The European Super League (ESL) was a midweek annual club football competition which initially consisted of 12 of Europe’s leading football clubs who are also known as the ‘Founding Clubs’. The Founding Clubs include AC Milan, Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur. 3 other clubs were said to be joining ESL, bringing the total number of Founding Clubs to 15. These founding members were to be permanent participants and also act as governing partners in the competition.
Initial plans for a new super league competition to rival or even replace the existing UEFA Champions League, Europe’s premier club football competition were mooted from as early as 1998, with a preliminary concept devised by an Italian media corporation, Media Partners. In response, UEFA moved to expand the Champions League competition and with the concept lacking popular support, the plan never came to fruition. Later on in 2009, Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez began drafting out precursory schemes for a super league competition, as he felt the current iteration of the UEFA Champions League was antiquated and was in the way of allowing clubs to expand on their existing infrastructure.
In 2018, Pérez began initial discussions with other major European clubs from England, Italy and Spain about a breakaway competition that would be financially lucrative and beneficial to the clubs involved. These discussions were largely conducted in total secrecy, unless UEFA would once again reform the Champions League to the liking of the clubs involved. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging Europe and the entire globe in 2020, Pérez’s Real Madrid was amongst those who felt the financial brunt of the pandemic, amassing a gross debt of €901 million. Other major European clubs, such as Barcelona whose financial report for the year ended in 2020 announced a €1.2 billion debt, and Arsenal who posted a £47.8 million were also not spared from the pandemic’s devastating economic consequences. According to The Guardian, twenty of Europe’s largest football clubs have suffered a loss in excess of €1bn in revenue in 2020 alone.
The financial implications suffered by Europe’s leading clubs have accelerated the formation of the Super League as clubs around Europe began posting record losses and debts in their financial reports. According to ESL’s official statement, “the formation of the Super League comes at a time when the global pandemic has accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model.” Besides, ESL was in the making for years with objectives of “improving the quality and intensity of existing European competitions throughout each season, and of creating a format for top clubs and players to compete on a regular basis.” Essentially, ESL was marketed to be a strategic and sustainable commercial approach to improve and support the European football pyramid.
One of the significant points is the format is having midweek fixtures positioned ESL as rivals against the UEFA Champions League. Some would argue that it is no coincidence that the unveiling of the ESL came just 24 hours before Champions League reforms were to be discussed by UEFA. “The reforms were planned to come into effect in 2024, expanding the Champions League to 36 teams, adjusting the format and increasing the number of matches from 125 to 225.” Despite the fact that the reforms favoured the Founding Clubs in that it provides 4 qualification spots for clubs which do not qualify through domestic competition but have previously performed well in European competition, it was still not enough to convince the Founding Clubs.
Another point from which the ESL caught people’s attention was the guaranteed participation of the Founding Clubs as clubs would normally have to earn their places based on their performance in other competitions.
With every football competition comes large sums of money involved, so how was ESL to be financed? Well, the American bank JP Morgan has committed about $5billion to this competition. Besides, the Founding Clubs would each receive “€3.5 billion solely to support their infrastructure investment plans and to offset the impact of the COVID pandemic.”
On 18 April 2021, the 12 founding clubs, represented by Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez, announced the formation of The Super League ( also known as European Super League – ESL ) through a press release. Perez’s main justification for the creation of the ESL is that the newly created competition would “provide higher-quality matches and additional financial resources for the overall football pyramid”, provide “significantly greater economic growth and support for European football via a long-term commitment to uncapped solidarity payments which will grow in line with league revenues”.
This announcement immediately sent shockwaves throughout the entire global footballing community. On the same day itself, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) released a joint statement alongside the English Football Association, the Premier League, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), La Liga, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) and Serie A strongly condemning the creation of the ESL, stating that the ESL was a closed league founded by a group of clubs that disregards the sporting merit and existing competitions in professional football. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), alongside the rest of the world football confederations, threatened the clubs involved in the ESL to be banned from participating in other competitions on both domestic and international levels. Players playing for the aforementioned clubs will also be ineligible to represent their national teams, and this would result in these players being forced to miss out on renowned international competitions such as the Euros and the World Cup.
In addition, players from these clubs and beyond also began to voice their personal opinions through social media platforms such as Mesut Özil, Ander Herrera and James Milner.
Renowned football managers, such as Arsène Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson also strongly rebuked the creation of the ESL. Top French and German clubs, such as Paint Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich continued to reiterate their stance in refusing to be a part of the new breakaway league despite Perez’s initial approach.
The British government soon chimed in, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson slamming Premier League clubs for playing their part in ESL being a ‘cartel’. Johnson also proceeds to brand the ESL as an initiative that curtails the basic principles of competitive football and reiterates that he, alongside members of the British government, are willing to utilise legislative action if necessary should the relevant football authorities be unable to reach a consensus with the ESL’s founding clubs.
