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guerra deportivo-institucional, la superliga, florentino pérez

European Super League: The Proposed Tournament Ripping Soccer Apart

Contemporary society is facing the biggest sporting conflict of the century, a struggle that could change the dynamics of soccer worldwide.

[Leer en español]

For a couple of days, the most important topic on the entire planet hasn’t been the pandemic or the economy going down the drain. Between April 18 and 19, 2021 the main point on the covers of newspapers, the introductions of radio or TV programs, the algorithms of social networks is one and no more than one: the Super League.

If you are a soccer fan, you clearly have a prominent interest in the Super League. What is it? How does it work? What consequences will it bring in the short term? All will be explained in this article. The conflict is so gigantic and global, that the sports-institutional war for the dominance of modern soccer in one way or another appeals to us.

There is talk of a breakdown of the institutional establishment, of millions of dollars at stake for the countries and organizations involved, of the requirements of an increasingly globalized world and of the evolution of the soccer product.

Soccer is, in short, a reflection of society. And its dynamics, its evolution as a spectacle, respond to these socio-cultural and economic movements.

What is the Super League?

The idea of the Super League is not new. It has, in fact, been several years in the planning. It is a competition designed to enhance the fan experience and attract new audiences to the industry. It is also a competition that of course attracts a lot of money and investment, because ideally it is a tournament that brings together the best of the best in European soccer for several months.

The Super League, as stated in the press release from the competition itself and the 12 founding clubs, is a tournament of 20 institutions of which 12 teams from the biggest leagues on the planet are guaranteed to participate. Now the search is on for the other three clubs that will complete the 15 founding clubs and the other five will be invited teams under unestablished parameters.

The twelve clubs are as follows: for Spain, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid; for Italy, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan; for England, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham.

The methodology is simple: two groups of 10 teams will play each other in a round-robin format. The top four of each group qualify; then come the knockout rounds: quarterfinals, semis and final.

This tournament would be played on weekdays, so it would not affect, so far, the calendar of the national leagues, but it does conflict with the most important competition at club level in the world, The Champions League, organized by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).

The pandemic and soccer

The pandemic is leaving structural problems in all strata of society, and soccer is no exception. The arrival of COVID-19 has affected the world of sport as never before. Above all, in the economic area.

Sports clubs are companies that move millions and millions of dollars year after year, which means that any mismatch in their finances causes the numbers in the accounting to not add up. This is what happened with the pandemic: all the clubs on the planet, including the most powerful ones, were affected by the confinements, health restrictions and all the measures taken by governments to combat the virus.

In that sense, most of the clubs are in financial straits with debts to be settled, as some of them even showed losses (Milan and Juventus, for example) and need to earn a good amount of money and the TV rights of the Super League could undoubtedly be that income.

“This new annual tournament will allow for significantly improved financial growth, which will enable the clubs to support the European game through a long-term commitment and will see the solidarity contributions increase in line with the revenues generated by the new European league. The solidarity payments will be greater than those currently generated by the European club competition system and it is expected that they will exceed €10,000 million during the period that the clubs have committed to. Meanwhile, the new competition will be built on the basis of sustainable financial criteria, with all of the founding members having committed to a spending framework. In exchange for that commitment, the clubs will receive a total one-off payment of €3.5 billion which is for the sole purpose of investing in infrastructure and offsetting the impact of the COVID pandemic.”

Official press release from Real Club Madrid, whose president is Florentino Pérez, who will preside over the Superliga in the first year.

If you read carefully the arguments presented by Real Madrid in its statement, the institution boasts that the clubs in Europe want to improve the competitiveness of the existing tournaments. Basically, they want to play against each other more often and not only in the Champions League. The founding clubs argue that the pandemic exposes the shortcomings of the economic model of world soccer and that action must be taken to improve the situation. They also blame the organizations for not taking adequate measures to improve the problem after months of incessant dialogue.

UEFA, together with the European federations and leagues of England, Spain and Italy, quickly came out against the Super League, which directly threatens the Champions League, the most important club competition on the planet.

The official statement by UEFA reads “UEFA, the English Football Association and the Premier League, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) and LaLiga, and the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) and Lega Serie A have learned that a few English, Spanish and Italian clubs may be planning to announce their creation of a closed, so-called Super League.

