War on Football
Recently, I found an interesting statistic which said that most political coup attempts in recent years (from 2011 to 2017) have failed. There have been around 29 coup attempts of which only seven have succeeded (if that’s success after all). Since that report was published we did see the coup in Myanmar, which then would take the tally of ‘successful’ ones to eight perhaps.
An aborted coup attempt was reported recently from the most unlikely quarters - the world of sport. Twelve top football clubs in Europe attempted to break off and create a European Super League (ESL), create a world of its own. It was an attempt to build an oligopoly of European sport. This new order would have guaranteed the ‘conspirators’ billions in revenue, and a sense of permanent supremacy, without the threat of relegation or excitement of promotion. It was planned as an event where the rich would get richer and poorer clubs outside the League to face financial ruin.
Rumours of a new tournament were heard since 1980s with many top football leagues in Europe afraid of such a competition. The UEFA Champions League (UCL), in its current incarnation, is the closest thing to an ESL. It was rebranded in 1992 from the original European Cup. There were fears that this tournament would overshadow domestic football in Europe but it proved unwarranted. Still, whispers of a new league continued to be heard.
In 2018, the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel (The Mirror) first reported on an ESL after uncovering documents that outlined the tournament. The report said top European football clubs would break away from UEFA and start their own competition in 2021. It sent shockwaves through football. Clubs were scared that they would be left in the lurch; fans, players, and coaches feeling that another tournament would be too much in an otherwise crowded calendar.
The plan was simple: Persuade Europe’s top soccer clubs to break away and topple the world’s most popular sport. The Der Spiegel report claimed that a 16-team tournament would begin as early as 2021, which would be similar to the UCL except that the UEFA would have no role in its running. Teams would play in a group stage followed by knockout rounds to decide the ESL champion.
The proposed format
The ESL would have 20 teams, with 15 founding members to be joined by five clubs who qualify annually based on their domestic performances. The 20 teams would be split into two groups of 10 teams each. Each team in the groups would play each other on a home and away basis. The top three clubs from the two groups would progress to the quarterfinals. From this stage onwards there would be a two-leg knockout games, both home and away. This would be followed by a final at a neutral venue.
In the documents, there was a list of teams referred to as founding members. This included Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Juventus, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), and Bayern Munich. Bayern and PSG refused to bite the bait and pulled out of the League early. This left nine clubs, along with Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur, to complete the list of founding members.
If the ESL was floated it would have signalled the end of the UCL, the most popular cup competition in world football. It would have negatively affected domestic competitions too as clubs would only focus on the breakaway competition due to the amount of money at stake.
TV rights was the key ingredient in the ESL recipe. US investment bank JP Morgan confirmed financing ESL providing a $4.21 billion grant to the founding clubs.
A competition with the best clubs in Europe would naturally eliminate the predictability of the UCL group stage. It is true that a predictable group stage often left fans uninterested in watching games that involved ‘weaker’ sides that qualified to the UCL from their respective domestic leagues. However, what made the UCL great is watching clubs qualify and spring surprises on the grand stage. At the 2019-20 UCL Atalanta made it to the quarterfinals while teams such as RB Leipzig and Lyon eliminated two of the biggest teams - Atletico Madrid and Manchester City, respectively.
There was widespread opposition to the coup attempt-from former players, sports pundits, to fans and even politicians came out against the move. Former players felt ‘absolutely disgusted’ by the news and said the decision was a ‘war on football.’ Fans, the real backbone of these clubs, accused the teams that joined the ESL of greed. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the ESL ‘would be very damaging for football’ and added the clubs involved ‘must answer to their fans and the wider football community.’
The breakaway group had their explanation. The officials and clubs behind ESL made it clear that they were unhappy that UEFA netted huge profits from the UCL, while the clubs, who played the central role in the competition, buying players, selling tickets were paid modest sums. The clubs reportedly voiced their discontent to UEFA, but the organisation allegedly refused to listen.
Real Madrid President Florentino Perez, who is the inaugural chairman of the ESL, and Andrea Agnelli, Chairman of Juventus, the key figures behind this move, claimed that the tournament would actually help football and not harm it. Their statement was echoed by other football officials behind the project. Joel Glazer, co-chairman of Manchester United said the ESL "will open a new chapter for European football, ensuring world-class competition and facilities, and increased financial support for the wider football pyramid.’
However, fans and governing bodies, disagreed. UEFA came out strongly against the move and said that the clubs would face punishments. Any club playing in the ESL would be banned from the UCL and domestic tournaments. UEFA got the support of Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A officials who stated that they will do everything to stop the clubs from creating a breakaway league. Meanwhile, FIFA said it would think of banning players involved in the competition from playing in World Cups.
The ‘coup’ fizzled out when nine of the 12 teams that were confirmed to be breaking away to create the ESL withdrew from this get-rich-quick scheme. What prompted them to make this hasty retreat? The answer is simple-no club is bigger than its fans and when such a huge decision on a club is made without consulting the fans most often than not it will end up with egg on your face.
A plan that was in the works for many years ended in confusion, angry backlash, turning it into a failed coup that misread the ‘emotional cauldron of European football.’ “I don’t think there has ever been a greater misjudgment than this in the sports industry,” said the chief executive of an English Premier League club.
Cricket is the other sport that has been in a similar situation before. Kerry Packer signed up top cricketers and started World Series Cricket. Then, closer home, we saw a television channel establish the Indian Cricket League, which was snuffed off early by the BCCI that smelt a threat to their monopoly rights on the game. Both these leagues led to many players being banned. What should not be forgotten is that both these events failed only because the organisers did not share the profits with the administration. Just go back into how these issues were sorted out and you’ll find answers.
So, has the threat of a coup in football or sport in general, disappeared? Don’t be so sure. The ‘conspirators’ are now nursing the fallout, which is huge. The UK government is threatening new regulations, with fans on boards, caps on ticket prices, and an examination of different models of club ownership. Football fans protested before venues even leading to a postponement of an English league match. And the protests clearly revealed that they meant business. In less than 48 hours after the ESL was unveiled the chorus of opposition precipitated its collapse even before anyone kicked a ball.
The attempt to create a new League will go down in the history of sport as a failed coup attempt. A sports coup made by ‘haves’to get more from the’ have-nots.’ These clubs who initiated the coup failed because they completely ignored their customers and fan bases. The uprising of fans across the UK forced all of the clubs off the precipice.
Preventing such coup requires taking immediate remedial measures like restructuring club ownership models along the lines of Germany. Fans and supporters need to become partners in finding a solution. They need to be on the boards of the clubs to provide a voice in potential negotiations and strategic decision making.
This is not, I feel, the last nail in the coffin of ESL. Before the dust settles down the lawyers will get involved. There are signs of an all-out war. According to media reports, the ESL clubs have informed FIFA and UEFA that they are pursuing legal action against them for stopping them from creating the competition. There are likely to be issues with the existing playing contracts should clubs breach their league, UEFA or FIFA rules putting the players in trouble. The club owners, I think, are not going to give up so easily. Remember coups are not a thing of the past. Yes, it is much rarer today. It has waxed and waned but it is always lurking round the corner.