Other clubs that were not part of the European Super League project released strongly-worded statements opposing the creation of the breakaway league. Everton Football Club states that the backlash received by the six Premier League clubs involved in the project was “understandable and deserved”, and urged owners of the prevenient clubs to strongly reconsider their decision. Atalanta and Cagliari were reported to have called for the Italian teams involved in the ESL to be expelled from Serie A, which would have effectively banned these clubs from competing in the Italian domestic league. Amsterdam-based football club Ajax, four-time UEFA Champions League winners, released a statement saying that the club is “taken aback and disappointed” by the decision of the 12 European clubs to join the ESL.
Football fans from the clubs involved, and fans from the wider football community were not thrilled about the Super League when it was initially announced. In England, supporter groups from the six English clubs involved in the project vehemently voiced out their objection, releasing statements condemning the plans and accusing their clubs of prioritising greed over healthy, fair competition. The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust, one of Arsenal’s main supporter groups, has accused Arsenal’s owners of taking this decision to join the ESL “with no consultation or dialogue” in relation to the club’s fanbase. On 19 April, hundreds of Liverpool fans protested their club’s involvement in the ESL outside Elland Road, disregarding COVID-19 restrictions ahead of Liverpool’s match against Leeds United in the Premier League. Chelsea fans have also reacted furiously to the news, protesting vigorously outside Stamford Bridge, forcing the club’s technical advisor and club legend Petr Cech to intervene and pacify the Chelsea fanbase. Meanwhile in Spain, Barcelona fans hung a banner over the club’s stadium, Camp Nou that states ‘Barcelona is our life, not your toy. No to playing in the Super League.” In Italy, Italian football fans were queried for their thoughts on the Super League through a survey conducted by YouGov. The survey found that 48% of fans were either opposed or strongly opposed to the creation of the Super League, whilst on the other end of the spectrum, 27 percent were in favour, and just eight percent were strongly in favour of the idea.
As strong opposition to the ESL manifested in the form of protests, social media posts and TV interviews, the founding clubs began reconsidering their decision to be part of what seems to be a sinking ship. On 20 April 9.23pm, Manchester City became the first club to announce their official withdrawal from the ESL. Soon after, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham issued statements with the same sentiments as Manchester City; whilst Chelsea was the last English club to formally announce its withdrawal in the early hours of 21 April. The same day, Atlético Madrid, Inter Milan, and A.C. Milan confirmed their exits. A mere three days into its founding, 9 of the 12 clubs had announced their plans to withdraw, with just Juventus, Barcelona, and Real Madrid remaining. Even with the departure of these big clubs, the Super League was defiant in the face of such strong opposition and instead announced that the project would not be abandoned but will be reshaped instead.
The Founding Clubs’ attempts to join the breakaway league did not come without consequences. According to UEFA, “nine of the 12 clubs involved in the so-called ‘Super League’ project submitted to UEFA a ‘Club Commitment Declaration’ setting out the position of the Clubs, including their commitment to UEFA Club Competitions as well as national club competitions.” It was also said that all “nine clubs acknowledge and accept that the Super League project was a mistake and apologise to fans, national associations, national leagues, fellow European clubs and UEFA.” and “recognised that the project would not have been authorised under UEFA Statutes and Regulations.” Moreover, the 9 clubs pledged to make a combined goodwill donation of €15million to the benefit of children, youth and grassroots football in local communities across Europe. In addition, 5% of revenue obtained from their participation in all UEFA competitions will be withheld from the clubs for a single season. In order to prevent similar attempts in the future, each club will be subjected to a €100 million fine if they seek to play in an unauthorised competition and a €50 million fine should they breach any of the Club Commitment Declaration commitments. With the renewal of the clubs’ commitment to UEFA, UEFA President, Aleksander Čeferin shared UEFA’s desire “to put this chapter behind it and move forward in a positive spirit.”
Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus – now known as the “rebel clubs” for not withdrawing from the ESL are facing serious threats from the UEFA. On 12 May, UEFA opened a disciplinary investigation against the rebel clubs in regard with their continued involvement with the ESL project. Even under the immense condemnation from various parties including their own fans and now the huge pressure from UEFA, their statement read: “The founding clubs have suffered, and continue to suffer, unacceptable third-party pressures, threats, and offenses to abandon the project and therefore desist from their right and duty to provide solutions to the football ecosystem via concrete proposals and constructive dialogue. This is intolerable under the rule of law and tribunals have already ruled in favour of the Super League proposal, ordering FIFA and UEFA to, either directly or through their affiliated bodies, refrain from taking any action which may hinder this initiative in any way while court proceedings are pending.” These three clubs now face a range of possible punishments, from massive fines to the withholding of competition revenue or even getting their winning titles revoked. Moreover, Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona face a two-year ban from participating in the UEFA Champions League due to their persistence. This could result in a total loss of more than £250 million of revenue over the course of two years from the aforementioned trio. The head of the Italian Football Association, Gabriele Gravina has threatened Juventus with total expulsion from Serie A, the Italian domestic football league, should they refuse to back down from their pro-Super League stance. It remains to be seen how UEFA eventually deals with the so-called ‘rebel clubs’ as the Super League saga rages on.
Written by: Chris Phang & Pei Zoe