The Malta Independent 20 June 2021, Sunday

Super League: 12 rebel clubs in the wrong, but UEFA reform not enough

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 9 May 2021, 09:30 Last update: about 2 months ago

One of the reasons why football is probably the most popular sport in the world is because it offers minnows the possibility to beat giants.

In other sport, it is nearly always the team which, on paper, is the stronger that wins. Whether it’s basketball, volleyball, handball, rugby and waterpolo, just to mention a few examples, it is next to impossible that the weaker team obtains a victory.

In football, we have seen it happening many times that a David beats a Goliath. Teams fighting to avoid relegation have often defeated others challenging for the championship. There have also been times when clubs in lower divisions have emerged victorious against others in a higher category when they meet each other in knock-out competitions, such as the FA Cup in England. These occasions happen regularly; we experience them in football week in, week out, unlike in other sports where such feats are extremely rare.

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There have also been many accomplishments over long-term competitions, with clubs considered not to be among the best winning leagues and trophies. Leicester City’s Premier League victory in 2016 is still fresh in our memories, just to mention one recent example. In Italy, this had happened in 1985 with Verona winning the Serie A.

The basis of sport is healthy competition, with individuals or teams facing each other and governed by a set of rules common to both sides. Opponents should have equal chances of winning based on their skills, abilities, tactical plans and physical preparation.

This is why there was collective shock when 12 European football clubs believed they had some kind of divine right to be considered as being “elite” and form their own competition, known as the Super League, in which they were to be permanently present irrespective of their achievements in the previous season.

Super league

Their idea was to break away from the established UEFA competitions – the Champions League and Europa League – and form their own tournament, with matches played concurrently. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid from Spain, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal from England, and Juventus, Inter and Milan from Italy planned a schism that rocked the football world in the past weeks.

The backlash they faced from football organisations such as FIFA, UEFA and their own domestic associations, governments, other clubs and, most of all, from fans, including the clubs’ own supporters, forced them to shelve the idea within 48 hours, with the majority of the so-called founding members opting to withdraw from the proposal.

Initially, it was thought that the Super League could have started as early as the next season, in September. But it has since been put aside, at least temporarily, after the harsh criticism that was levelled across the board.

After days of negotiation, it has been announced that nine of the clubs have reached an agreement with UEFA, signing up settlement deal to participate only in the existing open European competitions and accepting to give up 5% of revenue in one season playing in Europe. Teams reaching the final could earn up to €100 million, meaning they would forfeit €5 million. The nine clubs will also make a combined payment of €15 million for the benefit of grassroots football.

Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus have refused to sign the deal which UEFA described as “reintegration measures” and they will now be referred to UEFA disciplinary boards for sanctions. There is now talk of a suspension that could span two years. In the meantime, other clubs are asking their domestic associations to also discipline the rebels, irrespective of the agreement reached with UEFA.

Threats

But then, will UEFA and the domestic associations go through with their threats?

Can UEFA afford to kick out these three clubs who have refused to sign the settlement deal and who, between them, share a substantial segment of the fan base in Europe and whose participation allows UEFA to rake in millions of euro from TV rights?

And can the federations of Spain, England and Italy, for the same reasons, afford to have their top teams out of the major domestic competitions?

It is understandable that UEFA, domestic associations and other clubs are angry that these clubs’ actions were a menace to football as we know it today, but it is then also comprehensible to say that, without these clubs, football would not be the same either.

Financial issues

What pushed these 12 clubs to consider leaving UEFA and form their own competition were the dire financial straits that all of them are facing. Over the past year, these difficulties have been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant that matches were played behind closed doors, depriving these clubs of millions of euros in income from spectator attendances. Added to this, with their museums and stadia closed, other income from visits by football lovers was also lost.

As players’ contracts reach exorbitant figures, largely due to the way agents’ power has been allowed to grow without control, and transfer costs also go up to new highs every year, many clubs are struggling to make ends meet. These 12 believed that by trying to force the issue, they would be finding a way to find new funds. Perhaps they never expected such a negative reaction to their plan.

The idea of a super league has been on the cards for quite a while. The bigger clubs know that playing against each other can generate more revenue – from stadium entrance fees to television rights, as well as advertising and other forms of sponsorship. Over the years, they forced UEFA to make changes to the European competitions, largely to satisfy their needs and financial aspirations, but in their view this was not enough. They wanted something more, and went about doing it the wrong way, even because UEFA did not listen much to their pleas and came up with a reform which is, to say the least, not enticing at all.

Evolution

Until the early 1990s, the Champions Cup was a competition that included only teams that had won the domestic championship in the previous season. Then, under pressure from the top clubs, UEFA expanded the tournament to clubs in the major European Leagues that did not win the league. The top nations started more than one participant, and now the limit is four. The debate on the name of the competition – the Champions Cup became the Champions League – is still ongoing, seeing that most of the participants are not the winners of the domestic league.

Since then, the format of the competition has changed more or less every three years, with UEFA trying to juggle between the needs of the top clubs and the interests of the teams coming from the smaller federations.

It became more difficult for clubs from the “weaker” nations to find a place in the most lucrative club competition in Europe. They had to go through a series of preliminary rounds to make it through to the group stage. Even so, the bigger clubs continued to see the presence of the weaker teams more as a nuisance, rather than an added value to the competition. These past few years, the real competition started in knock-out phase, as the initial group phase did not generate too much interest.

2024 reform

The reform as announced by UEFA – a couple of days after the news of the planned schism – has done little to appease the top clubs’ malcontent.

From the 2024-2025 season, instead of the group stage phase as we know it today, there will be a single league made up of 36 clubs, four more than the current crop of 32 we have today.

Under the new format, teams will be playing four more games in the first phase of the competition; an idea which, in UEFA’s opinion, should have satisfied the clubs as this means more revenue. Instead of playing three opponents on a home and away basis, all clubs will be playing against 10 different teams, half of them at home and the rest away.

How the 10 teams, from the 36, are chosen, has not been fully explained, although it should be taken as a given that there will be a seeding system which seeks to establish a more or less fair system of games distribution.

Needless to say, the additional matches will take football competitions in Europe beyond the already reached saturation point, adding further pressure on the players and increasing the risk of injuries. Some nations could also be forced to reduce the number of clubs participating in the top leagues to be able to reduce their fixture list.

The new format has however failed to tickle the top clubs’ fantasies, which see it as a very feeble attempt on the part of UEFA to accede to their requests for more games against other clubs of the same level.

UEFA may still be in time to revise its plans, but it is likely that after the Super League proposal, it would not be open to changes that have in the past been suggested by the rebel clubs.

The fans

If there’s one positive thing that emerged from this delicate situation, it is the power of the fans and the way they value their favourite sport.

The collective reaction of the fans – not only those who support the 12 rebel clubs – was remarkable, and served to force a halt to the Super League idea.

The most solid argument put forward by the supporters was that no club should have any right to participate in a competition solely because of its history and/or power in the top echelons of the sport.

The basis of sport is a contest between individuals or teams, and unless clubs reach a pre-established target – winning the league or finishing in high-enough places to have an access to the Champions League or Europa League – they cannot expect a red carpet into a European competition.

The fans are the biggest winners.

Only time will tell whether football will win as well.

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