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The European Super League may be the death of football as we know it - but could it work?

:Headline: The European Super League may be the death of football as we know it - but could it work?:
Sports Mole takes an in-depth look at the proposed new European Super League, the criticism of it and whether it could succeed.
Sports Mole

Football - the largest, most lucrative and most loved sport in the world - was rocked to its very foundations on Sunday night as 12 clubs confirmed plans to form a breakaway tournament known as the European Super League.

The hugely controversial proposal has been met with immediate and almost universal condemnation and defiance, with the sport's most powerful governing bodies including FIFA, UEFA, the Premier League and the Football Associations of England, Spain and Italy threatening sanctions, expulsions and ostracism from the competitions which currently dominate the sport.

For fans, it has been viewed as a power-grab by the big clubs to ensure that the rich get richer and will never again miss out on the money-spinning elite fixtures which they might otherwise be excluded from based purely on sporting merit.

Here, Sports Mole takes an in-depth look at what could be an irrevocable alteration to the most popular sport in the world, the ramifications that could have and whether these plans could still work.



What is it?

The official press release claims that it will provide a "sustainable commercial approach... for the benefit of the entire European football pyramid" and that it "will provide significantly greater economic growth and support for European football".

In layman's terms, it is a money-grabbing exercise focused on maximising profit rather than rewarding sporting merit.

Twenty clubs will take part, including 15 "Founding Clubs", 12 of whom have already been revealed as the Premier League's so-called big six - Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur - La Liga's big three - Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid - and Serie A's big three - Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan.

The ESL are confident three more Founding Clubs will join before the launch, although German clubs Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig, to their immense credit, have so far opposed the plans, while Paris Saint-Germain are also yet to agree to the new format.

Just five teams - 25% of the division - will qualify on sporting merit, based on their achievements in the previous season. Quite how those five teams will be determined, particularly with the opposition the proposal faces from other governing bodies, has not yet been revealed.

In theory, domestic leagues will still take place unencumbered, although the leagues themselves have taken a firm stance against this and there have been calls for the breakaway clubs to be severely punished with points deductions, fines and even relegation.

The Super League matches would take place in midweek, with two groups of 10 playing home and away fixtures, and the top three in each group automatically qualifying for the quarter-finals.

Teams finishing fourth and fifth will then compete in a two-legged playoff for the remaining quarter-final positions, and a two-leg knockout format will be used to reach the final at the end of May, which will be staged as a single fixture at a neutral venue - in the same manner as the current Champions League knockout rounds.

Essentially - this tournament would replace the Champions League or Europa League for the 20 teams involved, but 15 of those teams would take part every season regardless of how they performed domestically in the previous campaign.



Why has there been such a strong reaction?

Quite simply because it epitomises greed and the growing power of money in a game steeped in almost 160 years of history.

For well over a century football was regarded as a working-class sport - fans worked throughout the week and went to football on a Saturday with their hard-earned money.

Those days have long since gone - the creation of the Premier League and Champions League among other competitions have sparked rising ticket prices which have priced many supporters out of attending - but never has the relatively new powerlessness of fans been laid quite so bare as this proposal.

In a statement so heathen and hypocritical that it would have been hilarious had it not been so hedonistic, perhaps the most laughable line was that the desire of the fans was the main driving force behind these plans.

The reaction to the Super League proposal - from fans of the clubs involved and of those not involved - has immediately proven that wrong, although this on its own is unlikely to be enough to deter the dastardly scheme.

Whereas match-going fans were once the lifeblood of a football club, that is no longer the case. It had been hoped that the coronavirus pandemic would underline the continued importance of those passionate fans in stadiums, but instead it appears to have pushed clubs towards ensuring a sustainable future which does not rely on supporters actually attending.

A local fan used to be worth more to a club, as they were more likely to attend games and provide the funds which came with it, but now for these big clubs a supporter could be from Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome - under the new proposals, it makes very little difference.

That in itself is not automatically a bad thing - plenty of supporters follow their clubs with every bit the same passion as a season-ticket holder without ever getting to actually go to a game - but to prioritise those fans more than the traditional supporter upon whom each club was built is where a lot of the anger stems from.

A source told BBC Sport that Super League clubs had referred to their traditional fans as "legacy fans" and that they were now focused on recruiting "fans of the future".

This raises a frightening franchising concern further down the road which we will come to later, but given that the lifeblood of a club has changed, the fury of those traditional fans directed at their own clubs is bordering on irrelevant, financially at least.

