European Super League: Football pulled back from the brink... but what next for a fractured sport?

By Sports Desk April 22, 2021

Alongside the righteous anger that helped bring about its rapid demise, there were multiple moments of hilarity to accompany the fleetingly brief existence of the European Super League.

By Wednesday, when Real Madrid president Florentino Perez once again went in to bat for his pet project and aired his ever-tenuous grasp on reality, the whole thing had gone a bit Monty Python.

"If you think the Super League is dead, you're absolutely wrong," he told El Laguaro

The Super League is no more, Florentino! It has ceased to be! This is a late Super League! Stiff, bereft of life!

As events spun rapidly away from the control of Perez, Andrea Agnelli and the other arch-schemers associated with the 12 teams signed up to the ill-fated enterprise, it was undeniably rousing to see players, coaches and supporters united in the same aim, speaking with one emphatic voice.

It begs the question of how this sense of common purpose can now be harnessed to tackle the ills of football that brought us to this moment of defining crisis.

Champions League reform

Perez described the Champions League format as "obsolete", which was a little rich given the reforms to UEFA's flagship competition that were signed off this week – a revamp Juventus president Agnelli described as "close to ideal" and "beautiful" as recently as last month – share some common features with the Super League plans.

Teams will be guaranteed more matches in an expanded group stage, while two spots are reserved for sides who have the highest club coefficients of those who have failed to qualify, an element widely viewed as a move to protect ailing European giants against the consequences of short-term failure.

UEFA's arrival at the so-called Swiss model for the round-robin phase was understandable as the latest move to placate the super clubs, safeguarding their income and averting the prospect of a breakaway.

Since that happened anyway and failed spectacularly, what impetus remains for the Swiss model? Why not consider supporter-friendly alternatives that cater to a greater number of clubs from outside the elite?

The six Premier League clubs, Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juve, Inter and Milan all gave up their European Club Association memberships to join the Super League. Their collective clout has not been less significant for decades.

Paris Saint-Germain chief Nasser Al-Khelaifi has replaced Agnelli as ECA chairman, but a new hastily convened executive board also features Dariusz Mioduski of Legia Warsaw and Aki Riihilahti of HJK Helsinki. What might a Champions League giving more consideration to those kind of clubs look like?

The fan fantasy of straight knockout in the style of the old European Cup is never going to happen for a number of reasons, but expansion could still bring more interest and fewer dead rubbers.

Say, for example, the four-team group format remained, but entry was opened to 48 clubs. The top two from 12 groups progress to a round of 32, along with the best eight third-placed teams.

This arrangement is to be used in the expanded World Cup and has come in for its fair share of criticism – it is a lot of games to lose just a third of the participants – but would generally keep qualification for the knockout rounds open to more teams for longer.

For the purists, the four-pot system could be loosened into one recognising 12 seeds for the group stage, with seedings abandoned altogether when straight knockouts get underway.

Share the wealth

Financial motivations obviously drove the Super League plot, Perez pleading poverty on Madrid's behalf entirely in line with its other grasps for PR success.

"UEFA and its member associations believe in a truly European model that is founded on open competitions, solidarity and redistribution to ensure the sustainability and development of the game for the benefit of all and the promotion of European values and social outcomes," the governing body said in a statement decrying the Super League.

There is a real opportunity to make good on this vision because the teams who had been demanding an ever-greater slice of the pie stormed away from the table in such a huff they left all their cutlery behind.

The trickle-down benefit of Champions League money has sometimes been hard to spot, not only with a parade of usual suspects progressing to the latter stages each year, but also across a host of Europe's less-celebrated domestic leagues, where a club benefitting from UEFA prize money has been able to dominate at home with few notable challengers. Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine and BATE Borisov in Belarus are examples of this.

Equitable distribution across the wider structure of European football can definitely be encouraged to the good of all, something certainly true in the Premier League.

The vitriolic reaction to the Super League in England means the big six can be told with a straight face that they need the other 14 more so than the other way around.

Demands for the six to be docked points and fined heavily certainly serve a palpable sense of hurt and betrayal. But if, for example, Manchester City began 2021-22 on -10 points with the rest of the breakaway bunch, they would still probably be favourites to win the title.

That speaks of a deck unacceptably stacked against other teams and this is what needs to change. Distributing Premier League television income equally 20 ways, or even a less radical split, would effect more lasting change than any punitive measures against the big six. Again, their hand has rarely been weaker so the time is now.

Empower fans

Bayern Munich's absence from the Super League rebels, as reigning European champions, was noteworthy but hardly surprising.

Germany's vaunted 50+1 model, where fans hold a majority of voting rights when set against commercial investors in their clubs, is not a one-way ticket to utopia. If it was, Bayern would not be on the brink of cantering to a ninth successive Bundesliga title.

However, it makes Bayern joining a breakaway that might otherwise be in their interests virtually impossible. The cringing mea culpas embarked upon by John Henry, Ferran Soriano and others this week would not have been necessary had they simply been required to consult fans in the first place.

Barcelona and Madrid's "socio" models are also an example of member ownership, but outside of presidential elections, fan power is negligible. Perhaps there will be moves to change that in the aftermath of this humiliation, but once more, the febrile atmosphere in England suggests the greatest appetite for change.

The Super League crisis brought about government involvement in the UK and, while aping 50+1 might be impractical, enshrining a requirement of meaningful fan representation at clubs in law suddenly feels like a possibility.

Make the game affordable for youngsters

With or without this, the Premier League showing gratitude to the people who played a huge role in saving their competition is a must. Ticket prices have to come down to widen access to the game, particularly among younger fans.

Entirely in line with establishment executives of his stripes, the 74-year-old Perez has done an awful lot of talking at the much-discussed 18-24 demographic, using them as a faceless example to justify his self-interested schemes.

Young people are bored of football, you see. Computers have turned their brains into cheese and maybe we need shorter games for their dwindling attention spans.

Perhaps, or maybe a generation priced out of football by high admission prices and subscription television packages are less inclined to engage with a game telling them to show us your money or shove off.

Getting young fans through the turnstiles when they reopen has never felt more important. This week there was a big enough mass opposition to say, "No! Not on our watch!". If football fails to nurture the next generation it will not have the same frontline defence the next time the foundations of the sport are challenged.

Reformed major competitions, through which there is a more equitable distribution of resources across a sport where fans of all ages are accommodated and given a voice will not be an easy vision to realise. Now the unifying big bad of the Super League is slain, whatever Perez says, conflicting and splintering interests will return.

But this unquestionably is not a moment to be squandered as football's flirtation with nuclear disaster casts the game in a new light.

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