The decline of nations is an approaching destiny, and the signs are not only in the great political debates, but also in those institutions, such as soccer, that were built on the nation-state paradigm and are now beginning to move towards new allegiances. However, as the rapid collapse of the so-called Super League shows us, the agony of the old identities is not over. The globalized world is not yet fully consolidated.
The Super League that was… for a few days
The Super League project, designed to bring together Europe’s best teams in a competition that would, for all practical purposes, render their respective domestic leagues irrelevant, was unveiled on April 18, with the initial backing of 12 of the continent’s top clubs, including Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea.
The reaction was immediate… and overwhelming. UEFA threatened to ban players from Superliga teams from participating in the national teams of their respective countries, leaving them out of the World Cup and the European Championship. Politicians and federation officials formed a chorus of condemnation, along with fan groups from the clubs themselves. A couple of days later, the Super League was dead, following the departure of the English teams.
However, things will not simply return to the status quo. On the contrary, we are just facing the first paragraph of a new chapter in the decline of nations. In this process, the soccer leagues look like the proverbial “canary in the mine”, reflecting on the pitch that tension between an increasingly globalized and indistinguishable society and the old loyalties that gave life to the game itself as a mass sport and that even now constitute the motivation that drives the most loyal circles of fans.
Soccer as a mirror of loyalties to the small country and the big country
In less than half a century, soccer went from being a pastime for rich kids in English schools to a passion of crowds all over the world. Its success was due in part to the simplicity and magic of the game, but the main thrust of the sporting phenomenon was the way it became an expression of territorial loyalties.
Teams became the living embodiment, in 11 pairs of legs and a ball, of the dreams, grudges, vendettas and victories of the neighborhood, city or region in which they emerged. Thousands swirled around the fields to wait expectantly for a goal, not with the technical eye of someone analyzing a ballet, but with the deeply visceral passion of someone who has linked the team to its origin, its land and its own soul.
Thus, when the national leagues were formed, each team contributed a piece of identity to the whole, and they were national leagues because the world of the 19th and early 20th centuries was divided into nations in ways that are unimaginable to us today. Basically each country was a closed realm, drastically different (and practically hermetic) from the others. These were times when tariffs and distance made international trade a curiosity, where a passport was a very difficult document to obtain, and the foreigner was distinguishable among the rest of a country’s population.
Since then, three things happened; soccer became an increasingly expensive business, local identities eroded and an international barriers were removed.
As stadiums and players became more expensive, the traditional owners of the clubs were forced to sell them to increasingly wealthy businessmen, first inside and then outside the country. Even those teams that managed to remain in the hands of their fans had to adopt a global strategy to get the money to fight for championships. And along the way many more were simply relegated to a secondary role, focused on avoiding relegation or in the mid-table desert.
The result was a progressive dissociation between the players and the region the team represents, with the exceptions of clubs such as Athletic Club (where only athletes from the Basque country play) or Chivas del Guadalajara (where only Mexicans play). In the others, it is not unusual to see that not even the water carrier is from the city where the club plays, whose only real link with the region is the name or the logo. They’re more mercenaries than sons of the motherland.
The decline of nations is reflected on the pitch
National identity loses weight in people’s decision making, while other considerations (quality, novelty, spectacle) become more and more important. As Florentino Pérez explained, “there are matches that nobody watches. It’s hard for me to watch them… And if it’s hard for me… Elche-Valladolid?”
He is right, nobody cares about the matches of the smaller teams, especially as the differences between the elite and the others become more evident. So, if regional identity and national loyalty have been diluted, a Real Madrid fan will find it much more attractive to watch Arsenal or Milan than to settle down for a Getafe-Cádiz game.
The consequence of this is a process whose first part was to expand the importance, following and number of participants in the Champions League. Now, the next logical step is the Superliga: a competition that brings together only the best, with global projection.
And it’s not just in Europe, the same thing is happening in the Americas. The leagues of the United States and Mexico are considering merging as of 2026 (within the framework of the world championship that both nations will share with Canada) and the idea even seems to have the backing of FIFA itself, in the hope that the resulting league will have the level to compete commercially with the major European tournaments.
The decline of nations in sport brings its own problems
As the rapid collapse of the Super League clearly demonstrated, old loyalties refuse to die. Behind the blitzkrieg against the new tournament was not only the ego and pocketbook of the federations and leagues, but also the emotional attachment of many fans, for whom team-region-nation remains an inviolable trinity. For them, putting the national league on the back burner would mean recognizing that the team they love is nothing more than a business and a good show, similar to the Harlem Globetrotters.
Another problem: The super-paretoes.
Roughly speaking, the Pareto principle states that, in a given situation, 20% of the participants get 80% of the results. When economies are fractioned at the regional or national level, there were hundreds or thousands of paretos, depending on how integrated the markets were. Each city had its own soap factory, cigarette factory, clothing factory, among others.
Globalization, economies of scale and the competition and innovation promoted by the new scenario have made us materially more prosperous, but at the same time, they challenge the structures and certainties that sustained the nation-state paradigm. These challenges include global pareto and super pareto (where less than 20% of the participants generate more than 80% of the results).
What does this mean for soccer? That fewer and fewer teams have more and more fans. When I was a kid, in Mexico, our world was the Mexican league. Yes, we knew there were big clubs in Europe and we even watched Hugo Sanchez’s Real Madrid games, but in the barrio people followed the home teams. Today, even in rural communities, people proudly wear a Real, Barcelona or Manchester shirt, and the truth is that we take the local championship much less seriously.
The same happens in Europe and the rest of the world: it is increasingly difficult to get passionate about the players of your hometown team when you compare them with Messi, Ronaldo and others. In addition, the nationalistic-emotional bond (which could compensate for the mediocrity of the small teams) is crumbling, it is not surprising that the rating and attendance to the stadiums is plummeting.
To make matters worse, add to this the Pareto with respect to our time. We have more and more options to entertain us, but we are all using the same ones. Facebook, Netflix, Prime Video and so on. Every minute we spend on them is a minute we stop watching, for example, soccer. And to win in this digital/global/information-saturated world, you need something radical, innovative, spectacular. Let’s say, a Super League.
The Super League is the almost inevitable future for soccer because national leagues have become either boringly mediocre or absurd in the difference between their teams, while fans have more and more entertainment options that work on a global scale. Even those who have been screaming their heads off this week want to continue to see great signings and titles in their team’s trophy cabinets, and eventually they will give in.
The decline of nations goes far beyond soccer, they are new identities that are built online, they are loyalties that transcend flags and multinational societies. We are heading towards a new world that has good and bad things and that, in addition, is experiencing the pains of a transition from one stage to another.
In the meantime, we are taking the first steps towards the great confrontation of the 21st century with respect to maintaining the nation-state model, or perhaps finding a new form that may become more tyrannical or freer.