After years of rumors about the biggest soccer clubs in Europe conspiring to put together a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts, this weekend the thing finally walked out of its castle and showed its face. On Sunday, it was announced that 12 of the game’s most well-known clubs would be creating something called the Super League. On its face, the Super League intends to be a new competitor to the Champions League, though its effects are sure to reach much further, shaking the very foundations of soccer, threatening to fundamentally reshape the game as we know it, and calling into question core principles at the heart of sports in general.
In case you aren’t the biggest soccer head, or if you are but are still having trouble wrapping your mind around what the Super League is and what it might mean, I am here to help guide you through it with this handy explainer.
What is the Super League?
As laid out on its website, the Super League is a proposed new continental tournament. It intends to pit 20 of the biggest clubs from across Europe against each other in a season-long tournament that will start with a group stage and then advance into a home-and-home knockout bracket to crown a winner.
Wait, doesn’t the Champions League already do that?
Yes, the Super League is in many respects almost identical to the existing Champions League, and in fact even more closely resembles what the new Champions League will look like once the changes to that competition that were ratified today go into effect.
If we already have the Champions League, then what’s the point of the Super League?
That is a more complicated question than it might first appear. The critical difference between the Champions League and the Super League is in how teams gain entrance into them. In the Champions League, contesting clubs qualify for the tournament primarily via finishing in the top spots of their domestic league the season prior. That’s where the “champions” in Champions League comes from: It is a tournament comprised of the champions and near-champions of Europe’s individual leagues, itself having evolved from the European Champions Cup, which only included the literal champion of the continent’s domestic leagues.
This format follows the logic of the foundational principle of the soccer pyramids the world over, which is the idea of promotion and relegation. The best teams earn the right to compete with the best teams by beating their competitors, thereby either gaining promotion to the next higher league or maintaining their position in the highest tier, while the worst-performing teams are sent to the next league down to make way for the newly promoted ones. Almost everything in soccer is built around this principle that competition alone determines any given club’s place in the pyramid. The Champions League adheres to this logic by conditioning inclusion in the field with some tangible form of on-the-pitch success; every team in the field must earn its place. This is what makes the tournament so prestigious, so popular, and so lucrative, and it is why the winner can rightfully call itself the best team in Europe.
The Super League’s “qualification” process is much different. “Qualification” for the 20-team Super League won’t be based on on-the-pitch success, won’t be earned every season with blood, sweat, and goals; instead, it will be guaranteed to the 15 signatory clubs that will found it, with five other teams selected by some as-of-yet-unexplained qualification mechanism. The vast majority—though, importantly, not all—of the 12 clubs that have already signed onto the Super League are the same clubs that are always in the Champions League, but their path of getting there in the Super League will be completely different. Of the 12 teams that have already agreed to be in the Super League, six are from England (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham), three are from Spain (Atlético Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid), and three are from Italy (AC Milan, Inter, Juventus).
So if the Super League is made up of all the usual suspects in the Champions League, how is it all that different from the Champions League again? What’s actually going on here?
The actual issue at hand, the thing that has inspired the creation of the Super League, boils down to only two things: money and power. Europe’s biggest clubs don’t feel like they currently get enough of either, and so they’re trying to build the Super League to get more of both.
In the current system, qualifying for the Champions League is enormously important financially. There is an incredible amount of money in competing in the tournament, primarily in the form of broadcasting rights revenue that is split between the clubs that make it, plus the in-stadium income teams make from selling tickets to what are the very biggest games of the season. Clubs need that money to pay their best players their astronomical salaries, and to pay mountainous transfer fees to acquire more great players, which then ensures continued access to the Champions League’s riches to keep the good times rolling. In the other direction, failure to qualify for the tournament makes paying big salaries and transfer fees much more difficult, and it often makes Champions League-caliber players want to leave your club for one that can offer the big stage and salaries. All of this makes the Champions League a massive reward, but also a massive risk.