It is an attack on the history and tradition these clubs are built upon; one can only imagine the reaction Bill Shankly would have had to Liverpool's involvement, or Sir Matt Busby to Manchester United's. For two men so in tune with the supporters, they would undoubtedly be ashamed.

Shankly once said: "At a football club, there's a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques."

One of Busby's quotes currently adorns a large section of a stand at Old Trafford: "Football is nothing without fans".

While those two quotes once meant match-going fans, or fans who would come to support the team, for today's owners it probably means fans from the lucrative Far East and America.

Sir Alex Ferguson - a managerial titan every bit as formidable as his fellow great Scots who went before him - has already denounced it, although perhaps not as strongly as he might have.

Whether that is due to his connections to Manchester United, relationship with the Glazers or simply because he lived and managed through the real boom in monetisation of the sport, and so knows the new nature of football better than others, is up for debate.

It may well be that some clubs lose lifelong, loyal fans because of this announcement, and even if it does not end up happening then the reputation of these clubs has been irreversibly damaged.

The sad fact is that most season-ticket holders could rip up their tickets in disgust, yet the money this new competition is generating means that those clubs would barely even notice - they will be too busy counting their cash from the entrance fee and TV deals from international markets.

For every fan of one of the clubs involved, it presents a moral dilemma. As a Liverpool fan myself, the official confirmation on the club's website on Sunday provoked a feeling of emptiness and disillusionment - truly as if the soul had been ripped out of the club and of the sport. As time has gone on, I have become more and more angry with the proposal and the impact it would undoubtedly have on the best sport in the world.

Do I despise the concept? Wholeheartedly. Am I bitterly disappointed that my club are involved in it? Absolutely. Will I stop supporting Liverpool as a result? No.

And as such, when the anger subsides - which it will in time - and if this competition does go ahead after all, fans of these clubs will still want them to do well on the pitch, most will still tune in to watch their games and the clubs will still get their money.

However, it is difficult to imagine how a largely-closed Super League could evoke the same passion and excitement as a true sporting competition which has serious consequences and so much riding on each game. Fans want success, of course, but success can only be measured when beating all-comers rather than a cherry-picked few.

If these clubs are indeed allowed to continue in their domestic leagues, what difference would it make for Manchester United to finish second or 17th in the Premier League?

The prize money would be dwarfed by their involvement in the Super League, and players know regardless of domestic league position that they will be playing in the 'elite' competition the following season, so their recruitment will not be affected.

It is entirely possible that the Premier League would become the second-string competition for these six clubs as a result, and therefore we could probably expect second-string sides to feature in a similar manner to what we see with the cup competitions now.

Couple that with a comparatively blasé attitude towards success in the competition and that would immediately undermine a league system which is the envy of the world, all because of the greed of six clubs.

The Premier League has threatened serious action, which we will look at later, but aside from the backlash of fans it has also been notable how vehemently the governing bodies have objected to this proposal.

FIFA's condemnation has been slightly more scaled back than others while still making clear their "disapproval", but Sunday's announcement hints that football's most powerful people no longer reside in the Swiss headquarters of FIFA and UEFA, but in Boston, Florida and Abu Dhabi - three places almost as far removed from the birth of Association Football as you can get when it comes to the history of the sport.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has been appointed as The Emperor of this new footballing Death Star, with Andrea Agnelli a seemingly scheming and duplicitous accomplice as he helped devise these plans while serving as president of the European Club Association (formed to represent the interests of 246 sides) and on the board of UEFA.

As a side-story to this soap opera, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin is - or was - a close friend of Agnelli and was even named godfather to his daughter.

Perez and Agnelli at least have a long history in the game, which is more than can be said for Joel Glazer - an American with no involvement in football before the takeover of Manchester United in 2005, yet 16 years later finds himself as one of the main men attempting to rip the sport from its 158-year-old roots.

The rest of the owners involved must take similar levels of blame for the creation of an elitist billionaire's boys' club showcasing an utterly contemptible level of greed at a time when hundreds of clubs in England alone are clinging on for their very survival.

Working on a rough assumption that a sum of around £100,000 would be more than enough to keep a lot of those struggling clubs alive in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the eye-watering £3bn payment each Super League club would receive could save more than 30,000 lower-league clubs.

Of course, those are not exact numbers by any means, but it gives an idea of the scale of the money involved, and the impact it could have if it was spread more evenly throughout the football pyramid.

