On Sunday the 18th of April, a bombshell was dropped which was set to irreparably change the fabric and structure of football leagues around Europe. Twelve of Europe’s elite clubs signed up to the European Super League (ESL), a competition which would be exclusive and even more lucrative than the present football industry – a market Deloitte estimated to be worth €28.9bn in 2019. It was seen to be an afront to the “footballing pyramid” – a system of relegation and promotion where any footballing club can, ostensibly, compete for any domestic or continental honour in their pyramid. The move to create a closed league, much like those that exist in the United States, would have represented the greatest shift in association football’s 130-year history.
The fans of the three Spanish, three Italian and particularly the six English sides immediately and robustly opposed the idea. The greed of the billionaire owners with no connection to their club or their clubs’ histories, beyond profit seeking motives, was seen as the motivating factor. Opposition was spurred on by clear and impassioned arguments put forward by pundits on the major channels and the directors of clubs not included in the move. Footballing associations, The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and even the British government threatened swift and unprecedented retribution for the rogue clubs. The response from the footballing world was so immediate and formidable that within 24 hours the nascent Super League project lay in tatters as one club after the next made their withdrawals from the proposed competition.
So how did we get here? The moniker “created by the poor, stolen by the rich” gained virality on social media as the game of working people had been transformed by a handful of American, Russian, Emirati, Chinese and European billionaires. To understand how monumental the commercialisation shift has been in football, we must recognise the origins of some of the clubs involved. Manchester City was founded as St. Mark’s, a club born out of a church in Manchester primarily engaging in humanitarian work, now owned by the sovereign wealth fund of the UAE. Manchester United, originally Newtown Heath was a team consisting of the railway workers during a destitute era employment wise in Manchester in the late 19th century, now run by the American billionaire family, the Glazers. Arsenal Football Club, set up by armament workers in the Royal Arsenal factory in Woolwich, now owned by American billionaire Stan Kroenke who also owns elite sports teams stateside, the LA Rams of the NFL and the NBA’s Denver Nuggets.
It is clear that the Super League was influenced by the format of the major US sport’s leagues. For the NBA, NFL and Major League Soccer, there is no relegation or promotion for teams. New teams are born out of a relocation of a franchise, for example, the St. Louis Rams relocating to Los Angeles, or an expansion of the league to include more teams and these expansion teams are generally born from scratch in a city which meets the suitable criteria for a franchise. The former leads to teams having no location loyalty akin to MNCs who are quite prevalent in Ireland, however, represent a fickle presence. MNCs often come and go when they see an opportunity to improve their profit margins via a reduction of costs and regularly will leave Ireland moving to a jurisdiction with lower wages, more relaxed labour laws etc. The high stakes fixtures that the ESL proposes mirrors the playoff experience of US leagues such as the NBA where the regular season is largely an after-thought bar opening day and Christmas day fixtures. Regularly star players will take games off to prepare themselves for the business end of the season in the playoffs. Many feared this approach could be mirrored in the ESL whereas currently in domestic leagues in England, Spain and Italy, every fixture is absolutely crucial. The hunt for the La Liga title was decided on the final day of the season as was the pursuit for the Champions League positions in Italy and England. If these two components were engrained in the culture of the proposed ESL, we would see fewer underdog stories such as Leicester City winning the Premier League at odds of 5,000/1 and we would likely see less of star players as they would rest themselves for the end of the season fixtures rather than playing week in, week out.
Louis Brennan is a research assistant at TASC focusing on issues of climate action and Just Transition. He is a current undergraduate student of sociology, politics and international relations in University College Dublin.