With an estimated population of 3.5 billion worldwide, soccer fans are a horde to reckon with. Our topic today involves a situation that reverberated through this massive population and its associated institutions.
The storm began on Sunday, 18th April, with an announcement that sprung dramatically out of nothingness.
Some of the largest clubs in Europe planned to form their own cross-continental league.
This league, the European Super League, would have 15 slots reserved for big-name clubs and 5 remnant slots that other clubs would compete over. It’s strongest proponent was (and still is) Florentino Perez, president of the Real Madrid Football, who stepped up as the chairman of the nascent Super League.
The idea sparked uproar from football associations, politicians, managers, national governments, former and current players, and, last but not least, a significant percentage of the 3.5 billion-strong multitude we mentioned earlier.
At the grassroots, long-time fans fuelled outrage. These fans felt betrayed by the same clubs they had followed and supported from childhood, for reasons we will mention in a minute.
At the organisational level, FIFA and UEFA (the global and European football associations, respectively) released statements condemning the idea. Both associations asserted they would ban players and teams that participated in the ESL from all other matches under their purview.
The brunt of the criticism was directed at the league’s anti-competitive practices. Notably, the decision to reserve 15 spots for big-ticket clubs was met with a level of repugnance that would seem disproportionate to those unaware of the deep passions that run through the football world.
For context, almost every other football association promotes a putative meritocracy. No slots are reserved for any teams, and even the smallest minnow harbors the hope that they could make it to the top on the strength of their performance and become one of the ‘big fish’.
Fans also opposed the manner in which the announcements were made. Players and managers were not consulted beforehand, with the decision coming directly from owners.
We shall discuss the owners’ rationale for the ESL in a minute, but for now let us simply note that the decision appeared elitist, heavy-handed, and unreasonable.
Discussions pertaining to forming a continental Super League go as far back as 1998.
In 2021, these discussions gained further momentum, powered by various impacts of one of the most significant worldwide events since World War 2: the (ongoing) coronavirus pandemic.
Historically, a large chunk of club revenue comes from matchday revenue, which includes revenue from matchday tickets’ and season tickets’ sales.
For elite clubs, commercial and broadcast revenue outstrip matchday revenue. As the CoVid pandemic bit deep into the economy, matchday revenues fell and many clubs faced (and continue to face) financial struggles – if not outright disaster.
It is against this background that elite club owners decided a new competition was required to ‘save the game’.
Founding clubs of this new competition were promised as much as €10 billion over the course of their initial commitment period.
Without dipping too much into the details of the revenue breakdown, we can confirm that founding clubs would take home a larger proportion of league revenue than they currently do as part of the UEFA or as part of their home country’s football association.
The mind-boggling sums of money being discussed (in excess of €120 billion) were sourced from the coffers of renowned financial institution JP Morgan.
For comparison, the annual GDP of Kenya is ~ €83 billion. The €120 billion associated with the European Super League is almost 50% higher than the aforementioned GDP.
In less than 72 hours, the league that would ‘change the game forever’ was no more.
Within two days, fans (specifically British fans) showed up physically at key club properties to make their feelings known. Chelsea supporters besieged Stamford bridge, the club’s iconic football stadium.
Cadiz supporters showed up in thousands outside a hotel where Real Madrid players were staying.
The social media outrage did not die down.
By Tuesday night, all six British ‘founder’ clubs made U-turns and announced their departure from the league. Chelsea was first to capitulate to the angry hordes, and the other Premier League clubs quickly followed suit.
The worst losers from the entire debacle turned out to be the clubs.
Their credibility shot, fan protests against the ESL have now spilled over into wider protests against foreign ownership. According to leaked documents, these clubs face up to €130 million in fines for withdrawing from the ESL. UEFA is reportedly considering sanctions against the offending clubs. The British government announced a football governance review, which will partly focus on the possibility of introducing new ownership models to reduce external investors’ outsized influence.
It is ironic that Florentino Perez wasn’t entirely wrong: the English Super League has changed the game permanently.
The twin forces of socialist reform in English football and the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic are two powerful trends that are setting the stage for a dynamicity that football has not seen in a long time.
What does the future hold for the beautiful game?
Only time will tell.