Football Super League threatens meritocracy as faltering English giants sign up

Scarves for six the English Premier League teams who are part of a proposed European Super League, laid out and photographed, in London, Monday, April 19, 2021.
Scarves for six the English Premier League teams who are part of a proposed European Super League, laid out and photographed, in London, Monday, April 19, 2021. © Alastair Grant, AP

The proposed creation of a breakaway European Super League by 12 major football clubs on Monday elicited a torrent of indignation from the footballing and political worlds alike – as well as questions in England about how “super” four of those teams have shown themselves to be this season, languishing outside the Champions League zone.


For many football fans the European Super League is the ugly apotheosis of the game’s commercialisation – which has snowballed since broadcaster Sky paid a then-shocking £191 million in 1992 for the rights to show English Premier League matches in the UK for five years.

“Super League has always been inevitable,” tweeted Guardian football writer Barney Ronay. “It turns out these very rich, ruthless people did not buy your club because they love heritage, old stories and community sport.”

The 12 clubs – England’s Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham; Spain’s Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid; and Italy’s Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan – stand to reap colossal financial gains.

Each club will receive a one-off €3.5 billion windfall just for signing up. As publicly traded companies, Manchester United’s and Juventus’s share prices jumped on Monday. JP Morgan confirmed that it is financing the deal.

Most of the clubs have racked up high debts and wage bills while the lack of spectators during the Covid-19 pandemic has hit match-day revenues.

“I think there are two things in play here: one is greed and the other is desperation,” ex-FA and Manchester City chairman David Bernstein told the BBC. “One of the things they haven’t done during the pandemic is to impose some sort of wages control. They’ve got themselves into a bit of a predicament.”

Ronay had a different interpretation of empty stadiums’ impact, arguing that the “final push” for a Super League had been last year – with owners thinking: “Are we still beholden to those people who keep turning up to the ground and might complain? Actually not really no!”

Cue apoplectic reactions from both the footballing world and political leaders. Gary Neville – former Manchester United captain and a giant of English football commentary – lambasted the Super League plans as “pure greed” on Sky Sports. “It’s an absolute disgrace,” he continued. “We have to wrestle back power in this country from the clubs at the top of this league – and that includes my club.”

The plan is a “war on football”, added Neville’s former Red Devils teammate Rio Ferdinand on BT Sport, adding to the chorus of excoriation from former giants of the game.

The Super League plans would “strike at the heart of the domestic game”, Boris Johnson tweeted. The British government will “support football authorities in taking action” against it, the PM continued. Emmanuel Macron sees the Super League as a “threat to the principles of solidarity and sporting merit”, the French presidential office told Agence France-Presse.

Four ‘big six’ disappointments

Indeed, a perceived lack of sporting merit is what many English critics find so galling about the Super League – given how the current Premiership season has unfolded. With a month to go, Leicester and West Ham are third and fourth respectively. As things stand, the two clubs are set to break the monopoly of the “big six” – all of whom signed up for the Super League – on the four Champions League places for the first time since Leicester’s astonishing run to capture the Premiership title in 2015-16.

Liverpool this season have been a far cry from the unfaltering powerhouses that stormed to the 2019-20 title with a whopping 18-point lead over runners-up Manchester City. Jurgen Klopp’s side have shown flashes of that prowess, such as their 7-0 demolition of Crystal Palace in December. But all too often misfires and mishaps have characterised their performances this season as their formidable attacking machine has malfunctioned – despite the indubitable genius of talismanic striker Mohamed Salah. Their astonishing 7-2 defeat at the hands of mid-table Aston Villa in October exemplified this fall from grace. The Reds are currently sixth in the league.

Liverpool do not walk alone amongst this season’s Premier League disappointments. After spending more than £200 million in the transfer window, Chelsea started off in sparkling form – topping the table in December. The new year saw just two wins in eight league games; the Blues plunged to ninth place. Legendary former player Frank Lampard was sacked on January 25 – replaced with former PSG boss Thomas Tuchel the next day. Chelsea are now at fifth, one point behind West Ham, after a return to form. But an embarrassing 5-2 home defeat to West Brom in early April exposed their inconsistency.

Chelsea’s fellow Londoners Tottenham are in seventh place – positioning them for a place next season in the play-offs for UEFA’s new tertiary competition the Europa Conference League; hardly a prestigious plaudit. Their manager Jose Mourinho was sacked on Monday after losing ten league games in one season for the first time in his once glittering career. But it was a European defeat that provided the furthest cry from the grand phrase “Super League”: In March, Spurs threw away a 2-0 advantage in the Europa League last 16, losing 3-0 in the second leg to Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb.

Arsenal’s claim to “Super League” status looks even more tenuous. The sometimes majestic performances of the early Arsène Wenger era – which saw a top-flight English record of 49 unbeaten games between 2003 and 2004 – departed along with legendary striker Thierry Henry in 2007. The longstanding manager’s distinctive tactics – focused on midfield passing – degenerated into a parody of themselves. Wenger’s retirement in 2018 did not return Arsenal to form; they have still not qualified for the Champions League since 2016-17 and finished eighth last season.

The Gunners are currently ninth in the league – qualifying them for nothing. “Arsenal of the European Super League playing an absolute blinder here,” Guardian sport writer Jonathan Liew tweeted about their insipid 1-1 draw at home to relegation-zoned Fulham on Sunday.

Hence commentators’ anger at the prospect of the Super League tipping the playing field against insurgents like Leicester and West Ham by pumping even more cash into the big six – which already benefit from lucrative international fan bases.

“This lot think they can sweep up £300m more each season than the other teams and then wander back on a Saturday and play with that advantage in the PL,” Neville tweeted. “Deduct points, fine heavily and embargo transfers,” he urged.

To some extent, it is a similar story in Italy – as demonstrated by Atalanta’s 1-0 victory over Juventus on Sunday. The Bergamo-based upstarts are in third place, two points ahead of the fourth-placed Torinese giants – who been a mere shadow of the hegemonic Juventus that romped to nine consecutive titles in the preceding season.

Atlanta failed to make an impression on the international stage for most of their 114-year history – until they finished third in the 2018-19 Serie A season, ahead of grandees Inter Milan and AC Milan. Atalanta notched the same position in 2019-20 – reaching their zenith in their 5-0 thrashing of AC Milan.

As is the case with Leicester and West Ham, Atalanta’s performances on the pitch have outstripped their commercial standing thanks to deft tactics, astute transfer market moves and the cultivation of emerging talent. It was a similar story with Napoli – the scrappy club from the Mezzogiorno that first rose to prominence in their Diego Maradona-fuelled 1980s heyday and spent two decades in the doldrums before their 2010s rebirth as a powerhouse of Italian football, coming second in 2015-16 and 2017-18.

If the European Super League comes into existence, it remains to be seen whether that approach will allow the rise of the next parvenus in English, Italian or Spanish football. As Neville noted, with vast influxes of cash to football’s big clubs – including underperformers such as Tottenham and Arsenal – the Super League would tilt the playing field against the likes of Leicester and Atalanta, for whom clever managerial moves have thus far compensated for the lack of colossal budgets.

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