Strip away all the posturing, the disastrous initial rollout, the fact that the solution to any and all of soccer’s problems — according to the Florentino Perezes and Andrea Agnellis of the world, anyway — is “Give us everything we want and it will save the sport.” Strip away the disingenuous “Young people are losing interest in the sport and everything is going to fall apart unless we act [therefore, give us everything we want, as we said earlier]” add-ons.
At the heart of the ongoing European Super League venture — and it is still very much an ongoing venture — there remain two major goals: to close the increasing gap between the Premier League and the richest non-English teams in Europe and, basically, to replace UEFA as the overseer of European club football.
The former is understandable. No league has ever financially dominated the soccer universe like the Premier League is at the moment — something we’re consistently reminded of — and it is warping the flow of talent throughout Europe in the process. The Premier League did a better job of branding and expanding into other markets, it has a significant advantage with the English language, and it has certainly shown what we’ll call a more ruthless attitude toward encouraging foreign investment.
Regarding the latter, UEFA should be ripe for a challenge — in theory, anyway. The increasing inequality in European soccer came about under UEFA’s watch, after all. Inexcusable event control issues, too. Instead, outside of Madrid, Barcelona and Turin, it feels like the Super League boasts about a 3% approval rating.
While insisting that clubs can govern themselves better than an outside agency, those in charge of the Super League indeed botched every possible part of the rollout in April 2021 and almost immediately lost all of their initial membership because of it. And almost two years later, to prove that they and only they have the long-term interest of the sport at heart, they used a sports management company, A22, to put out a list of goals and principles that, if we’re being honest, sound almost exactly like what UEFA would have put out if asked to perform the same exercise.
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“UEFA, but, like, totally different” has yet to win many hearts and minds as a primary selling point. But with pronounced inequality issues within European soccer, and with the obvious understanding that improvements are needed, let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and pretend the Super Leaguers indeed have the needs of the sport at heart. While we don’t know the specifics of the competition they recently proposed through A22, we know enough to sketch out how it might work.
Would it actually improve anything?
Super Leagues 1 through 4
In essence, the Super League is attempting to replace the Champions League as the continent’s primary competition. Unfortunately, UEFA’s continental competitions are pretty awesome! It’s kind of the best thing about UEFA! It’s hard to really improve on them!
The recent statement put out by A22 provided almost no specifics regarding how its new vision of a Super League would work, but the basics are as follows:
• Teams would have to qualify for the competition through their domestic leagues.
• Teams would be guaranteed a minimum of 14 matches per season for “stability and predictability” of revenue.
• There would be four tiers of competition involving up to between 60 and 80 teams.
• Supposedly the initial intent would be to include only clubs from European Union countries.
Obviously there are still many different competitions you could craft from those guidelines, but the most logical interpretation is that we would have four 15-team “leagues” of sorts, with some sort of qualification process and everyone playing everyone in their tier once. Bids in each tier would be divvied out via some sort of system similar to UEFA’s coefficients, which give more spots to the more successful leagues.
If this is indeed only for clubs in European Union countries, and if all EU countries indeed participate — which, knowing what we know about German clubs’ response to the original venture, seems incredibly unlikely — we would be looking at a four-tiered Super League resembling this, based on how last season finished.
Super League 1: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille, Ajax, FC Porto, Club Brugge, FC Salzburg, Slavia Prague, FC Copenhagen, Dinamo Zagreb
Super League 2: Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Bayer Leverkusen, RB Leipzig, Napoli, Juventus, AS Monaco, Stade Rennais, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting CP, Union Saint-Gilloise, Sturm Graz, Olympiakos, Viktoria Plzen, FC Midtjylland
Super League 3: Real Betis, Union Berlin, Lazio, Feyenoord, Benfica, Anderlecht, Apollon Limassol, Malmo FF, Ferencvaros, CFR Cluj, Ludogorets Razgrad, Slovan Bratislava, Lech Poznan, Hajduk Split, PAOK
Super League 4: AEK Larnaca, AIK, Kisvarda, FCSB, CSKA Sofia, Spartak Trnava, Rakow Czestochowa, Maribor, RFS, Shamrock Rovers, HJK, Zalgiris, F91 Dudelange, Hibernians, FCI Levadia
I elected to give two spots in Super League 1 to each of the top four leagues in the EU, which also get two spots in Super League 2 and one in Super League 3. Using existing UEFA coefficients as a guide, I filled in the rest from there. Super League 4 consists primarily of the champions of clubs at the bottom of the totem pole. Obviously this distribution could be more top-heavy, with powerful leagues taking all of the Super League 1 spots so Real Madrid aren’t forced to still visit the Dinamo Zagrebs of the world, but I went with this.
