Thursday, April 22, 2021

European Super League

European Super League (April 18, 2021 - April 20, 2021)

It ended even before it began.

On Sunday, April 18 news broke of a proposed 20 team European Super League competition which would involve 6 teams from the Premier League (Liverpool, Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham) along with 3 from Spain (Real Madrid, Barcelona and surprisingly Atlético Madrid) and 3 from Italy (Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan). As per the reports, there would be 15 permanent member clubs with 5 others joining based on league results. This competition would take place during the middle of the week, thereby going in direct competition against the UEFA Champions League.

There was swift backlash from fans, media, some politicians, UEFA and FIFA. This uproar grew on Monday, April 19 and there were even threats of players involved being banned from the World Cup. The two German teams, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, announced that they wouldn’t take part in this new tournament and would prefer to work with UEFA. It emerged that even PSG would not take part. That was the first blow to the competition.

The next and decisive blow came a day later.

On Tuesday, April 20 Man City and Chelsea were the first two clubs to withdraw from the European Super League followed by the remaining Premiere League teams. Eventually, AC Milan, Atlético Madrid and Inter Milan signaled their intention to leave. That left only Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Super League.

The speed of this collapse was a surprise but the announcement of the Super League was not. This was not the first time talks of a breakaway European Super League have surfaced. Such talks of a breakaway competition have been in the air for the better past of the last decade. However, in the past, whenever rumours of a breakaway European Super League emerged, UEFA quickly appeased the big clubs and averted such talks by giving more concessions, revenue and Champions League places to the big 5 European Leagues (England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France). However, April 18th was the first time an actual plan was released. The timing of the European Super League announcement wasn’t coincidental either. On Monday, April 19, UEFA were ready to concede with another revamped Champions League with 36 teams instead of 32. Clearly, the big rich clubs wanted to get their intentions on the table before UEFA made their proposal. The big clubs could have been testing the waters or looking to use this threat to get more concessions from UEFA. As it turned out, the news backfired spectacularly.

The European Super League proposal was only about making the big clubs richer and creating a setup where the top teams played each other multiple times and got more revenue from TV revenue deals. The plan had no consideration for the overall good of the game. Of course, the current UEFA Champions League and domestic European league setup aren’t benefitting the health of the local game too much either. It has been clear for the last few years that changes have been needed to address the growing disparity between the big leagues/clubs and the rest of European soccer. UEFA hasn’t addressed this disparity and the big leagues/clubs gobble up plenty of revenue already. This analysis by Swiss Ramble gives an estimate about the revenue the big clubs stand to make from this season’s Champions League.

It is important to highlight that the big clubs will make all this revenue despite earning next to $0 from gate receipts over the last year. With no fans in stadiums, the big clubs still continued to earn millions from TV rights and UEFA’s distribution money for winning games and progressing further in the Champions League. This money was earned while many teams across Europe have been suffering financially and are close to bankruptcy. It is true that despite all this revenue, the big clubs have also been earning less than previously. Some of these teams have been losing money or were in debt before the pandemic. A large portion of these big club’s operating costs/revenue goes towards player salaries. Instead of taking stock of their operating costs and coming up with creative ways to reduce their debts, these clubs decided to go for a strategy that would continue their free spending ways. The European Super League would have given them instant cash, more than double what they can make from the Champions League. Importantly, these clubs would have gotten all this money without even kicking a ball and not by working to earn a spot and then actually winning games to advance in the Champions Leagues. These big clubs wanted all this extra money in the short term without giving any thought to the financial problems plaguing the game in a pandemic world. A big reason why these clubs don’t care for the rest of the teams is because they are soccer clubs in name only but are instead businesses/corporations, run by millionaires and billionaires whose only incentive is to increase profit and grow.

European Cup to Champions League to Super League

This problem of soccer clubs becoming businesses didn’t happen overnight but has been steadily taking place over the last few decades as rich owners jumped to buy soccer teams in order to increase their finances. If one had to trace the start of big money in the modern European game, a good starting point is Silvio Berlusconi’s purchase of AC Milan in 1986. Berlusconi used his wealth to buy AC Milan but in turn, the success of AC Milan also helped Berlusconi to launch his own political career and he became the Italian Prime Minister in 1994. Berlusconi also set in motion the changes that ushered in a new Champions League and set the path for this new Super League.

In the early 1990s, Berlusconi talked of a tournament where the big teams would play each other frequently. His words clearly played a part in UEFA announcing a newly rebranded Champions League in 1992 with a group stage. Although, in the mid 1990s, the Champions League only contained Champions from the different European countries, meaning one team from each participating country. The 1996-97 season was the first time when multiple teams from one country took part as both Juventus and AC Milan represented Italy. The following year, more teams from other countries were allowed eventually leading to the current tournament where the top 4 league teams from England, Spain, Germany and Italy get spots automatically along with the top 3 from France. Some of these 4th place teams haven’t even won a domestic league title in ages and one would be hard-pressed to name when they last won a league title. In order to make space for these 4th place teams, league champions from other lower ranked European nations would fight in multiple play-offs games and many league champions would never make it to the lucrative Champions League group phase. As a result, the disparity between these other leagues and the big 5 leagues has grown over the last two decades. In the current form of the Champions League, it is hard to imagine a team from Eastern Europe can ever win the Champions League. It is also improbable that a team from Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Greece can even make the final although Ajax were minutes from making the final in 2019 and Porto made the Quarter-finals in the current 2020-21 season.

