By J Hutcherson (Apr 20, 2021) US Soccer Players – As so many have pointed out over the last 48 hours, the European club soccer model has been in extended flux since the early 90s. The creation of the Premier League and UEFA turning the European Cup into the Champions League started a direct path to what’s happening right now. I once wrote a multi-part series called “The Shadow of the Super League” outlining the prospects of an elite club breakaway. The website I wrote it for went out of business in 2002. The eventual super league didn’t happen on any reasonable schedule, but it’s no less unlikely. When news broke during Sunday’s broadcasts, the quick assumption was a true breakaway. Instead, it’s the confirmation of earlier rumors of a Champions League alternative.
Considering how many fans of the game have issues with the Champions League, it’s an odd choice. What the Super League, sorry, The Super League, told us is that the Champions League might be better with two groups of ten clubs on the way to a knockout round that starts with the quarterfinals. Not that anybody was asking for that, much less demanding it.
So here we are with dueling versions of a future European-wide elite club competition. UEFA went ahead on Monday with their scheduled announcement of a revamped Champions League. Everybody gets that expanded group stage few seem to want, with the tournament expanding to 36 teams to make that happen.
Did UEFA take the opportunity to stress the difference between their open system and The Super League’s partially closed one? They did.
“The changes made are designed to secure the positive future of European football at every level and meet the evolving needs of all its stakeholders,” their statement read. “Unequivocally confirming joint commitment to the principle of open competition and sporting merit across the continent, the common purpose has also been to sustain domestic leagues.”
Sure, because they weren’t exactly going to ask openly if the invention of the Champions League way back in the 1990s is the cause of this problem. It is, full stop. The tournament that was never a league reset expectations. Then it had to adjust itself to keep the elite clubs in check. From day one, it was clear who held the real power.
Now that we’re in the beginnings of the era where those elite clubs are actually using it, UEFA’s position gets interesting. Their president Aleksander Ceferin dropped a masterful quote, “I wouldn’t call them the ‘dirty dozen’ but they want to steal football from our society.”
He also used the words “snakes,” “greediness,” and “immorality,” in a press conference that swayed delightfully toward American pentecostalism. It’s worth the reminder that the American model of professional sports is the easy bad guy in all of this. Closed leagues. Greed over local connections. That unmitigated gall to declare domestic champions “world champions.” It’s like the modern history of leagues over here is the scary story for Europe. This is what happens if big club doesn’t have to prove it at small club on a rainy Tuesday night.
Except there are very few meaningful parallels. The Champions League and The Super League are pushing in-season tournaments, something that doesn’t exist in North American pro leagues. Playoffs aren’t the same as a knockout stage. A midweek tournament that still includes all of the other trophies on offer isn’t how American sports work. The leagues remain about the leagues, grinding out games to make the playoffs. If you wanted to see Michael Jordan in his prime, you had 82 regular season chances every season plus the playoffs. All were official NBA games.
What The Super League is proposing is part distillation, part foregone conclusion but still a component piece of a larger schedule. That’s assuming, of course, that their domestic leagues play along.
Ceferin heading straight to talk about bans from international competition, immediately raised that broader issue. FIFA president Gianni Infantino referred to clubs being in or out, not partially in or out at UEFA’s congress on Tuesday. Organized soccer doesn’t have to play along. UEFA has the devaluing of its Champions League to consider. With that in place, rumors of booting out three of the four Champions League semifinalists for being part of the breakaway answers to some internal logic. Whether that’s for the good of the game doesn’t seem to be on many people’s minds right now.
Again, we’re stuck in that early 1990s moment of disruption. Creating situations for elite clubs and their sanctioning bodies to make more money is still what’s in play. It’s just that a collection of those elite clubs now want to be their own sanctioning bodies, but just for a midweek tournament. On the surface, it’s almost reasonable. That makes the fury their announcement created so ridiculous in the broader context of European soccer as a business.
None of us at this late date of global branding efforts, tournament revamps and expansions, and servicing broadcast partners and sponsors should expect anything else from all involved. Where the elite clubs were heading has been clear for so long that finally doing it, even in this oddly limited version, is almost a relief. Plenty have had it with sports in general as an all-encompassing push for more money.
There’s a limit to what ends up a lot like business fandom. It doesn’t take multiple revamps, rebrands, or international outreach before wondering what’s happening to a sport. Look, there’s no downplaying how bad European soccer had gotten in the 1980s. The victims of stadium violence, abhorrent policing, and eroded facilities are the stark reality for the hard limits of nostalgia. That doesn’t downplay people looking at what the sport is and demanding something different.
For some, The Super League wants to deliver exactly that. So does the Champions League in what in practical terms may end up being as closed off of a way forward. Whether or not that’s the bulk of fans becomes the question. The loudest won’t win here. It’s the multitudes that will impact financial outlooks and investment portfolios. That may not sit well with how some want to see European club soccer as hyper-local first, but it will change very little as this delayed for decades controversy plays itself out.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- MLS and the money league
- Squad rotation, fixture congestion, and competitive imbalance
- UEFA may be pushing for even more change
- This strange season continues to trip up Europe’s top clubs
Logo courtesy of The Super League