May 6, 2021

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European Super League Q&A: Why it failed – and will clubs try again?

European Super League Q&A: Why it failed - and will clubs try again?


It has been an extraordinary few days in European football.

The biggest clubs on the continent quit the Champions League, then returned, humiliated and apologetic in fewer than 48 hours.

In between they were hit with a whirlwind of vitriol, the anger and criticism coming in wave after wave. Eventually it was too much, and the project crumbled.

So, where did it all go wrong, what happens now and are the issues that led to the creation of the ESL now solved? BBC Sport picks through the incredible events of the past few days.

The first mistake

It would be naive to think discussions around a European Super League (ESL) have not been happening for some considerable time.

It was also fairly obvious criticism would swiftly follow the announcement of a proposed competition of this sort.

Given that backdrop, a swift, positive message had to be delivered early to counter the negativity.

Instead, after the first rumours began to surface on Thursday and then the first reports were published on Sunday lunchtime, there was nothing official from the Super League camp until 23:11 BST later that day. Then, Real Madrid president and proposed Super League chairman Florentino Perez gave an interview with a Spanish media outlet in the early hours.

There were no more statements or interviews given by executives of the 12 clubs prior to project collapsing on Tuesday night.

Instead, the vacuum was filled with negativity – from fans, media, players and managers.

Even Prime Ministers and Presidents condemned it, as did Prince William. There was no attempt other than from Perez to explain what the 12 clubs viewed as the positives. By Monday evening, the narrative was set and it already felt impossible to change it.

Has it gone away?

Doubtful – for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the underlying reasons for the 12 clubs’ disenchantment remain. They do not like how Uefa runs the Champions League and do not think it delivers enough high-quality games in a digital media age.

Secondly, while this week has been a resounding success for Uefa and its president Aleksander Ceferin, as Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola outlined in a passionate press conference on Tuesday, there are major issues around the fixture calendar.

The solidarity payments Uefa is so keen to highlight have distorted many leagues across Europe and affected competition, to the benefit of those clubs who play more often in European competition.

If the Super League clubs came up with a proper plan to address this and then promise to fund it – and they are adamant they could make more money from broadcast revenue than Uefa, so they should have the finance to do it – then tinker with their concept to allow access from those not originally in the league, it would give substance to Perez’s assessment that the competition would “save football”.

How much damage to relationships must the 12 clubs repair?

There is no doubt some substantial repair work needs to be done, both at European and domestic level.

Trust has been broken, especially by people like Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli and Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, who were instrumental in shaping the Champions League reforms only to walk away 24 hours before they were set in stone.

However, Ceferin has set the tone for what is likely to follow.

Ceferin may have called Agnelli “a liar and a snake” on Monday but by the early hours of Wednesday morning his tone was more conciliatory.

“It is admirable to admit a mistake but they are back in the fold now and I know they have a lot to offer,” he said.

The brutal truth is, without these 12 clubs the Champions League loses much of its veneer.

It is the same with the Premier League and the six English clubs.

You only have to read the words of Aston Villa chief executive Christian Purslow on Tuesday when asked by the BBC if clubs could be thrown out of the Premier League: “In theory they could but no-one wants to perform an act of self-harm.”

There may be some grovelling involved and the swagger may diminish for a time, but the 12 clubs still have power through popularity and status – and they know it.

Who has the power in Europe now?

Both Ceferin and Fifa counterpart Gianni Infantino have emerged stronger by attacking a concept that very quickly failed.

Whether that co-operation, first in evidence at the start of the pandemic when football stopped, continues remains to be seen – because Infantino wants to progress with his expanded Club World Cup model.

Uefa has been uneasy about that prospect because it could undermine the popularity of the Champions League.

On a club level, Paris St-Germain, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund can occupy the moral high ground after rejecting ESL’s overtures.

The power of football supporters was clear on Tuesday as Chelsea fans gathered outside Stamford Bridge to protest against their club signing up to play in the ESL

Indeed, PSG have gone from being one of the game’s most-criticised clubs – due to their massive spending which some argue was the catalyst for financial issues affecting the rest of the game – to one of those being praised.

PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi has consolidated his position within the ECA and Uefa, when rival clubs in England, Spain and Italy remain on the outside looking in.

Al-Khelaifi has taken over as chairman of ECA, a position of major influence.

And former Manchester United goalkeeper and current Ajax chief executive Edwin van der Sar also emerges with his reputation enhanced. That could be crucial in the battle to get more power for Europe’s second-tier leagues.

Will any owners of the 12 clubs sell up now?

A very good question but one that really only relates to some of the English clubs and both Milan teams, partly because in Spain there are presidential elections and the clubs are owned by fans.

The Agnelli family has controlled Juventus for nearly 100 years so they are unlikely to move out.

At Manchester City, the owners are not motivated by financial rewards so, in a sense, they missed a chance for positive publicity by joining the Super League in the first place.

