The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Soccer teams are owned by the rich. But as Super League shows, fans carry the game’s soul.

Soccer fans protested after the Super League plans were revealed. (Clive Rose/Pool/AP)
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Manchester City, the English soccer titan, is backed by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family with a net worth in the tens of billions. The ownership group for the Boston Red Sox controls Liverpool FC. Italy’s famous family, the Agnellis, traces its Juventus reign to the 1920s.

In their ill-fated effort to create the European Super League, an elite breakaway competition that threatened to plunge the sport into crisis, owners of the biggest clubs were no match for the supporters of their teams and fans across the continent.

The people spoke, and they did not speak kindly of the sport’s power-brokers.

European Super League plans collapse as nine teams withdraw amid continuing uproar

With blowback from fans, as well as prominent players and coaches — even those employed by the rebel organizations — several of the clubs temporarily abandoned plans late Tuesday to create an alternative to the UEFA Champions League, the continental jamboree of 66 years and global reach, leaving the proposal in shambles.

If not for the peaceful uprising — outside stadiums and on social media — the scheme seemed sure to proceed.

Liverpool and Leeds supporters joined forces at Leeds’s Elland Road on Monday, in defiance of pandemic health measures. The next day, Chelsea fans gathered in the streets outside Stamford Bridge.

The message was clear: This is wrong.

The plotters reconsidered, then backed down, a spiral that started Tuesday and continued Wednesday.

“Fans have done a great service, and we need to thank them for what they have done,” Paul Barber, chief executive of Brighton, a small Premier League club, told the BBC.

Even before this disastrous episode, public distrust of wealthy team owners with no previous connection to the city or sport was sky high. The Super League fiasco will undoubtedly further the divide.

Manchester United supporters have never embraced the Glazers, an American family that also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Their 2005 takeover led to campaigns seeking to force them out.

Despite Liverpool’s recent success, the masses have affixed a wary eye on the U.S. backers, led by John Henry, who, in the aftermath of the Super League collapse, began an apology tour.

“Over these 48 hours,” he told the fans in a message posted online, “you were very clear that it would not stand. We heard you. I heard you.”

He heard them only after the failed rollout. The disconnect between owners and club supporters has never been more pronounced. Shiny trophies to all of them for tone-deafness.

“They think they are playing a whole different sport. They don’t want to be part of the collective,” a person with close ties to some Super League backers said. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of sensitive business relationships.

Analysis: The pandemic precipitated Europe’s Super League fiasco, and the issues aren’t going away

Fans have tolerated runaway ticket prices and the commercialization of clubs that are as much part of a city fabric and public trust as the rivers that run through them. There’s history. London-based Arsenal was founded 135 years ago.

The Champions League exit was too much for most fans. Clubs were not only stomping on tradition, they were creating a tournament with membership without merit.

Teams did not have to qualify by performing well in respective domestic leagues, like the Champions League dictates; they were assured a place.

This goes against everything fans love about the sport. Unlike U.S. sports leagues, in which a middling or low-performing team plays out the string of remaining late-season games without consequence, most European soccer teams have something to play for.

Those near the bottom of the standings fight to avoid relegation to a lower division — and the financial crash and embarrassment that comes with it.

Teams near the top of first divisions are chasing not only the league trophy but places in the Champions League and second-tier Europa League. Only those firmly stuck in the middle do not have anything at stake.

Clubs in the lower flights dream of promotion to the next level. Leicester City was in the English third tier in 2008-09, but two promotions and seven years later, the Foxes won the Premier League.

The annual playoff final in England’s second-tier Championship division is the most lucrative in soccer because the reward is a place in the Premier League, the world’s most popular circuit.

This is what the fans expect and want. They don’t want a closed system, such as the Super League, in which teams compete risk-free.

In the United States, some fans say the sport is being held back by MLS’s closed system, modeled after the other pro leagues. With no risk of relegation and a foundation of financial security, they argue, investors lack motivation and, in turn, soccer’s growth is stunted. (MLS teams do have to earn a place in this region’s Champions League.)

In launching the Super League, organizers did not consider the fans or the sport as a whole. They thought only of themselves and guarantees of profits. In the face of economic head winds that began years ago and picked up speed during the pandemic, they sold the venture as beneficial to the sport, from bottom to top.

Reform is going to be necessary in European soccer, but this effort was selfish and crass. Fans saw right through it.

Read more on soccer:

The brief life and spectacular fall of the Super League

Svrluga: Hires such as United’s Lucy Rushton are called progressive. Soon they will be recognized as smart.

U.S. men’s soccer keeps failing to reach the Olympics. The reasons are complicated.