On Sunday, April 18, Manchester United fans celebrated their 3–1 win against Burnley in the English Premier League, all but securing 2nd place. Hours earlier, Arsenal fans — myself included — shook their heads at yet another mark of inconsistency with a 1–1 draw against 17th placed Fulham. However, the results of Sunday’s Premier League action were overshadowed by one of the most striking announcements in soccer of the last few decades. After years of rumors and conversations about a potential change to the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League structure, Europe’s top clubs — Arsenal and Manchester United included — announced they would break away from the existing structure to form their very own Super League.
The Super League would include 12 founding clubs — Spain’s Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, Italy’s Juventus, Inter and A.C. Milan, and England’s ‘Big Six*’ of Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur — and each would receive roughly $400 million as a result of joining. The new league would hurt fans, outcast less successful teams, only have allure during its first season and would represent an abhorrent break from tradition.
Though I don’t doubt that the league will eventually be successful from a revenue standpoint, it marks a significant change from the way soccer has been played for generations. While top-teams constantly playing against one another seems exciting, the entire appeal arises because these games occur only a handful of times a year. To an American sports fan, this proposal would be as if the top 10 National Basketball Association (NBA) teams created their own league in which none of the currently underperforming teams could ever play. Lower league teams and their fans could no longer aspire to one day compete amongst the European elite.
UEFA and Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) have quickly responded condemning the league — in part because of the economic power they seek to retain — by threatening to remove players in the Super League from even competing in international soccer competitions. This threat could mean no Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo at the FIFA World Cup.
At the moment, the UEFA Champions League is the most elite club-level soccer competition in the world. European teams play domestically all season long, and only the cream of the crop get to compete in midweek games against other top clubs. Just last Wednesday, the world witnessed Paris Saint Germain’s (PSG) Kylian Mbappe and Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior — arguably two of the most exciting players on the planet — outclass and outplay German superpower F.C. Bayern Munich in a Champions League semifinal that will be remembered for years to come. Every year, the top four teams from each major European league qualify for the Champions League. The teams play group stage matches in the fall, and the top performing teams qualify for the knockout-stage in the spring. While European soccer is still very much a pay-for-play sport, in that only teams that invest in the proper infrastructure, staff, and ultimately players, can usually compete to win the Champions League, it still allows teams from smaller countries with less resources to compete.
Ironically, Bayern Munich and PSG are the two richest teams in the world that are not a part of the proposal for the new Super League, with club values of $4.215 and $2.5 billion, respectively. Bayern have vowed to preserve tradition and give non-European giants a shot, while PSG has also opted out — at least for now. The two top teams in Germany, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have ruled it out entirely — largely due to the German club ownership system, in which at least 50 percent of the club must be owned and operated by fans — and PSG has said it would be “sticking to the tradition of UEFA.”
The Super League would prevent teams such as Portugal’s F.C. Porto, France’s Olympique de Marseille and the Netherlands’ Ajax Amsterdam from even competing, while at the same time ruining the incentive for teams such as Arsenal and Manchester United from putting in effort domestically and in the Super League. 12 of the most marketable clubs, from a traditional and economic perspective, colluded behind the backs of most other teams simply to pursue more profit. Soccer has always been influenced by wealthy owners, but this proposal is purely meant to earn more for these select few individuals at the expense of fans. Manchester United supporters emphasized this message with a banner reading “Created by the poor, stolen by the rich” outside of the team’s stadium April 19.
One of the most important aspects of existing soccer structures in Europe is that you can only play if you are good enough. Even though Arsenal has been an elite club from a financial standpoint — consistently among the top 10 in the world in terms of club value — they have failed to qualify for the Champions League for the last four years. Creating a Super League without repercussions for poor performance would destroy the incentive for less successful teams to vie for the top and would make the performances of the most elite teams largely inconsequential from a financial standpoint. How will Leicester, currently 3rd place in the Premier League, and West Ham, currently in 4th, feel about a system in which they can no longer qualify for better competition, even if they’re more than good enough?
The Super League has seemingly only received criticism in the time since its announcement, and for good reason. Former Manchester United captain and TV pundit Gary Neville has called the proposal an “absolute disgrace,” and added that he was “disgusted with Manchester United and Liverpool most … they’re breaking away into a league without competition? That they can’t be relegated from?”
Though the two games on Sunday are two of many across a 38-game season in the world’s most popular domestic soccer league, they symbolized what makes the English Premier League great. Fulham, only recently promoted from the lower English leagues, were able to secure a draw against a lackluster and underperforming Arsenal. Miles away in Manchester, lower table team Burnley was able to put up an impressive performance that saw them only give away the game in the 81st minute. Performing well in England isn’t guaranteed nor consistent. 30 years ago, teams like Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers were able to qualify for European competition. Who will be qualifying for Europe in 30 years? There’s a good chance that, if the Super League takes effect, we’ll never find out.
Springtime is a special time for me. While the weather gets warmer, the trees get greener, the birds start chirping and summer gets closer, the only thing on my mind are those special days in April, May and June where the best teams finally get to face off. These games have brought me closer to friends, made me hug peers and random acquaintances in Pauley Hall and bring me a special feeling of excitement that only comes with soccer. While the Super League sounds somewhat cool on paper, myself and other fans don’t want to watch Bayern Munich take on Real Madrid every week. The fact that these occasions are rare is exactly what makes them special. The Super League would ruin all of that excitement, all while further financially crippling less profitable teams that have already been crushed by the pandemic.
*On April 20, Chelsea announced they would withdraw from the Super League following a meeting with their chairman, players and staff amid protests outside of their stadium. Manchester City followed Chelsea’s lead after comments from manager Pep Guardiola, leaving the entire project more vulnerable. The remaining four teams in England, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur dropped out of the competition later that day.