By J Hutcherson (Apr 27, 2021) US Soccer Players – It’s hard to believe that something that seemed crucial just a week ago is now not much more than a punchline. Imagine the business school instructor trying to use The Super League as a case study a few years from now. “So after an initial leak during Sunday’s games, the whole thing was over in 48 hours. Somehow, it involved governments, fans, and sponsors uniting against a monumentally bad rollout. Avoid creating that scenario.” Or something along those lines. By then, the bigger question should already have an answer. What does this mean for European soccer moving forward?
There might already be the beginnings of that if you’re UEFA. The line against a breakaway held. It wasn’t just European soccer’s governing body demanding respect for their authority. It was all of those sometimes divergent groups lining up behind them to tell a dozen clubs no. Whether or not that lasts, it certainly suggests UEFA has the moment. The same UEFA that brought us the Nations League, expanded European Championship, and the next inflation of the Champions and Europa Leagues. Add the new Europa Conference League to that tendency to create, revamp, and inflate tournament soccer.
All that it takes for that to be the lesser of two problematic outcomes is for The Super League to go so wrong so quickly. It’s almost worth the reminder that this wasn’t a true breakaway. It was a replacement for the Champions League, a tournament that added games and teams last Monday to coincide with its next TV deal starting in 2024-25. Amid rumors that some clubs are now pushing UEFA to reconsider what they see as Champions League appeasement, maybe that changes as well. That thinking requires downplaying the idea that it wasn’t just the elite clubs interested in extra group stage games and a couple of special spots for big-name clubs that wouldn’t otherwise qualify.
If this is UEFA’s leadership moment, it’s safe to assume that they won’t use it to revert to an earlier version of the Champions League. Fewer places for teams from the biggest leagues replaced by actual champions seems highly unlikely. Since The Super League collapse was, in part, due to an insistence that the open European model is superior, maybe consider what that open model really means.
By design, the Champions League as we know it is about the top ten leagues in Europe. All of their champions take a spot in the group stage. That may sound like a lot, but the Scottish Premier League and the Turkish Super Lig aren’t in the top ten right now. They have to play through the Champions path of qualifying, where all of four of the 32 group stage spots are available. The League qualifying route only advances two to the group stage.
It’s worth another reminder. The Champions path starts with 20 teams, adding more for each round of qualifying. The League path starts with six, also adding more each round. Qualifying itself starts with a four-team preliminary round and then a 34-team qualifying round to fill out 17 of the 20 spots in the second qualifying round of the Champions Path. In other words, UEFA’s current qualifying system turns 53 teams into six.
No teams from the top four leagues in Europe participate in qualifying. They slot in their top four clubs to take 16 of the Champions League group stage spots. Starting with that imbalance for what’s supposed to be an open competition would send the clearest message from UEFA that things will change.
Maybe no more convoluted qualifying or special status for the game’s elite in an era that now attaches that with stigma. Instead, every team earns their spot. What does that mean in real terms? Probably not group stage places for 3rd and 4th-place teams from a handful of leagues. While they’re at it, take away the Europa League safety net and return that to a true knockout tournament. Do that, and there’s no need for a Europa Conference League as an attempt to placate the leagues far down the coefficient table. They’d already be involved in the tournaments they belong in. Unless, of course, the idea is that the top level of that open system isn’t really all that open.
That’s the problem with maneuvering for the biggest possible audience. It tends to push sporting merit to the side. That’s not the same thing as The Super League’s approach to keeping the biggest brands in its tournament regardless of results, but it’s at least a similar conversation. With The Super League gone, it’s certainly worth revisiting whether European soccer’s authorities should have been having a different discussion all along.
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 email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Finally, it’s a Super League
- MLS and the money league
- Squad rotation, fixture congestion, and competitive imbalance
- UEFA may be pushing for even more change
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