And it’s that risk that the big clubs behind the Super League want to eliminate. Those clubs don’t like the fact that qualification for the Champions League is so difficult and competitive, and they find it unfair that they, whose star players and globe-spanning fan bases and historical pedigrees lend the Champions League much of its allure and prestige and popularity, have to risk their asses every season to qualify against some nothing club like West Ham United. Why should West Ham, which is currently on track to qualify for next season’s Champions League, get to swoop in and suck up the tens of millions of dollars on offer there? Especially when a club like Liverpool, which historically has played a much bigger role in making the Champions League what it is, and would bring the tournament way more eyeballs and interest and money than West Ham, might miss out, and could potentially lose a star player or two because of it. Wouldn’t it be better, the big clubs’ argument goes, if we had a tournament that gave most of the money to the clubs that actually created it? Romanticism aside, isn’t there more fan interest in Liverpool vs. AC Milan than West Ham vs. Atalanta, and shouldn’t the sport be structured in a way that guarantees those fans the things they really want?
Doesn’t that argument hold water though? For instance, I know plenty of people who might tune into a big Liverpool-Milan game but who would never in a million years actually watch West Ham-Atalanta, though they’d like the idea of it. I can totally see why fans’ true interests really would be served better by a steady stream of colossal clubs facing off every week than by leaving things to chance and letting a West Ham team that no one really likes or even thinks is that good take a Liverpool’s place. Something about this smacks of small-market teams in American pro sports complaining that the New York and L.A. teams get all the money and free agents and coverage. Doesn’t soccer of all sports uphold the idea that dynasties at big-city teams are in fact good?
There is truth to all of that, but it’s not quite addressing what’s really going on. For one, though all of this is definitely inspired by the American sports model, with its closed leagues and lack of promotion and relegation, there are significant differences that make this a much more concerning development. This isn’t like the small-market vs. big-market parity debate, where less popular franchises in smaller cities complain about not being able to compete with the perennially popular big-city teams that tend to attract better players in free agency. That argument is mostly about whether it’s fair that bigger, more popular teams should be allowed to get so much better than smaller, less popular ones. The Super League argument is close to the opposite; it’s about whether the big clubs should be allowed to lose to the small clubs when the small clubs have gotten good.
To stay in the American sports context, the Super League is almost like if the Knicks, the Lakers, the Celtics, the 76ers, the Bulls, and the Clippers found it intolerable that they were not guaranteed deep runs in the playoffs every season because other, less historically important teams have done better on the court, and so they were breaking away from the NBA playoffs to form a new postseason, called the Super Finals. The six Super Finals teams promise to still compete in the NBA regular season, but come playoff time, they would be taking themselves, their players, and their fans to the Super Finals, which they claim is now the true determiner of the world’s best basketball team. Also, they are no longer beholden to the NBA’s salary cap, and have first right of refusal to sign the new class of rookies ahead of the NBA Draft. Good luck to the NBA though!
Hm, when you put it like that, that does sound bad. Why should any team, no matter how popular, get to change the rules to guarantee themselves success?
Exactly! Under the current system, a club like Manchester United can sign all the superstars it wants, so long as it can pay the bill (and United can afford anything), and if it builds a team that wins, nothing is stopping it from winning every Premier League and Champions League and FA Cup trophy from now to eternity. But if instead of putting together a good team, the Red Devils waste their money on an in-over-his-head manager and can’t convince great players to join them and spend years as the game’s laughing stock, having every advantage imaginable and yet still not being good enough to qualify for the Champions League, then the only one who should have to pay for that is Manchester United, not West Ham!
Again, it is a bedrock principle of this sport that the success or failure must be earned on the pitch rather than being handed out by birthright. Soccer as a social institution matters precisely because it treats the rich and the poor, the good and the bad, as total equals before the eyes of the game’s laws. Even the smallest and poorest can beat the biggest and richest if the smallest can prove their superiority on the grass, and if done with enough regularity, clubs that used to be small and poor can overthrow the game’s old nobility and claim the titles for its own. The omnipresence of Europe’s biggest clubs atop domestic league tables and in its continental competitions testify to the enduring, mutually reinforcing nature of greatness and dominance and, yes, wealth, but what really legitimates the system’s purity and moral value is when Porto wins the Champions League in 2004 and Leicester City wins the Premier League in 2016 and when West Ham challenges for a Champions League spot in 2021. And it’s those life-affirming feats of perseverance class mobility that are the exact sort of things the Super League is trying to make impossible.
Is there any way to stop this?
We shall soon see! One encouraging thing about the Super League is that almost everybody in the soccer world appears to find the idea detestable and viscerally revolting. Probably the best explication of this sentiment came from former Manchester United great turned very good TV pundit, Gary Neville:
Fans of several clubs that plan to partake in the Super League have registered their disgust. Even current players have expressed distaste for the plot. Most importantly, though, the domestic leagues and UEFA, the governing body of European soccer and the ones who run the Champions League, have declared war.