Let’s say there is a hard-seeded, eight-team playoff at the end of this “season.” (The seeding would be to assure that there’s still meaning for every team late in the season.) Here is approximately what it would look like for the top tier.
1. Bayern Munich vs. 8. AC Milan
4. Inter Milan vs. 5. Borussia Dortmund
3. PSG vs. 6. Barcelona
2. Real Madrid vs. 7. Porto
We’ll say the winners of both Super League 1 and Super League 2 (likely Napoli, RB Leipzig or Atletico in this example) are assured a spot in next season’s Super League 1, a la the Champions and Europa League winners, while the other champions (Benfica/Union Berlin/Betis and FCSB/AEK/CSKA) are assured a spot in a higher tier.
This is … fine, I guess? The 14-match guarantee certainly assures extra gate revenue for everyone, which, paired with healthy solidarity payments — which UEFA itself could have engineered at any time (if not for the fact that a lot of the clubs that would want to have influence in a Super League have rejected it) — could prop up leagues in second-tier soccer countries. But this almost entirely removes the possibility of a random, Club Brugge-style, short-term run of high-impact results. It also results in fewer teams having a chance at European competitions at all, and it would likely assure that we are looking at a lot of mostly meaningless matches late in the Super League season. It takes the proposed “Swiss Model” that, at the behest of Europe’s biggest clubs, will be applied to future UEFA competitions and expands maybe the shakiest part of it. (And it does so while professing to promote player health.)
Let’s pretend for a moment that all of these clubs and countries agree to leave UEFA competitions in favor of the Super League. In the end, it produces almost exactly the same knockout-round matches that we already get in a given Champions League campaign.
What does this new enterprise accomplish, competitively, that UEFA’s trio of continental tournaments doesn’t?
Competing with the Premier League on Saturdays, not Tuesdays
Let’s leave aside the issue that clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus think they could run UEFA better than UEFA, even though a lot of the inequality that has come about stems from decisions the biggest clubs bullied UEFA into making. Beyond that, maybe the most misguided thing about the Super League in general is that it goes after the wrong competition.
The Champions League has almost been an equalizer of sorts; for all of the financial heft that the Premier League brings to the table, English teams have won only three of the past 14 Champions League titles, fewer than Real Madrid have won by themselves. Premier League clubs have certainly been at a higher ebb of late — six finals spots in the past five years (albeit with only one team with a better than 11% chance of making it this season, according to FiveThirtyEight) — but as long as the league isn’t suddenly allotted 10 spots in the Champions League, there’s only so much it could dominate this competition.
If the goals are increased competition and increased revenue outside of England, and we’re looking to resurrect ideas from 2021, we should bring one back that would actually help.
In Spring 2021, Belgium’s top clubs showed support for a combined league with clubs in the Netherlands. It made a lot of sense — both Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League (which would send eight teams) and the Dutch Eredivisie (which would send 10) boast dedicated, high-quality and entertaining-as-hell clubs, but neither league boasts extreme depth. Pitting Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord and AZ Alkmaar (among others) against Club Brugge, Royal Antwerp, Genk, Gent and the emerging Union Saint-Gilloise would create higher competition levels and quite a bit more television revenue. Filter enough of said revenue down to make sure that the top of the new pyramid isn’t starving the rest, and the potential becomes pretty obvious.
(For a couple of decades now, there have been rumors of a similar Atlantic League of sorts, combining the top teams from not only Belgium and the Netherlands, but also Scotland, Ireland, the Scandinavian leagues and perhaps even Portugal.)
It didn’t happen. In 2022, the Eredivisie put out a statement declaring that, after lots of research, the “necessary support within Dutch football is lacking.” That’s a shame because mergers within the European ecosystem, not a change atop it, might have the most potential impact.
A thought exercise:
• Using FiveThirtyEight’s SPI ratings as our guide, the Premier League currently has four of the top 10 teams in the world, eight of the top 20 and 12 of the top 50.
• A merger of, say, top-division Spanish and Italian teams — the countries from which the highest levels of Super League support appear to reside — would have three of the top 10, five of the top 20 and 13 of the top 50.
• Add French and Portuguese teams to Spain and Italy, and you have four of the top 10, eight of the top 20 and 16 of the top 50.
What if LaLiga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and the Primeira Liga all played half a season of domestic ball — after which the leagues’ champions (and the competitors in the UEFA competitions) are named — and then combined on a joint venture for the second half, one that featured, say, six teams each from Spain (based on the table at this season’s midway point: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Real Sociedad, Atletico Madrid, Villarreal and Real Betis), six from Italy (Napoli, Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio, Inter Milan and AS Roma), five from France (PSG, Lens, Marseille, Monaco, Rennais) and three from Portugal (Benfica, Braga, Porto)?