For the already super-rich to be demanding even more money at a time when so many are more cash-strapped than ever shows a flagrant disregard for the league system which has been the backbone of English football for almost 160 years.

Which brings us on to another reason for the anger surrounding this announcement: the shameless suggestion that the Super League's creation is also to help with the football pyramid.

Even if more money does manage to trickle down, as the statement claims, the chasm which already separates the richest clubs from the chasing pack will begin to look like a mere crack.

The prospect of a Leicester City or a West Ham United being able to compete with a Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea that gets £3bn extra than they currently earn is bleak.

The devaluation of the Premier League which would inevitably come from it becoming a second-string competition for its biggest clubs will then affect the Championship and the rewards for escaping it, and so on and so forth.



The clubs involved

Former players, pundits and fans have voiced fierce criticism of the clubs involved in this scheme, and rightly so - the identity of the dirty dozen is the clearest metric of the much-maligned money-over-merit selection policy.

Few would argue against the suggestion that Real Madrid and Barcelona should be regarded as two of Europe's biggest and most successful clubs, both historically and recently.

For Barcelona, though, it is worth noting that they have been embarrassingly dumped out of the Champions League in each of the past six seasons, while this Super League proposal essentially allows them to escape unscathed from years of mismanagement and irresponsible spending which has left the club in serious debt.

The position of just about every other club can justifiably be questioned, too.

Manchester United have not been champions of their own domestic league for eight years and have missed out on the Champions League altogether in three of the last six seasons.

Before last season, Liverpool had not been champions of England for 30 years, and they currently sit sixth in the Premier League table.

Arsenal have never won the Champions League, have not even been champions of England since 2004 and currently sit ninth in the Premier League table.

Tottenham Hotspur's last league title came 60 years ago in 1961. They have never won the Champions League and their last major trophy of any kind came in 2008. Wigan Athletic have won a major trophy more recently, while Spurs are now managerless and sitting seventh in the Premier League table.

Manchester City were a third-tier club as recently as 1998-99, only became a force in football after state-sponsored investment in 2008 and have never won the Champions League. Indeed, their only previous European trophy was the 1969-70 Cup Winners' Cup - FC Magdeburg, an East German side now playing in the third tier, have won a European trophy more recently.

Chelsea's own period of major success only came after Roman Abramovich purchased the club in 2003. They currently sit fifth in the Premier League table.

Atletico Madrid have never won the Champions League, and have only been crowned champions of Spain once since 1995-96. Deportivo La Coruna and Valencia have both won it at least as many times since then.

Juventus have not won the Champions League since 1996, and have only won it twice in total - the same number as Nottingham Forest, Benfica and Porto, and two fewer than Ajax.

Inter Milan have not won any silverware since 2010-11, and have not been crowned champions of Italy in more than a decade.

AC Milan have also not won a trophy since 2010-11, when they were last crowned Serie A champions.

In a rather poetic putdown to the suggestions that these 12 teams should be regarded as higher and mightier than the rest of the footballing world, on the day of the announcement, Juventus lost to Atalanta, Real Madrid drew with Getafe, Arsenal drew with Fulham and Inter Milan drew with Napoli.

It is undoubtedly a competition for Europe's richest teams rather than its best teams, and that can only harm the competitive level.



What about the clubs left behind?

While we have talked about the impact this has on the clubs and the fans of the clubs involved, it is even more cataclysmic news for those not involved.

Everton have just approved a new £500m stadium with the hope that it can help propel them into the Champions League - a tournament which could now become second-tier.

Some of the most magical football memories come when the underdog succeeds; the most notable recent example in English football was Leicester winning the Premier League title against all of the odds.

That was a remarkable feat given the disparity in money between them and the top sides then, but add another £3bn to those top sides and you effectively eliminate the possibility of arguably football's greatest ever underdog story being emulated.

It goes beyond that too; there is an argument that the 'big six' prioritising another tournament will increase the chance of other teams winning the Premier League, but would it mean as much? The rewards at least would be nowhere near as great, and the prospect of sustaining that success would be nigh-on impossible.

Leicester's high-flying status now is down to the money they earned from their title triumph, and their subsequent Champions League campaign which came as a reward for their unforgettable achievement.

That was money they earned through success on the pitch and through shrewd recruitment, which helped to elevate them from regular relegation fodder to top-four contenders. Without that Champions League carrot, Leicester may have immediately returned to fighting at the other end of the table, and would have found it even harder to keep hold of their top players.

