New European Super League proposals are more mutton dressed as lamb by three musketeers
The European Super League is back on the agenda, but while these plans remain led by Real Madrid and Juventus this won’t fix financial inequality.
The biggest irony of all is that at the absolute heart of their argument they’ve got a point. In financial terms, the Premier League has raced away from other European leagues in recent years, and that could do with a considerable degree of realignment. But just as was the case almost two years ago, it doesn’t feel as though many people are going to be convinced, and certainly not in England, where the likelihood of clubs even being able to join is already extremely low.
The European Super League is back on the agenda after those who made the fundamentally flawed proposals in 2021 returned with a second set which will definitely turn hearts and minds back in their direction. The difference in presentation this time around is like chalk and cheese. In 2021, the announcement of the first set was treated rather like a military coup. You could quite imagine the presidents of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus sat behind a desk in service attire, looking mildly uncomfortable at claiming the death of the old guard and a bright new future for everybody.
But this time, things have been different. Stylistically, rather than Pinochet chic they’ve gone for the aesthetic of Steve Buscemi with a skateboard slung over his shoulder. ‘Greetings fellow kids, this time we’re being collaborative‘. They’ve got a manifesto. They talk about fan engagement. They even might involve the women this time. If the actual motives behind it all weren’t so blatantly transparent, you could find yourself starting to get talked into believing it was a good idea.
So let’s be absolutely clear about this. The rationale for the European Super League remains exactly as it was in April 2021. Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus have seen the balance of power within European club football slip away from them and they want it back. They consider the natural order of things to be them at the absolute top table, sharing the best players and silverware between them.
We know this to be the case because this is exactly the form of European club football they agitated for in the first place. The very formation of the Champions League in 1992 came about because of belly-aching about not receiving enough money from UEFA and a vague threat to form, you guessed it, a European Super League. While they were the biggest beneficiaries of the inequalities that grew exponentially with the money that flowed through clubs in the Champions League, they were happy enough.
In recent years, it’s become increasingly clear that this has not played out in the way that they wanted. The Premier League has continued to grow its revenues, to a point at which this gruesome threesome have started to suffer. All three clubs are heavily in debt, and it’s worth asking the question of why anyone should be taking financial recommendations from a club that offered £180m for Kylian Mbappe even though he only had six months left on his contract; a club who spent the whole of last summer taking out loans secured against their future revenues to splurge in the transfer market (only to get knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage); and a club so fundamentally corrupt that there is a real possibility that they could soon be demoted from the top division for the second time in under 20 years.
To be clear, there is a deep financial inequality within European football which should be rebalanced. The Premier League has financially outstripped every other league in Europe to such an extent that many already feel a European Super League has already arrived. But what should actually be done about this? You can’t hold a gun to the heads of broadcasters and demand that that they pay proportionally the same for other European leagues as they do for the Premier League. The market sets the price, and the Premier League has, for better or worse, left other leagues in the dust when it comes to promoting itself as a global brand.
This, in an ideal world, would be handled differently. The radical redistribution of broadcasting revenues in European club football would be a very good thing indeed. But does anybody really believe Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus are seriously interested in levelling that playing field, or is it considerably more likely that they’re now into the stage of saying whatever they feel needs to be said to get a European Super League over the line?
All three clubs were perfectly happy with vast inequality for as long as they were at the top of that tree. That all three clubs have been financially reckless in recent years trying to maintain that primacy is really little more than them getting bitten by the laws of unintended consequences in a European football landscape that they demanded in the first place. Turning the game into a true competition in which 50 to 80 clubs all stood some form of chance of actually competing would be a wondrous thing. It’s also vanishingly unlikely that anything whatsoever like this would be the desired endgame of those behind it.
But even if the European Court of Justice was to rule that the European Super League could push on, formidable obstacles would not go away. It seems increasingly unlikely that Premier League clubs would be able to join, even if they desperately wanted to. The government white paper for an independent regulator for football is due, and it’s as likely as ever that this will include rules barring clubs from joining up.
Even were this not to happen – the amount of movement that has been seen on all sorts of issues might be attributed to its forthcoming passage into law – the ‘Big Six’ clubs have already signed agreements not to join one. The Premier League’s owner’s charter for 2022/23, signed by all 20 member clubs, reads:
‘We are collectively committed to the Premier League and recognise our responsibility to support it. We will not engage in the creation of new competition formats outside of the Premier League’s rules.’
Elsewhere, the 50+1 ownership model of German clubs seems as likely as ever to preclude their involvement, while PSG remain so deeply embedded into the status quo that their departure seems unfeasible. If one thing is notable about the new proposals put forward, it’s how vague they are. Who are these 50 to 80 clubs? What’s in it for them beyond some sort of promise that they’ll make some more money from this than UEFA-based competitions? Do they actually believe that Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus support greater financial equality between clubs, or is this just desperate well-we-have-to-do-something-ism?
Perhaps this vast number of clubs are satisfied with being bit-part players in the ongoing melodrama of these three clubs. It’s certainly reasonable to say that there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side in this debate; UEFA seem no more selfless in terms of a desire for control over the future. And criticism hasn’t just come from England, with La Liga describing the new proposals as “the wolf in the story of Little Red Riding Hood”. In an ideal world, the best result in a match between UEFA and the European Super League would be for neither of them to win, but these new proposals do not alter the fact that, for all its talk of being ‘collaborative’, the rationale behind this new venture remains the same: to funnel more money to clubs who have are now paying a price for years of their own financial incontinence.