Champions League and Europa League results from 2009-10 to 2019-20

Looking at the results of the Champions League over the last decade (2009-10 to 2019-2020), Real Madrid have won 4 titles, Barcelona and Bayern Munich with 2 each and a single title for Inter Milan, Chelsea, Liverpool. 

In terms of nations, that is Spain with 6 titles, Germany and England with 2 and Italy with 1. The last time a team outside of these 4 nations won the Champions League was Porto (Portugal) led by Jose Mourinho back in 2003-04, 17 years ago. Before Porto, the other team outside of these four to win the title was Ajax in 1995 with their famous young team, most of whom went on and signed for bigger teams. Marseille won the only French title in 1993 while Red Star Belgrade won in 1991.

The Europa League results aren’t that better. From 2010-20, the following teams have won the Europa League: Sevilla (4), Atlético Madrid (3), Porto (1), Chelsea (2), Man Utd (1).

In terms of nations, that is Spain with 7, England with 3 and Portugal with 1.

To make matters worse, 4 of the above winners came from dropping out of the Champions League for that season: Atlético Madrid won the title in 2010 and 2018 after faltering in the Champions League, Sevilla in 2016, Chelsea in 2013.

Combining the results of both the Champions League and Europa League, Spanish teams have won 13 titles, English teams with 5, Germany 2, Italy and Portugal with 1 each.

Of course, this isn’t enough for the big teams from Spain and England who are already dominating these trophies.

The state of European Domestic Leagues

The discussion about the Champions Leagues and even the Super League comes down to a handful of teams from Spain, England and Italy. What about the rest of Europe? A lot of emphasis is put on UEFA’s coefficient system in order to give spots in the qualifying rounds for these European Cups.

I wanted to look at the top 20 ranked teams in UEFA and have a look at the domestic league title winners over the last decade from 2009-10 to the current season 2020-21. In cases, where the current league title hasn’t been decided, I kept the range until the 2019-20 season. Looking at these results makes for a bleak picture. 

Out of 11 or 12 league title seasons, only 3 nations have had 5 different league winners: England, France and Turkey. But even in these 3 nations, a few of the different teams that won a title only did it once. In England, if you remove Leicester City’s dream title in 2016 and Liverpool’s stellar 2020 title, the last decade has been dominated by Man City with 5 titles (I am giving the 2021 title win to Man City), Chelsea with 3 and Man Utd with 2. In France, PSG have won 7 out of the last 11 titles with single title wins by Marseille, Lille, Montpellier and Monaco. In Turkey, Bursaspor and İstanbul Başakşehir have stopped the regular titles won by the big three of Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe. Although, over the last decade Galatasaray have dominated with 5 wins.

7 out of the 20 nations have only had 2 league winners over the last decade but only 2 of these nations (Portugal, Serbia) have had a close parity between the two winners. In Portugal, Benfica won 6 titles to Porto’s 5 while in Serbia, Partizan won 6 compared to Red Star’s 5. For the other leagues with 2 winners, it has been a single team league such as Germany, Scotland, Croatia, Switzerland. The single team league has also applied to Italy and France.

While winning a league title isn’t easy, repeating it is more difficult. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case over the last decade. In all these 20 nations, there has been at least one team that won two titles in a row. 16 out of these 20 nations (80%) have had teams that won 3 or more titles in a row. 10 out of 20 nations have had teams that won 5 or more titles in a row. Many of these runaway domestic winners such as Dinamo Zagreb (won 14 out of last 15 titles), Olympiacos (won 9 of last 12), Basel (8 of last 12), Celtic (9 of last 12), FC Red Bull Salzburg (9 of last 11) can’t even make a dent in the Champions League. Therefore, it is hard to imagine any other team from Croatia, Greece, Switzerland, Scotland, Austria attempting to go far in the Champions League provided they win the domestic league title and get past the multiple qualifying playoff rounds.

Next Steps

It is a sad state of affairs and the European game is already in trouble with a large disparity in between a select few teams and the rest of Europe. UEFA hasn’t come up with any ways to solve this and the Super League would have made this problem even worse. For now, even though the Super League appears dead, it may only be a temporary pause. Real Madrid’s Florentino Pérez wants this tournament and can’t understand why there was this outrage.

Regardless of what happens with the Super League and Champions League, there are severe problems with the domestic leagues. I haven’t seen any discussion about fixing the domestic leagues. If that doesn’t happen, then there will be no need for a Super League. Most of these other leagues will collapse and we will only be left with the Big 5. Therefore, the Champions League will de facto become the Super League.

[Update, April 23]

Tariq Panja and Rory Smith's essential article regarding the European Super League plan.

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