It is a year since the European Super League launched. In the moment, it seemed a bizarre project, ill-conceived and ill-promoted. Within 48 hours it looked effectively dead as fans took to the streets to protest. Chelsea, then Manchester City, sheepishly withdrew. Liverpool owner John W. Henry gave an odd, mournful address, acknowledging he had misjudged the mood. There was a brief moment when it seemed that football might be heading for a reset, that something other than commercial concerns may become a consideration. That seems very naïve now.
The Super League has not gone away; it’s just that it’s being introduced by increment and under the auspices of UEFA. The new Champions League format that will be adopted from 2024 will see the eight groups of four format replaced by the so-called Swiss model of 36 teams: Each club will play 10 other sides once, with the top eight progressing into the last 16 and the next 16 entering a playoff for the other eight slots.
The claim is that the Swiss model will lead to fewer dead rubbers, although it’s not yet clear just how big an advantage avoiding the playoff round will be. Certainly any real jeopardy for the biggest clubs will be minimal, and this will add four more games to already crowded schedules. The present format tends to lack drama; the new format just feels like an even longer slog before the knockouts. But the bigger issue is who will occupy the additional four places in the group stage.
The European Club Association said at the end of last month that it would lobby for two of those places to go to the teams with the highest UEFA coefficient that hadn’t otherwise qualified. Pause to consider that. These are immensely wealthy clubs who have engineered a structure by which the rich get richer. Already the domestic leagues of Germany, France and Italy have effectively become monopolies. Spain has a duopoly that only grotesque mismanagement occasionally opens up to Atlético Madrid. England’s broadcasting rights are slightly more equitable, but it could soon be a duopoly. And yet, far from thinking something has gone badly wrong, far from asking how tournaments could be made more competitive, these clubs want further protection, and more guaranteed revenue.
Oh, you’ve had a bad season? Never mind: Here’s a free ticket to the enormously lucrative Champions League to help you back on your feet. To fail in those circumstances would be almost impossible; although so many of the elite are so badly run, you suspect the likes of Manchester United could give it a good go. Maybe the likes of Villarreal and Atalanta don’t draw enormous audiences, but their performances have enriched the Champions League in recent seasons, proof that football still is about something more than just who has the most money.
And this, of course, explains why UEFA was relatively soft on the rebel clubs, why the punishments levied were largely suspended, to prevent future breakaways. Not because UEFA had actually found a backbone and was going to act for the good of the game as a whole and protect the rights of all its members, but because it wanted to profit from the elite competition, itself.
It may also be noted that Florentino Pérez’s claim that the founding dozen members of the Super League signed binding contracts is true for everybody except Inter. What that means legally is unclear, but it does mean that as well as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus—the three clubs who continue to insist the Super League will happen—Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Atlético and AC Milan are also still technically bound by that contract.
In part, that’s because the process of withdrawal has been complicated by legal action taken in Spain over whether UEFA constitutes a monopoly illegal under EU law, which itself halted disciplinary action being taken by UEFA against the three rebel clubs. That may be academic in terms of the Super League, but it is highly significant for the future of UEFA and highlights the absurdity of the game’s regional lawmaker also running competitions from which it seeks to profit (FIFA has the same uncomfortable dual role).
But whatever that outcome, the big clubs have won. Four countries have provided all but one of the finalists since 2004, and that exception is Paris Saint-Germain, owned by the state of Qatar. And still, that domination isn’t enough. Still the elites demand the safety net of guaranteed slots based on coefficient. And what is that but a super league, a closed shop by another name.
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