UEFA’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, called the 12 Super League clubs “snakes” whose planned new league is “disgraceful and self-serving.” He also reiterated that, should the 12 clubs go through with their Super League plan, they will be banned from their domestic leagues, and their players will be banned from competing in international competitions like the World Cup. Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League, and Italy’s Serie A have also backed up those words in a statement threatening to oust those clubs from their leagues. Rumors abound that UEFA and the leagues could sanction the Super League clubs as soon as this season.
Do the good guys have a shot at winning?
First of all, I’d be careful about characterizing the anti-Super League actors as good guys. As is almost always the case in power struggles between elite entities, it’s always best to remember that their own money and power are all anyone is really after.
After all, almost all the involved parties on the “good side” have sought changes to the game that would make it easier for the big and rich clubs to further consolidate their own power. The Premier League itself exists because the clubs of England’s old First Division didn’t think they were making enough money, so they broke off and invented a new first division. La Liga has tried its damnedest to rob clubs and fans of a home match by playing a league game in the U.S. instead, solely because it would prove a financial windfall. And Ceferin’s rage is probably borne primarily in his own failure to appease those Super League clubs by the new and big-club-friendly changes to the Champions League that are set to be passed today.
(That also goes for the three clubs—Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Paris Saint-Germain—that were offered a chance to join the Super League but have at this point declined. I’d caution you not to attribute noble intentions to a club like PSG, which more than any other club in the world is expressly not in it for the money but rather the sportswashing, geo-politically legitimizing benefits the Qatari royal family that owns the club can accrue by proxy to sporting greatness.)
Now, institutions don’t need to be morally righteous themselves in order to effect positive changes, or to protect interests that better serve the common good. But it’s good to go into this knowing where the parties are really coming from, if only so that you won’t be surprised when UEFA’s threats turn out to be bluster and they wind up signing off on the Super League as long as it cuts them in on the deal.
The fact that all the powers that be seem to agree that what soccer most needs is more money, more power for the biggest and most famous clubs, more conglomeration of capital and power amongst the few, more decisions made with an eye toward the casual fan who watches on TV instead of the diehard local, is why it’s hard to really believe something like the Super League won’t happen sooner or later. The forces that led the sport here aren’t new, and they aren’t even limited to soccer or sports in general. Every industry in the world is presently tending toward monopoly, capital conglomeration, deregulation. In that sense, the European Super League is a lot like Amazon, or Netflix, or Disney, or Uber, or Facebook, or the superhero-centric movie industry, or Spotify, and so on. All are forces that make the world a little bit worse for the sake of being a little bit more convenient, until you wake up and the world is much worse and less varied and interesting, and the new status quo has become so normalized that you’ve forgotten the words that could articulate what it is the world has lost.
This explainer can only scratch the surface on the nearly infinite knock-on effects of the Super League. Does anyone really think the Super League idea, if it proves “successful,” would be limited to Europe, or to soccer? How long until the biggest national teams—as was rumored to happen in 2018 back when the U.S., the Netherlands, and Italy, among other prominent nations, failed to qualify—break away to form their own, private World Cup? What will it mean for the unique, culturally specific playing styles that differ from city to city, from country to country, if all of the world’s money and interest is siphoned off by the 15 biggest clubs in the world? What will it mean for interest in the sport if it’s all a TV show, completely divorced from its local context? Isn’t a game like Barcelona vs. Juventus exciting because it is rare, and wouldn’t regular matchups between the same teams every year get boring? Wouldn’t the MLSification of elite European soccer lead to, well, the MLSification of it, where no one is all that pressed to get good since there is no threat of relegation and the checks will keep coming regardless?
I could go on and on, but there is one question I keep returning to that is at the heart of the Super League question and what it means now and going forward: What are sports for? If sports are simply economic concerns divorced of anything other than that which the market rewards, vehicles for the enrichment of the entities that own them and the employees who work there, then the Super League probably is a good development and will happen either in this form or something else. But if sports are to serve some deeper purpose, something human that deals with interactions and identifications of real people and places and principles, then there’s no other way to see the Super League other than as a direct attack on the possibility that something, even something as silly as a game, can and should mean or serve something greater than its own bottom line.