Clubs outside the elite going on to win the Champions League is rare, but again they are among the more memorable occasions - who could forget Porto's triumph in 2004, for example?

And without that, would Chelsea have ever appointed Jose Mourinho? And without Jose Mourinho would they even be in a position to be included in the Super League now? What about all of the players who joined clubs around Europe from that Porto side - would they have earned those big moves had they not had the biggest stage to shine on?

There will also be much less appetite for prospective owners to take over a club other than the 15 Founding Club members, so the prospect of a super-rich owner coming and changing the fortunes of a club - as was the case for Man City and Chelsea - could end. Newcastle United may have just become even more unsellable for Mike Ashley.

Simply put, the clubs that have found their way into the elite are now looking to seal off the routes which got them there to ensure that they can not be displaced, challenged or even joined by those they deem to be beneath them.



Could it work?

With the battle lines drawn as they currently are, it is difficult to see how. Football has entered a civil war, and there will likely need to be some sort of peace agreement or compromise down the line.

With the money involved and the power of the clubs in question, it feels as though it is FIFA, UEFA and the domestic bodies who may have to compromise more than the Super League, though.

Those governing bodies have shown no sign of doing that so far, with UEFA the most vocal in their criticism - understandably given that they are the organisation most undermined with the possible impact on their marquee product, the Champions League.

There is still a hope that this is merely a ploy to affect the planned Champions League reforms, although UEFA have now confirmed that they still intend to go ahead with those, increasing the competition from 32 teams to 36.

Ceferin pulled no punches in his scathing assessment of those involved - "snakes" and "liars" were among the words thrown out by UEFA's president - but while the announcement came as a seismic shock when it landed on Sunday, the proposal is nothing new.

A European Super League of sorts has been on the table since the 1990s, and Perez in particular has been a vocal advocate for it for well over a decade. The more money floods into football, the more inevitable this step has become.

It is also nothing new for major overhauls of the sport to be met by fierce resistance - it was the same for the Football League back in the 1880s, the European Cup in the 1950s, and the Premier League and Champions League in the 1990s.

Indeed, UEFA in some ways have themselves to blame for the escalation of football as a business above a sport.

The European Super League is a progression of sorts from the evolution of the European Cup to the Champions League - which was designed to get more of the big teams involved each season and has since snowballed into the most prestigious club competition in the world.

The Premier League too faced stiff opposition ahead of its introduction in 1992-93, yet has become the richest and most entertaining league in the world. Indeed, it is the success of the Premier League as a product which launched Tottenham, Man City and Chelsea to a status where they have been able to take part in this Super League, which will no doubt add to the feeling of betrayal.

The big difference this time around, though, is that the Super League is a largely closed competition, and that cannot and should not be tolerated.

If clubs want more power in European competition and are willing to go to war with UEFA over it then that is their prerogative, but doing so in a manner which solely protects their self-interest by ensuring that they can never be relegated, regardless of how they perform on the pitch, undermines the very fabric of not just football, but of all competitive sport.

It is not quite as black and white as painting the existing governing bodies as the good guys and the Super League as the bad guys, though.

The Premier League, FIFA, UEFA and the rest have all been accused of being power-hungry, money-grabbing corporations with zero regard for the fans too, and there is an argument to suggest that they have been beaten at their own game here.

It should also be noted that the English Football League used to be effectively a closed shop too - clubs who earned promotion from non-league used to have to be voted in by the existing league members, which rarely happened due to a pact those clubs had.

So a holier-than-thou attitude from those existing governing bodies is misleading, but they certainly have the backing of fans in this argument.

As for the competition itself, as much as many fans will hate to admit it, there is plenty of logic there to suggest that it could work.

As previously mentioned, once the initial anger has subsided, most supporters will still want to see their club win, and the Super League clubs will be confident that a series of glamour ties will bring in more money than the Champions League.

Liverpool, for example, will regard a home Super League group game against Barcelona as a much more attractive proposition than a Champions League group game against FC Midtjylland, and that scenario taken out of the current context would be met with agreement by most.

A rather crude analogy would be to liken it to a major supermarket taking over a local-run shop on the high street - there may be disputes and complaints at the beginning, but when the dust settles plenty of people will still shop there.

However, there is also the flip side of that; much of the allure about seeing Europe's biggest clubs go head to head is largely because it is such a rarity.

A recent example was the Liverpool vs. Real Madrid Champions League quarter-final - a great occasion between two of the competition's most historic clubs, but not one supporters will want to be guaranteed seeing twice a season every season.