“If this were to happen, we wish to reiterate that we – UEFA, the English FA, RFEF, FIGC, the Premier League, LaLiga, Lega Serie A, but also FIFA and all our member associations – will remain united in our efforts to stop this cynical project, a project that is founded on the self-interest of a few clubs at a time when society needs solidarity more than ever.”

UEFA and FIFA argue that the drive of the 12 founding clubs is greedy and goes against the fundamental principles of the sport.

Among other things, it opens the door for the stars of these 12 sporting institutions not to be able to play in any international competition, not even at national team level: “As previously announced by FIFA and the six Confederations, the clubs concerned will be banned from playing in any other competition at domestic, European or world level, and their players could be denied the opportunity to represent their national teams.”

This last part is contentious in judicial terms, for there are precedents of other athletes that the 12 founding clubs could use to make their players eligible to play in World Cups and World Cups. But it is still too early to tell.

The leaders of the founding clubs disagree and say that the current system is unfair to them: “It cannot be that third parties use our rights, our assets and showcase their brands to achieve their goals. Meanwhile, we are guests without the right to open our mouths,” a founding leader of the Super League told El País.

Super League’s functioning and its conflicts

The 12 founding clubs already have a pre-established format and also an economic action plan. The American bank JP Morgan will be one of the financial institutions backing the competition. According to the project, participating clubs are not allowed to exceed 55% of their budget in salaries of players and coaching staff, transfers, commissions to agents and, also, the members of the Super League must accumulate at least three years of pre-tax profits.

According to El País, the economic slice is specifically distributed as follows: of the 3.525 million euros, (if in the end there were 15 founders and not 12 as now), “350 million euros for six clubs, 225 for four, 112.5 for two and 100 for three clubs, distributed according to an internal system not subject to the classification of each year.”

El País says that “Television revenues are estimated at around 4,000 million euros, of which 264 million would go to repay the investors’ financing for 23 years. In other words, the big economic pie would exceed 7,000 million euros per season. The creation of a solidarity fund for leagues, federations and clubs is also envisaged, which would exceed that of UEFA, but controlled by the Super League members. This nuance breaks the system by which historically the presidents of both UEFA and FIFA fed their elections and mandates. Not only is soccer’s current financial ecosystem in jeopardy, but also that of its representation.”

Just as the founding members accuse UEFA of monopolizing the club system and affecting club finances, the Super League is not much different. The economic power of the competition is concentrated in the 12 (eventually 15) most powerful clubs in the world. Participation in the tournament is not based on sporting merit, but on rules in perpetuity, the economic rights will always be there.

Just as the Super League is a direct dagger to the Champions League, the tournament also affects the national leagues. The founding clubs have already stated that they want to continue competing in their domestic leagues, but the domestic leagues feed back into the UEFA competitions by using them as economic and sporting incentives.

Reactions to the Super League

The Super League, in the terms proposed, undoubtedly represents a direct threat to domestic competitions in Europe and international competitions organized by UEFA. For this reason, the rejection is practically general, not only by organizations such as FIFA and UEFA, but also by the smaller clubs in the rest of the leagues.

In England, the 14 clubs that make up the Premier League are evaluating what action to take against the so-called Big Six (the six most powerful clubs in England) that joined the Super League. This case is interesting because, according to Sky journalist Bryan Swanson, there were teams within the English Big Six that reluctantly entered the Super League (Chelsea and Manchester City); there was no absolute consensus for all the teams to join at this point, although the idea of pressuring UEFA to make structural changes proved to be very effective.

In England, in addition to reactions from other teams, legends of the founding clubs who spoke out against the Super League, current players who spoke out against the competition, there were also political reactions.

In this regard, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson commented on the competition: “We are going to look at everything that we can do with the football authorities to make sure that this doesn’t go ahead in the way that it’s currently being proposed. I don’t think that it’s good news for fans, I don’t think it’s good news for football in this country.”

Several English government officials, such as culture minister Oliver Dowden, and Alison McGovern, UK secretary of state for sport, were also quick to show opposition to the Super League.

But England is not the only place where political reactions were forthcoming.

In Italy, Prime Minister Mario Draghi also came out in support of UEFA and commented that he “strongly supports the positions of the Italian and European soccer authorities to maintain national competition, meritocratic values and the social function of sport”.

On the other hand, French President Emmanuel Macron said that the Super League is “a threat to the principle of solidarity and sporting merit.”

“The French state will support any initiative by the Professional Football League, the French Football Federation, UEFA and FIFA to protect the integrity of national and European federative competitions,” the President remarked.