Those missing the cut would continue to play out their domestic schedules, perhaps making up for the missing matches with a Belgian-style end-of-year playoff of sorts (with the prize being either a prime spot in a continental tournament or a guaranteed spot in the next season’s Spa-Fra-Por-taly festivities) or incorporating the top second-division teams from the first half of the season.
Granted, something like this would produce incredibly back-loaded schedules — Real Madrid, for instance, would trade Mallorca, Cadiz, Elche and Almeria for Napoli, PSG, Inter and Porto over the second half of the season, while also theoretically advancing into the late stages of the Champions League — and the need to assure that solidarity payments keep lower divisions of the participating leagues afloat would offset some of the potential gains. (And again, if getting big clubs to agree to bigger solidarity payments were easy, we would have avoided quite a few problems through the years.) Still, this is where far more potential lies.
The wealth is already spreading
While certain leagues have always dominated the sport — Serie A in the 1960s and 1980s, the Bundesliga in the 1970s, the Premier League in the early 1980s and parts of the 2000s and 2010s, LaLiga in the other parts of the 2000s and 2010s — it is true that the financial imbalance right now is something we haven’t seen before.
When relegation-threatened English clubs like Leeds United and Everton rank higher than the Europa League champions (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Champions League semifinalists (Villarreal) in the Deloitte Football Money League, and when there are 15 Premier League teams among the top 26, you know things have gotten funky. When one Premier League team (Chelsea) spends more on January transfer fees than the rest of the Big Five leagues combined, and when Premier League teams spend more than €2 billion more than they receive in transfer fees in a single season, you know things are beginning to feel unsustainable.
It’s funny, though. If the Premier League’s financial dominance is an obvious threat to the stability of the sport, the desperation of EPL teams to keep up with each other is an obvious opportunity. With every eight-digit move made by a team ranked in the teens in the Premier League table, the more confident I became that a well-run club outside of England would have the money it needs to field an awesome team. As teams spend money simply because of the pressure to spend money, the churn and the sheer volume of moves in the league will assure that there is plenty of talent available to the teams that are also receiving large checks from English teams.
Consider Timo Werner. RB Leipzig transferred his rights to Chelsea in 2020 for nearly £50 million after a season in which he scored 34 goals in all competitions. Barely two years later, he was a Red Bull again, having returned to Germany for half the transfer fee. He has scored 11 goals with three assists in less than 1,600 minutes for his new/old club, he’s still only 26 years old and his partnership with Andre Silva up front has shown us that RBL’s attack is going to be in pretty good shape even after Christopher Nkunku leaves for Chelsea this coming summer. (Chelsea and RBL, by the way, have almost the exact same rating, per FiveThirtyEight’s SPI. RBL are ahead in the ratings at EloFootball.com.)
The correlation between transfer spending and either team quality or year-to-year improvement has been almost zero in the Premier League this season. Could that change in the future? Might EPL teams spend smarter in the future? Might they make more selective moves going forward, especially given the success of the pragmatic and developmental Brighton & Hove Albion? Sure, but that’s not usually how these things work. Winning the transfer window sometimes feels almost as important as winning on the pitch, and, hey, all that money has to go somewhere.
In a lot of ways, it’s funding well-run clubs in other leagues. That doesn’t make this all a particularly healthy situation, but it’s at least a reminder that money and happiness aren’t particularly related.
Fighting the Premier League vs. actually making the sport healthier
The Super League, in its current aims, wouldn’t curb the Premier League’s growth, and it wouldn’t do much of anything to combat current inequality issues. What could actually be done to make the sport healthier?
Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of unique ideas in that regard, but the ones we have are pretty good. Setting a cap on player registration would spread talent out more widely (although it’s perhaps harder to justify this if we’re asking teams to play more continental matches). Somehow getting top leagues to agree on more stringent, Bundesliga-esque licensing requirements — which could put restrictions on debt, upgrade ownership standards and plenty of other things — would be great. Ditching the market pool portion of money distribution in UEFA competitions, which allows big brands to make more money than smaller brands while winning the same amount, would be awesome. But all the clubs that need to agree to such things have not done so yet, and it certainly wouldn’t happen if said clubs were running the show in a Super League.
It’s like we’ve reached a “too big to fail” point, where any enforcement of standards that would help the game would also hurt important clubs too much and therefore won’t happen. We’ve already given the Real Madrid what they want and it hasn’t saved the game. (Not yet, anyway.) There’s no reason a Super League would, either.