coup just because it failed. Pérez, after all, was still insisting on Wednesday that the Super League plans are alive. Could Real Madrid be expelled from this season’s Champions League? It’s not likely, but equally it’s not totally impossible.
More significant is the longer-term impact of this. The super clubs have never been weaker. The threat of a Super League no longer holds the same terrors. Politically, all the momentum is in one direction. Čeferin has seen very clearly the cost of appeasement. The end goal of the super clubs does not change; compromise just delays the inevitable. He should be emboldened and should seize this opportunity to try to rebalance football.
The first step would be to abandon the changes to the structure of the Champions League that were ratified on Monday. Expanding the group stage, switching to the so-called Swiss model and reserving two places for the clubs with the best past record who had not otherwise qualified were all concessions to the super clubs, the perceived price needed to be paid to fend off the Super League overtures. After the failed coup, there is no longer any justification for that.
But the group stage itself no longer functions. The disparity between the super clubs and the rest is too great. UEFA must look at how to address that. Increasing solidarity payments is an obvious solution, and a way for the rebel clubs to prove their contrition. But it is not sufficient. There must be dialogue with national federations and leagues to try to redress the competitive balance across the continent.
The remaining 14 of the Premier League, certainly, seem intent on imposing some sort of punishment. Expulsion was never possible because it would require a three-quarters majority and the six were always going to stick together, but there is a mood to impose some sort of sanction that would act as a serious deterrent to any similar breakaway in the future, and that perhaps is where legislation could be effective.
The super clubs have played their hand. Nobody now can be in any doubt about their intentions. Football has to take action to protect itself, not merely to prevent this from happening again but to change the culture of football so the prospect of another breakaway league is never even desirable.
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