One of the drawbacks that the Super League may have is the refusal of participation by the German and French clubs that today form part of the select group of the five most important leagues in European soccer.

Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, the two biggest clubs in Germany, announced their support to UEFA. In France, the most important clubs, from the most historic like Olympique de Marseille, to the most economically powerful like PSG and Olympique de Lyon (the latter to a lesser extent) are not in favor of the tournament either. At least for the time being.

Fan organizations do not seem to be very happy with the 12 Founding Clubs either, in fact, Chelsea fans issued a strong statement against their club for agreeing to participate.

But the reactions, it seems, will not only be fine words of communiqués. UEFA is considering striking directly at 5 of the 12 founding clubs that are currently participating in competitions organized by UEFA.

Chelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid are in the semi-finals of the Champions League, on the other hand, Manchester United and Arsenal are in the same instance, but for the UEFA Europa League, and Jesper Moller, member of the UEFA Executive Committee, commented that “the clubs involved in the Super League must leave the competitions and I expect that to happen this Friday. After that, we will work out how to continue. It is unclear whether UEFA has the legal right to disaffiliate these clubs from the competition and leave them without the financial benefits of this season.”

The big picture and a brief analysis

Analyses of the Super League are diverse and there are two major schools of thought:

There are those who believe that Superliga is right to challenge the establishment and the inoperability of the institutions to develop and run soccer. Meanwhile, there are others who think it is a greedy move by the founding clubs to concentrate the power of modern soccer in their hands.

Either current is partially right, but they are also incomplete. Just as it is undoubtedly true that the economic model in soccer today has many structural problems, it is also correct to mention that the big clubs have bad administrative management, as, for example, in the case of FC Barcelona.

On the other hand, the rules, such as the Financial Fair Play, are not working to equalize the scales, but the clubs also have direct responsibilities, not only the institutions. In any case, the Super League stands as a role model to overcome the notorious problems afflicting the powerful clubs, but it does not advocate responding to the drawbacks of the rest of the medium and small clubs.

It is also inaccurate to portray the Super League as the enemy in all this. It doesn’t help to better understand the problem. On the one hand, there are the 12 founding clubs, fundamental to the global ecosystem of modern soccer, upset by the poor work of the organizations, but they present a project that only blatantly benefits them. On the other hand, there are the institutions that accuse the clubs of being greedy, beating their chests with curious kindness, but those same organizations decided that the World Cup would be held in Qatar, despite the allegations of exploitation, the bad climate for playing and the violations of human rights.

Another important point is that the model of modern soccer needs to be renewed as soon as possible. In Europe, the generation of parents who used to go to the pitch with their children is being lost; today, before kicking a ball, children play a video game. Before watching one or two games in a row, they play a game of FIFA with their friends. The product has to evolve to capture a younger audience, in all countries, if it wants to stay alive for decades to come.

The problem will arise if globalization crushes the national sport and ends up leaving small and medium-sized clubs in the lurch, as is the case with the Super League. To look at soccer only as a spectacle for the powerful is heartless and goes against the most essential aspect of the sport: the uncertainty of the surprise of the smallest. Moreover, for the ecosystem to fully develop, it needs everyone’s cooperation.

This conflict is just beginning in public opinion, but it has been brewing for years under the desk and the pandemic has accelerated it. Despite the public statements and threats between the parties, the final destination of this situation has only one path tattooed between the eyebrows: negotiation.

That is why each side launches its real threat. The table is set to look for two currents: to maintain the traditional and conservative values of the sport, or to make a leap towards the monstrous globalization that a Superliga would mean.

It is not that soccer is not globalized, but there would be a before and an after with a tournament like the one being proposed. An after where, eventually, the interest in the traditional national cups will disappear. An after where, sadly, meritocracy in soccer will be lost little by little and where the uncertainty of the smallest team’s victory will disappear completely.

It is worth reading Florentino Pérez’s statements justifying the Super League and evaluating his arguments.

The last basic point to be raised, and which will not be taken into account until the negotiations move forward since, in the end, it is a simple hypothesis, is whether this Superliga will be successful. If there is something that caused the survival of the World Cup for more than 90 years, it is that, precisely, it happens once every four years.

If a clash between Europe’s powerhouses were to happen as a common league, would it have the same impact as a Champions League playoff match? Evolution does not always trump tradition. And both UEFA and the 12 founding clubs should take this into account before playing their next cards.

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