The rise and fall of the European Super League: The influence, power and voice of players

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Over three years, building on a vision that was decades old, the owners of a handful of the world’s richest football clubs plotted a new path for the European game. Within 48 hours, the radical Super League was launched and then collapsed, having lost the goodwill of commercial partners, governing bodies, rival teams, fans, and players.

This group had seen an opportunity in the disruption and dialogue that sprung from the disaster of the Covid-19 pandemic, not to mention a financial imperative to make something happen for themselves.

They also saw the economic conditions settling in their favour. Fewer teams would share commercial income. A closed competition, with guarantees against relegation, would also grow the valuations of these clubs several times above their annual revenues.

Fundamentally, however, the potential of the competition was perceived through a central insight. The reach of the teams involved would magnetise international attention, growing media value exponentially. Yet that would be ensured, most of all, by the presence of the very best players, with individual followings even greater than the sides they would represent.

The Problem

There was a problem, and it emerged almost immediately. Within hours of the joint announcement on 18th April by 12 teams – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan, Inter, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur – it was clear that their central attractions did not approve.

‘I fell in love with popular football, with the football of the fans, with the dream of seeing the team of my heart compete against the greatest,’ wrote Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Ander Herrera on his social media channels, getting out ahead of his club, who had turned down an invitation to the league, to voice his opposition.

‘If this European Super League advances, those dreams are over, the illusions of the fans of the teams that are not giants of being able to win on the field competing in the best competitions will end.’

Growing Influential Voices

Fifa World Cup winner Mesut Ozil, now at Fenerbaçhe in Turkey, wrote: ‘Kids grow up dreaming to win the World Cup and the Champions League – not any Super League. The enjoyment of big games is that they only happen once or twice a year, not every week. Really hard to understand for all football fans out there.’

A furious tone had been set by influential former players. In England, Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Ian Wright – once of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal respectively – used their platforms on Sky Sports and social media to provide high-profile focal points for opponents to rally around. Yet what was most significant was the sentiment among players contracted to the participant clubs.

At most of those organisations, despite not having been told of the breakaway ahead of time, the playing and coaching staff supplied the first spokespeople to face the media and their responses were telling. Interviewed after his team’s 1-1 draw with Leeds United, which came with the proposition still live, Liverpool’s James Milner said: “I can only say my personal opinion, I don’t like it and hopefully it doesn’t happen. I can only imagine what has been said about it and I probably agree with most of it.”

Collective Dismissal

The following day, as owners reassessed the mood, reports emerged that a group of Premier League captains had been convened by Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson to discuss their next steps. This informal group was created as a forum to discuss health and safety concerns, as well as community action plans, during the earliest days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to The Athletic, these players had been sharing their objections on a WhatsApp group from the point the story had broken. Once their meeting ended, they chose to share them with the world. Several Liverpool players, led by Henderson, posted a statement on their social channels.

‘We don’t like it and we don’t want it to happen,’ it read. ‘This is our collective position. Our commitment to this football club and its supporters is absolute and unconditional.’

Others attached to Super League clubs across Europe also made their point. Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin made a more cryptic intervention, sharing a parting comment from his former manager, Arsène Wenger, which asked followers to ‘take care of the values of the club’. Barcelona’s Gerard Piqué told Movistar: “From a player's point of view, I would say that [the Super League] is not a positive decision for football in the long run.”

The Real Appeal: The Players

As the scheme collapsed, one thing was abundantly clear. A concept built around the appeal of star players could not exist without their support and was doomed by their hostility. The scepticism towards the Super League had several causes. It went against the competitive incentives on which players had based their careers. It threatened to sever the connection between them and their fans.

It was also professionally damaging, greatly reducing the options available to move between elite clubs and distorting the financial market for talent. The Super League might have increased the earning potential for owner-investors but it would not have done so for most players.

A central lesson for sport from this fiasco was that as much commercial value as these stars generate – through their social followings and their ability to magnetise interest in digital media – they are partners, not assets. The Super League failed in part because it did not consult players, but mostly because the competition was not planned in their interests.

Whether that could have been avoided is another question. There is no doubt, though, that as the power of athletes continues to rise, businesses that embrace their contribution will reap the benefits. Businesses that ignore them are only harming their own prospects.