The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

The 72-hour Tragedy of the European Super League

Kartikay Dutta, Undergraduate Batch of 2023 and Rahul Agarwal, Undergraduate Batch of 2022

Football inherently is a tribalistic sport, especially at the highest levels. To have the fans of so many rivalling clubs band together in support of a cause is unheard of, and if asked last week what sort of situation would cause that to happen, any football fan would immediately give a similar response — something cataclysmic, something so dangerous that the very roots of the sport would be threatened.

On April 18th 2021, that is exactly what happened. Within one evening, the creation of a European Super League, spearheaded by Juventus club president Andrea Agnelli, moved from rumours on Twitter to an official confirmation from 12 of Europe’s largest clubs (pictured below) threatening to secede and form a closed league of their own. Chaos ensued.

ESL founder clubs infographic via CNN.

Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville, who had been on commentary duties for Manchester United’s victory over Burnley on Sunday evening, took to the air in a passionate spiel against the clubs involved, calling the plans a “joke” and stating he was “disgusted” by his former team United, the video garnering millions of views across Twitter and Youtube. His statements would be seen as a war cry for entire fanbases in the United Kingdom and across the world, his thoughts mirroring those of fans from teams at a non-league level right up to the very top divisions. 

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, a central figure of the ESL.

The outcry stemmed from the fact that this creation of a closed league with up to 15 permanent members every year (an ‘Americanization’ of the sport, as some saw it) would betray the foundation of football as a sport based on meritocracy as performance: automatic entry into a top European competition every year would disincentivize performances at a league level, with this very season acting as a perfect example of why. Arsenal, a founding member of the ESL, currently find themselves behind clubs such as West Ham and Leicester City, level on points with Leeds United, and at risk of falling behind Aston Villa. Leeds and Villa, in particular, are important to mention here: they are former European Cup winners, therefore have more pedigree in European competitions than Arsenal, Spurs, or Manchester City. UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin branded these clubs as “snakes” in an unfiltered attack via his official statement to the press. The very foundations of the Super League were uncertain, and clearly based on monetary power and greed rather than any respect for the sport. 

This was the straw which broke the camel’s back: information about the financial benefits clubs would receive came to light, with each club promised recompensation to the tune of GBP 310 million, funded by investment banking giant JP Morgan. Worse for the Super League’s PR, though, was the fact that players and staff hadn’t been informed of the owners’ decision to create this league. It was an initiative unilaterally carried out by the owners of these clubs, and very quickly, they were vilified for their failure to understand the significance of the league pyramid across European football, and the importance of relegation and promotion — the idea that any team can stitch together a strong season and make it to the very top, to the promise of premium European football, to knock knuckles with these clubs at the very top, but not because of the strength of their owner’s wallet but rather the quality of their performance. Football subsists on the idea that the Leicester City fairytale run of 2015/16 is replicable, that any team can steal European spots from the giants in their home country, that West Ham United could reach the Champions League at the expense of Liverpool or Chelsea or Spurs. 

Over the next two days, the football world would unite in a way it never has and is likely to ever again: former players now acting as pundits, current players at clubs across Europe, managers, and fans all added their voice to the masses demanding a prevention of the Super League’s formation. UEFA threatened to bar players of these teams from participating for their national teams, and the front offices of the Premier League, Serie A and La Liga all threatened sanctions upon these teams should the idea of the ESL persevere, as did the Prime Minister of the UK Boris Johnson, although that has been met with some criticism of his populist tendencies. 

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was one of the first to outright state his distaste for the ESL (having already done so in 2019, when it was still nothing more than an idea.) He made it very clear that it was not something he supported, just as his opponents for the night Leeds began their warm-ups in t-shirts which read ‘football is for the fans.’ The Yorkshire outfit would go on to snatch a point from the champions with an 88th minute equalizer, a statement-making goal if there ever was one.

Leeds United players warmed up in t-shirts bearing this message on Monday.

On 20th April, news moved quickly. Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho’s sacking was reported, but shockingly, this big-name firing wasn’t even the most important piece of news as demonstrations were planned outside Stamford Bridge ahead of Chelsea’s match against Brighton and Hove Albion. More and more players released statements in solidarity with the fans and condemning the formation of the Super League, including Manchester City talisman Kevin de Bruyne and Manchester United winger Marcus Rashford. Reports also broke out of Man United squad members, led by captain Harry Maguire and senior members David de Gea and Juan Mata, confronting club chairman Ed Woodward over the lack of clear communication and non-involvement of the staff in the decision. Woodward would hand in his resignation notice by the end of the day, and sources claim this news was shared organizationally before any information about the Super League.

In a massive blow for the Super League (by this time, being doubled down upon by Agnelli and Perez through club statements and appearances on talk shows in Italy and Spain respectively), news of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s decision to not take part in the Super League was made known, just minutes before Chelsea’s kickoff against Brighton, receiving much joy from the fans outside their stadium. This, in many ways, was the beginning of the end of the 72 hours European football spent in a near-apocalyptic limbo, with so many at the wayside as the people’s sport threatened to slip right through the people’s fingers. Chelsea and then Manchester City in close succession would confirm their intentions to cancel their Super League contracts. The other four English clubs would soon follow suit, before Atletico Madrid and the three Italian clubs would too.

Arsenal fans protest outside the Emirates Stadium in London.

The fallout, even by the frenzied standard of professional sport, has been immense. We have already made note of Woodward’s resignation and Mourinho’s firing, and the misguided decisions would even be reflected financially as all the public-listed clubs would see their stock price fall. In the three days since the scare rocked the world, fans have turned increasingly militant, with Arsenal’s game against Everton at the Emirates Stadium producing images English football hasn’t seen in well over a year. To add insult to injury over this idea of a Super League, the uninvited Toffees would win 1-0 on the night.

Stan Kroenke, alongside Arsenal, owns the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, relocated from St. Louis under his ownership, a move over a distance greater than between Arsenal’s home of London and St. Petersburg in Russia. For United fans, the Glazers’ support of their NFL franchise and Super Bowl winners the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a spit in the face: Joel Glazer was pictured celebrating their victory in March this year, and is infamously known for still not having a grasp over the offside rule. John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group is named after the stadium of the MLB’s Boston Red Sox, a franchise which has seen controversy of its own in recent years — mismanagement exacerbated by Henry’s involvement in the ESL fiasco. There’s a common thread of greed amongst these American owners, but it is only made worse by the common understanding that there is very little empathy in their decisions involved, and even less care for the century-long history of these clubs, founded as teams for the poor working class in Industrial England. The ESL risked severing these roots from these clubs, and understandably, fans are finding it difficult to forgive the owners for what are seen as crimes to the sport.

News has since broken that the Premier League has since issued a new set of legislation which states any team attempting to form a breakaway league would immediately be expelled from the division, and it is likely that the EFL and UEFA will implement similar rules as a disincentive for owners trying to flex their muscles again. 

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