Ask the majority of Liverpool fans and they will say that a Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid is bigger, better and more exciting than a league game against Manchester United.

Man United showdowns are always special occasions but there have been 234 of those - Liverpool have only faced Real Madrid eight times, and turning that fixture into effectively the same as a domestic one will dampen the magic which surrounds those ties.

Other competitions would also have to make way, as otherwise the winners of the Super League could face up to 76 games in a season if they go all the way in the other cup competitions as well as playing in their domestic league.



What repercussions could there be?

The main threat to the Super League's plan will be the stance of the governing bodies, and whatever happens from hereon in it promises to be incredibly messy.

Lawsuits and legal proceedings have already begun, with talk of clubs being thrown out of their domestic leagues, banned from European competitions and their players even being banned from taking part in international competitions.

The latter point is perhaps the most interesting one, and would shift the dilemma onto the players themselves: would they accept less money, playing for one of the clubs not in this elite group, in order to play in the European Championships and the World Cup?

FIFA made that threat before this announcement, so one must suspect that clubs have taken that into account, have done due diligence and are confident in their belief that it will not be an issue.

Would Tottenham Hotspur, for example, agree to this if they knew that Harry Kane - whose future already reportedly hangs in the balance - would have to decide between staying at the club or going to a World Cup with England? That would likely tip him over the edge to leave.

For £3bn you could argue that they would, and players would have every right to be furious with their clubs if they were not consulted on an issue which could end up denying them a career-defining opportunity. A slew of contractual disputes would no doubt follow there too.

Ceferin reiterated that players from those clubs would indeed be banned from the Euros at his press conference on Monday, but ever since the Jean-Marc Bosman transfer, player power has grown hugely in the game and the governing bodies preventing them from playing at the Euros is sure to go down badly.

Competition Law - ironically designed to prevent monopolisation and ensure fair competition - actually appears to favour the European Super League on this front, and there has been precedent in other sports - namely speed skating and wrestling - which suggest that the new venture would stand a good chance of winning any legal battles.

There is precedent of sorts to the contrary too, though, with Alfredo Di Stefano - one of the greatest players of all time - famously banned from taking part in the 1954 World Cup due to his participation in an unsanctioned, money-spinning Colombian league.

Then again, if these clubs can defy UEFA and form their own group then it is not out of the question that nations could defy FIFA and do the same, should it look as though they will be shorn of their best players.

Either way, in the club vs. country row there is usually only one winner nowadays.

The threat of banishment from the Champions League is largely irrelevant given that this competition would replace the Champions League for the clubs taking part, while for the domestic leagues it could come down to a question of sporting integrity vs. money.

A Premier League without Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur would be a Premier League worth arguably half the amount it is now.

Does the Premier League, and perhaps more importantly the TV companies that have invested so much into the product, want their biggest game of the season to be Everton vs. Leeds United? Absolutely not.

Banishing the breakaway group may be widely seen as the right and noble thing to do, but for the Premier League as a business it would be cutting off its nose to spite its face, and that could force them to make an embarrassing climb down from the principled stand they have taken so far.

The same applies for a La Liga without Real Madrid and Barcelona, and Serie A without Juventus and the Milan clubs.

Fines, and maybe even points deductions, could be a viable punishment, but the impact of those would be lessened hugely by the European Super League itself, so it is difficult to think of how the Premier League can realistically and effectively counteract these plans.

Perhaps the most worrying repercussion further down the line could be the transformation of clubs into franchises - a road we are already on.

The Super League proposal suggests that nothing is out of the question for these owners, and that could include moving franchises to more valuable or attractive cities - something which happens relatively regularly in American sports.

The prospect of Liverpool Football Club no longer being based in Liverpool is a sickening one and one which may seem too outrageous to be realistic, but it cannot be discounted now.

They need only look at the reaction of Wimbledon's move to Milton Keynes for a small example of the uproar such an uprooting would cause in England and elsewhere, but it has happened before in other sports and is by no means out of the realms of possibility that it could happen in football, particularly if traditional fans are now being viewed as "legacy fans".

That is perhaps the only move that would cause more anger and condemnation than the European Super League has, and it will be fascinating to see how the situation develops over the coming weeks and months.

Things are bound to get a lot messier before they get better and, whether these plans come to fruition or not, it feels as though there has been a monumental and fundamental change to the sport.

Football may never be the same again, whether we like it or not. body check tags ::

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