European Super League sticking it to the little guy, like me

As a sportswriter in the U.S. for nearly 40 years, I’ve lived a sports fan’s dream. I covered six Olympics, two Super Bowls, three World Series and too many Final Fours to count. I went to six Tours de France. As an Oregon grad, I saw my Ducks play for its first national football championship, one of eight I covered.

However, the greatest single athletic thrill I’ve ever experienced, far surpassing Michael Phelps, the Ducks and the New York Yankees, was watching my A.S. Roma beat Barcelona 3-0 in the 2018 Champions League quarterfinals. Roma had lost 4-1 in the first leg on the road and needed a three-goal win at home against one of the legendary clubs in the world. 

When it happened, it’s the closest I’ve ever come to weeping at a sports event. Other sportswriters didn’t hold back. Tears ran down their cheeks as their fingers pounded their keyboards. All night, cars honked through the streets of Rome all night. The rush of joy raced through my blood for weeks.

Soon, my fellow Romanisti and I may no longer experience that dream again.

In an announcement that is the equivalent of cutting family ties and sending your siblings into a dark cave, 12 elite European clubs Sunday confirmed they will form the European Super League. It’s as arrogant as it sounds. The dirty — no, filthy — dozen will be the foundation that will break from UEFA, European soccer’s governing body. They will control the competition, control the profits, control the coverage.

No, A.S. Roma is not one of the 12. No, that’s not why this news is more distressing than Roma’s pratfall at Torino Sunday. My transformation from sports writer to sports fan when I retired to Rome in 2014 has been one of my great cultural joys. Rubbing elbows and exchanging high fives with total strangers wearing red and yellow has been as enjoyable as some of the pasta dishes and wine I’ve had the last seven years.

If this Super League comes to fruition, I’ll be reduced to hoping for a national Serie A title we’ve won only three times in our 94-year history and the occasional upset of a blue blood whose revenue streams will sky rocket under their new format. We’ll all be Oliver Twist, groveling for more gruel.

My interest in soccer will greatly diminish if the Super League happens.
My interest in soccer will greatly diminish if the Super League happens. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The format

This is how it would work, proposed for the 2023-24 season:

The 12 founding clubs are Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspurs, Milan, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Juventus. That’s six clubs from England. None from Germany or France. The group wants to add three more. They’re reportedly aiming for Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain. Five more clubs will take part every year based on a vague performance formula that no one knows has even reached the Post-It Note stage.

They will form two groups of 10 teams playing 18 home and away games in midweek throughout the season. The top three in each group advance to the quarterfinals with a playoff between the fourth- and fifth-place teams  completing the field of eight. 

Here’s the catch: The original 15 will not have to qualify. They’re in it every year. The 15 founding clubs will split 3.5 billion euros ($4.2 billion), or $400 million each. That’s four times what Bayern Munich won in last year’s Champions League.

This breakaway league has been discussed for years and started getting legs last summer. The founding owners didn’t like some of its massive revenue going to smaller clubs and federations through UEFA’s distribution system.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who’s heading the group, said, “We will help football at every level and take it to its rightful place in the world. Football is the only global sport in the world with more than four billion fans and our responsibility as big clubs is to respond to their desires.”

He sounds like a Republican talking about trickle-down economics in the U.S. Sorry, Florentino. No one is buying it. Republicans didn’t take their tax cuts and build rec centers in the inner city. They went out and bought another Land Rover. Neither he nor Andrea Agnelli, Juventus’ chairman, will sprinkle their new earnings in Romania or Roma, beyond buying one of the few young superstars smaller clubs are lucky enough to develop.

Champions League will perish

If this European Super League materializes, the mass of European soccer will get crucified on two levels: One, the Champions League will die. The greatest soccer tournament in the world — yes, even greater than the World Cup — can not survive without the top 15 names in the sport. If it dies, so will so many clubs’ coffers.

In 2018, Liverpool may have squashed Roma in the semifinals but Roma did earn 100 million euro by advancing that far. Stade Rennes, based in the capital of France’s Brittainy region, was founded in 1901. It made this season’s Champions League for the first time in its history and made 15.9 million euros without winning a game. In fact, the 12 Championship League clubs not destined for the Super League distributed 200 million euros between them.  

Besides cash earnings from participation, UEFA also distributes Champions League revenues (its TV contract is 1.3 billion euros a year) to smaller national federations and grassroots development. The Champions League funds leagues from Cyprus to Iceland. The fleet teenage prodigy kicking a ball in a gravel-strewn field in Albania even benefits.

That cash cow could soon become a carcass. This isn’t just going to be the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. This will be the rich moving to a gated community and locking the gold door.