Mural of Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli is seen on a wall at Giulio Caccini Street behind the headquarters of Italian Football Association (FIGC) in Rome
Mural of Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli on a wall behind the headquarters of the Italian FA in Rome

The status of the Suning Group as owners of Inter Milan was uncertain anyway owing to their financial issues in China and this news will not have helped.

For AC Milan, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United – who all have American owners – and to some extent, Tottenham, the situation is less clear.

Developments over the past few days have cut off a potentially very lucrative revenue stream.

It could be that the respective owners shrug their shoulders and proceed as before, or they revisit the plans at some point in the future and present them in a more palatable form. Or, they feel they have maximised their investment and look to get out.

In the latter situation though, there are only a limited number of buyers given the price tags attached to the clubs.

And, as Mike Ashley discovered in his attempts to sell Newcastle in 2020, there are areas of the world where potential purchasers exist and have the resource to fund the deal, but for non-footballing reasons they are unacceptable as owners of famous sporting organisations.

The ‘new’ Champions League

Amid the back-slapping from those who feel the big clubs have been stopped in their tracks, it is worth remembering there were a couple of major changes to the Champions League from 2024 agreed by Uefa this week that will work in favour of the established elite.

Firstly, the tournament itself will be expanded by four teams.

One of these slots will go to the third-placed team in the fifth-ranked league in Uefa’s list – currently France.

Two will go to the sides with the highest club co-efficient who are in European slots but fail to qualify for the Champions League, regardless of where they finish in their domestic leagues.

Leeds players wore T-shirts opposed to the Super League
On Monday, Leeds players wore T-shirts opposed to the Super League

If the system was in operation now, Borussia Dortmund would get a ‘wild card’ and so would Liverpool, even though they are behind West Ham in the Premier League. West Ham would go into the Europa League.

Secondly, instead of eight groups of four, as we have now, the 36 teams will be ranked according to their results in 10 games against individual opponents of different strengths.

The top eight clubs go straight into the last 16, the teams ranked nine to 24 enter a two-legged play-off.

This system should provide a greater number of ‘quality’ matches. It will certainty create a greater number of matches as teams will play as many as 19 games to reach the final, rather than 13 in the present format.

What about Man Utd’s Woodward?

On a huge night for football news, confirmation that Ed Woodward will leave his position as executive vice-chairman at the end of 2021 should not be ignored.

Debate will run around whether he is paying the price for Super League’s failure or he had reached the decision anyway, as a number of sources have told BBC Sport.

Beyond question is that Woodward’s exit will take United into unchartered territory.

Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward
Ed Woodward has been executive vice-chairman at Manchester United since 2013

It was Woodward who got the Glazer takeover through in 2005 when few felt it was possible.

Then, first as effectively ‘chief of staff’, then executive vice-chairman, the 49-year-old has worked with Joel and Avram Glazer extensively to execute the commercial revolution which has made them and United huge amounts of money.

At the same time, Woodward has taken a lot of criticism for the club’s failure to maintain the high standards of the Sir Alex Ferguson era when he replaced David Gill in the chief executive role in 2013.

It will be interesting to see whether Woodward stays in football or returns to the financial world.

But more importantly for United, will the Glazer family replace Woodward with an in-house appointment, in which case managing director Richard Arnold would be the early favourite, or will they look externally?

This will have a significant impact on day-to-day operations at Old Trafford given Woodward has appointed and stuck by manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and also installed John Murtough as United’s first football director last month.

What do the clubs think now?

Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish said: “It has removed the biggest cloud hanging over football for the past 10 years.

“We have lived under the constant threat that this will happen and it has caused immeasurable damage already. We need massive reform at Uefa. These guys have infiltrated the top of our sport and they have had too much influence.

“Uefa should be running European football for the benefit of the game. The champions of the Netherlands, Belgium and Poland have to qualify in the summer for the right to get to the group stages, while still on the table is a proposal that a team finishing seventh in the Premier League may be able to leapfrog an Aston Villa or a Leicester in fifth and play ahead of them.

“Still on the table today is a 30% distribution of money based on their history in favour of these guys. We are sick of hearing about preferential votes, about preferential distribution of money and of preferential qualification.

“Of course there is a way back. We need to solve the disconnect. The fans have made it clear, we must separate the people from the great clubs we are proud to have in our league. These are the big flag carriers in our league and of course we want them back onside.

“There will be a healing process. It is one club one vote, nobody is bigger than the game. We need to have a big moment where we sit down and never see anything like this again. Nobody really in this industry wants government involvement but that is where we find ourselves.

“We need to accept we need to get our house in order if we don’t want that to happen. I do think this is a one off and that we will look back and think this is an incredibly positive day for the game we love and for the dream of every supporter to continue to be alive.

“This is a moment for a massive catalyst for change. The battle is won but the war is yet to be won.”

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