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Moment that mattered: Twelve football clubs announce a breakaway European Super League

A sign protesting the European Super League taped to the hand of the Dennis Bergkamp statue outside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, London, 19th April 2021

A sign protesting the European Super League taped to the hand of the Dennis Bergkamp statue outside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, London, 19th April 2021. Photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Contributor

This article was published in Delayed Gratification in June 2021

Ashley Brown knew what was coming. It was late on 18th April, a Sunday evening, when it was announced that 12 of the world’s richest football clubs had agreed to form a breakaway European Super League (ESL). Brown, the head of supporter engagement and governance at the Football Supporters’ Association, had been tipped off the day before that six Premier League clubs – Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester City and Chelsea – would join Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan in a venture that would revolutionise the game. But he had long known this day would come.

“It was no surprise because we knew the executives of those six clubs have been plotting internally within the UK for many years,” says Brown. “It was only a matter of time until they linked up with some of their European partners.”

The idea of a European Super League has been around since the 1960s, but the modern incarnation is predicated on an era of booming international TV rights. A new competition in which the best teams in Europe regularly played each other would command TV rights deals that would dwarf even the huge sums that the Premier League and UEFA’s Champions League attract. Football fans around the world, the logic went, would flock to this new elite competition to watch the very best players, who would inevitably follow the money.

To think that fans would just roll over and do what they’re told is both arrogant and naive

“Football is the only global sport in the world with more than four billion fans,” said Florentino Pérez, the chair of the ESL and Real Madrid’s president, at the launch of the venture. “Our responsibility as big clubs is to respond to their desires.” Such was the confidence in the potential financial rewards of the ESL that the founding clubs would share an initial £3 billion ‘infrastructure grant’, financed by US bank JP Morgan.

The ramifications of such a move were huge. The ESL threatened to undermine national leagues and make the Champions League, currently Europe’s pre-eminent competition, virtually redundant. Instead of a broadly meritocratic system in which a team’s results dictated whether they qualified for the Champions League, a kind of cartel system based on American sports leagues like the NFL and NBA would now be the order of the day: there would be no promotion or relegation from the ESL for the 12 founding teams. But the executives believed that if they built it, the fans would come. Things didn’t go to plan.

Late on that Sunday night the ESL website went live, and the press release was sent out. The response was near-unanimous fury. There was fury from European leagues, especially the Premier League, which saw its product being devalued as English teams in the ESL would likely field weaker teams in their domestic league as they prioritised a new, more lucrative competition. There was fury from UEFA, who saw a challenge to the Champions League, which would lose 12 of its most bankable teams to a rival competition. And there was fury from supporters everywhere who, it turned out, had little appetite to watch the same big teams play over and over again while domestic competition was treated as an afterthought.

“They [the 12 clubs’ executives] feel it’s their game and their clubs and we all know, as football fans, that it’s not,” says Brown. “Football clubs are at the heart of their communities. And to think that those fans would just roll over and do what they’re told is both arrogant and naive. They just expected to steamroller it through.”

The opposition was particularly acute in England, with protests outside grounds. There has long been an undercurrent of anger in English football at the direction in which the game has been heading. Ever since Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, English football has seen a succession of clubs being bought up by billionaires from across the world.

Perhaps most significant has been the investment from a number of US owners who have bought clubs including Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. By the end of the 2020/21 season more Premier League clubs were owned or part-owned by US investors than British backers; many in the former category have previous experience of making huge profits in sports such as American football or basketball. In America the owner is king. The leagues are ring-fenced from promotion or relegation and the vast profits are shared among a closed circle of owners. They have invested in European football because they see the potential for even greater returns given the sport’s global popularity, but only if they can impose the same US-style model.

The activists in English football are usually the pen-pushers… We don’t often take to the streets with pitchforks”

Brown has experience of what can happen when your club is in the hands of the super-rich. Before joining the FSA, he had a front-row seat as Portsmouth FC imploded and became the first Premier League club to go into administration. The club was passed between a series of super-rich owners – at times it was unclear who the ultimate proprietors were, to the point where UK newspapers began to question whether one purported owner even existed. The club ended up being relegated to the fourth tier. Brown, as chairman of the Pompey Supporters’ Trust, eventually prised the club away from the owners through the courts and built a fan-owned structure instead. This saved Portsmouth from oblivion. “Super-rich owners are very distant; they’re off in a completely different world,” says Brown. “They’re so far removed from the history and the communities of the club.”

While a US-style model seemed a natural evolution for owners in England, there was a more pressing issue for some other super-rich clubs in Europe. They weren’t actually super-rich at all. Although clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid attract top players and bring in vast revenues, their finances are perilous thanks to a mountain of debt and the ongoing pandemic. Barcelona is £1.16 billion in debt. Inter Milan reportedly struggled to pay their wage bill at times last season, even as they won the Italian league. AC Milan is owned by Elliott Management, a US hedge fund that buys distressed debt and assets, and which took over the club when its previous Chinese owner defaulted on a loan repayment due to the American company.

For these clubs the ESL might have seemed the quickest route to financial stability. But it wasn’t to be. In the end the killer blow might have come from Boris Johnson, even if it was more by accident than design. There has been some suggestion that the British PM was briefed by Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward about the plan, and had approved it. But when the sheer scale of public opposition became clear, including the high-profile fan protests, the UK government came out firmly against it.

On 20th April Boris Johnson promised “a legislative bomb” to prevent English clubs joining the ESL. A “fan-led review of football governance” was announced. The six English teams pulled out. Brown believes the fan protests played a critical role. “The activists in English football are usually the pen-pushers, people that lobby to change things politically through discussion,” he says. “We don’t often take to the streets with pitchforks.”

There was anger too at the light punishment the breakaway teams received. In June UEFA levied a fine of £22 million on nine of the clubs (a disciplinary process was opened against three of them) and accepted an apology from the clubs that recanted. The Premier League accepted a further £22 million “goodwill” payment from the six English clubs for grassroots football and a promise they would not attempt to launch a super league again. Still, Brown is optimistic that the fan-led review, which reports back in October, could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform football. “In the review we [the FSA] have campaigned for a golden share to be given to fans.” That share, Brown says, would give a veto to fans over important issues. “One of those vetoes would be the competition the club plays in. Supporters would have the ability to say: ‘Nope, you can’t play in the European Super League.’”

But the ESL zombie is not quite dead yet. Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona are pressing on regardless. “There is a binding contract and no one can leave,” Pérez said in June. “The Super League continues.” Pérez had also opened a case in a Spanish court to try to head off any punishment from UEFA. For the time being that has been successful. In September UEFA announced it was suspending the punishment for all 12 teams, even though it saw the ESL as an “existential threat”. For Brown, the best hope of stopping the ESL lies in the UK government’s fan-led review and the imposition of a ‘golden share’. “I think the six [English] clubs are pretty scared of a ‘golden share’ for fans,” says Brown. “I suspect they’re still working out plans to find another way to make it [the ESL] happen.”

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