The Super League was an alien idea in a European context: a closed shop league — backed by a more than $4 billion investment from JPMorgan Chase — from which none of the “Founding Clubs” could have been demoted and whose dividends those teams would have shared. This model is one lifted from American franchise leagues, albeit without the redistributive elements like drafts and salary caps. It was to be soccer with neither the fairness of competition nor the risks, like promotion and relegation between divisions of the soccer pyramid or the possibility of missing out on elite European competition based on teams’ standing in their domestic leagues.
The English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, UEFA, FIFA, the British government, the European Union and many current and retired professional players and coaches opposed it vehemently. It could have been profitable, yes, but the Super League would also have been predictable, uncompetitive, and boring — and the end of European soccer as we know it. With its apparent demise, the destruction of European soccer has been avoided — for now, at least. But if the Super League may be dead or dormant, the conditions that gave rise to it have not gone away.
A breakaway league is an idea which has been spoken in the ear in closets for years before its proclamation upon the housetops on Sunday night. The impetus is often shorthanded to “foreign ownership,” and indeed, it is hard to ignore that this extra-European idea had the fingerprints of the American owners of Liverpool (the Fenway Sports Group), Arsenal (Kroenke Sports & Entertainment) and Manchester United (the Glazer family) all over it. But European soccer’s Americanization is only the half of it. The issue at hand is the context for the Super League’s birth: the coronavirus pandemic and its financial and practical impact upon European soccer.
Before the Super League’s failure to launch, the biggest story going in European soccer was the grotesque sight of the agent and the father of Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland flying between sporting capitals in an attempt to drum up as high a fee as possible for the powerhouse forward and, in turn, themselves. In the middle of a crisis that resulted in 16 percent of the German workforce being furloughed last year, the eye-watering sum quoted for Haaland’s services — $180 million for the transfer fee alone — seemed especially absurd.
The clubs that can afford a player like Haaland belong to an ever-shrinking pool. The coronavirus has brought about a financial reckoning in European soccer, exposing the shaky foundations on which this for-profit behemoth rests. Though valued at $4.76 billion, Barcelona is believed to be saddled with a gross debt of $1.4 billion. Real Madrid’s gross debt is now reportedly over $1 billion, while Tottenham Hotspur’s net debt stands at around $822 million due to the construction costs associated with its new stadium. An oligarchic super league loaded up with American private equity money was for these teams not so much a choice, as they would see it, as a necessity. Indeed, the league’s launching statement argued that the pandemic “accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model,” demanding “a strategic vision and a sustainable commercial approach.”
The exceptions here proved to be those clubs that moved first to withdraw from the Super League, the first to feel their knees wobble in the face of domestic and international pressure: Manchester City and Chelsea. These teams are owned, respectively, by the Abu Dhabi United Group, an arm of the Emirate’s ruling family, and the deep-pocketed Russian-Israeli businessman Roman Abramovich. Bounced into signing onto the league in the first place, neither proprietor has shown much interest in the profit motive since purchasing their clubs; both have invested in European soccer for other political, diplomatic and financial reasons.
The pandemic also untethered soccer from its traditional fan base. When the virus first ripped through Europe in February and March 2020, professional soccer ceased. During the pause in proceedings, France decided to cancel the remainder of the 2019-'20 Ligue 1 season, but that move proved the exception rather than the rule. The German Bundesliga came back first. Games were played behind closed doors and broadcast on national television, with banner-covered seats and artificial noise substituting for the absent crowd. The English Premier League followed, and for almost a year now, bar a failed experiment in fall 2020, fans have not been allowed back into stadiums to watch Premier League games.
Soccer, then, found a way to carry on. Players and staff entered into a hermetic environment, shuttling between stadiums, training facilities and their homes. Fans, meanwhile, moved from stadiums to sofas — from one side of the television screen to the other. In the process, soccer became a video game — fake crowd noise and all. The pandemic made soccer without so-called “legacy fans” seem viable, and the Super League was for “the fans of the future,” behind their screens. All signs pointed to a new, post-pandemic era for European soccer, adrift from the places in which teams were born and the people who truly love them.
The coronavirus pandemic made the European Super League seem possible. It exaggerated and accentuated all of European soccer’s worst qualities and sped up this unmooring of the game that had been going on for decades. Those faults, those problems — from wealth inequality to fan powerlessness to the desire of a cabal of elite clubs to be free of oversight and run their organizations for the sole purpose of turning a quick buck — will not go away either with the Super League’s demise or the pandemic’s approaching end.
The 48 hours encompassing the foundation and collapse of the Super League was akin to a Big Bang. This is a story that has only just begun.
Liam Hoare is Europe Editor for Moment Magazine and the author of the Vienna Briefing newsletter. He lives in Vienna.