Fans will suffer

Second, this will alienate the majority of fans of the world’s most popular sport. The 2018 World Cup final between France and Croatia drew a TV audience of 1 billion; the Tampa Bay-Kansas City Super Bowl in February drew 96 million.

What Perez and Agnelli and the rest of the greedy corporate cannibals don’t realize is soccer is not about them. It’s not about the players. It’s not about TV. 

It’s about fans.

Without us, there is no soccer. The sport has gainfully played on for over a year in front of empty stands, and the clubs’ financial losses are staggering. Agnelli estimated that the top clubs’ losses this season will be between 6.5 billion and 8.5 billion euros. One reason we go to the stadiums and pay exorbitant cable fees is because we have hope.

My hope for another Serie A scudetto in my lifetime is pretty low. I know Roma’s second-tier place in Italy’s hierarchy. But placing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League is a worthwhile goal. It’s worth paying attention in the spring when Juventus, or, in this season’s rare case, Inter Milan, run away and hide atop the standings.

It may not be a coincidence that Agnelli signed off on this while his Juventus is hanging to fourth place by two measly points. In fact, shortly after the announcement Sunday, he resigned his posts from the UEFA executive board and head of the European Clubs Association, which represents the interests of 200 top-division clubs. 

Being the vulture that I am, I would enjoy watching Juventus choke like gagging dogs and stumble out of the Champions League for the first time since 2011. With a European Super League, Juventus could field 10 waiters and a gondola pilot in goal and still make the tournament the next season.

Meanwhile, if my hope for Roma gets whittled to five measly spots in a European Super League, I may rekindle my attention every spring to — God forbid — baseball.

Gary Neville. Wikipedia photo

This concept is not confirmed. Except among those wielding the power, it’s wildly unpopular. Even fan bases of the original 12 don’t like it. Chelsea’s Supporter Trust called it “ultimate betrayal.”  Football Supporters Europe called it “illegitimate, irresponsible and anti-competitive by design.”

PSG and Bayern Munich, two with worldwide brands who would also benefit form the Super League, are even reluctant to sign on. Fans own Barcelona and Real Madrid and must approve the move.

The biggest names in the sport, from deep within the bowels of soccer’s roots, are against it. Sir Alex Ferguson is best known for lifting Manchester United to its highest heights. But remember, he started at small clubs in Scotland.

“Talk of a Super League is a move away from 70 years of European club football,” he told Reuters. “Both as a player for a provincial team Dunfermline in the ‘60s and as a manager at Aberdeen winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup, for a small provincial club in Scotland it was like climbing Mount Everest.

“Everton are spending 500 million pounds to build a new stadium with the ambition to play in Champions League. Fans all over love the competition as it is.”

Gary Neville, a former Manchester United great, said Sunday during his commentary of the Man U-Burnley game on Sky, “I’m a Manchester United fan and I’ve been for 40 years of my life but I’m disgusted, absolutely disgusted. I’m disgusted with Manchester United and Liverpool the most. Liverpool pretend, ‘You’ll never walk alone.’ The people’s club. The fans’ club. Manchester United, 100 years born out of workers around here. And they’re breaking away to a league without competition that they can’t be relegated from. It’s an absolute disgrace.”

Corriere dello Sport, one of Italy’s national sports dailies, posted the headline Monday, “Superlega Europea e’ Scontro Totale (European Super League is Total Confrontation)” and compared it to the Wall Street crash of 1929.

UEFA, FIFA to the defense

UEFA is trying to stop it. Monday it announced a revised Champions League that for the 2023-24 season would expand from 32 to 36 teams consisting of six groups each. Each team would play 10 group games instead of six with the biggest clubs receiving more money than in the current format. Among the format’s supporters is Nasser Al-Khelaifi, PSG’s president. 

FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, is also threatening to ban any player participating in the Super League from playing in the World Cup. Broadcasting companies with long-term contracts will want refunds. UEFA may toss the chosen 15 out of their domestic leagues.

My lone hope left is that UEFA, FIFA and more than anything, the fans, stand their ground. It’s too much to ask of the wealthy owners to think of anyone but themselves but threats, bans and sanctions might keep the world’s greatest game, as flawed as it is, from sinking into a pastime only for the elite.

As Neville stated, “I’m not against money in football. But the principles and ethos of fair competition and the rights to play the game so that Leicester win the league, they go into the Champions League … Manchester United aren’t even in the Champions League. Arsenal aren’t in the Champions League. Tottenham aren’t in the Champions League and they want the God-given right to be in there. They’re an absolute joke. And honestly, the time has come now: Independent regulators, stop these clubs from having the power base.

“Enough is enough.”