The End of the European Super League?

The End of the European Super League?

May 2019 | Sport

UEFA's proposed Champions League reforms are doomed to fail amid widespread opposition. Not even the threat of a European Super League will save them.

Whatever way you slice it, this season has been a remarkable one for English football. For the first time, all four European competition finalists will be drawn from the same nation. Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur will contest the Champions League final in Madrid on the 1st June. Arsenal and Chelsea will compete in the Europa League final in Baku 3 days earlier. Yet, the domestic treble winners will be watching at home after losing in the quarter finals of the Champions League.

Both finals will likely be excellent matches, but not everyone is happy with the situation. The Premier League is the richest in the world, with even tiny bottom of the table Huddersfield Town earning more than £100m from Television revenue for the 17/18 season. This is the same as serial Italian Champions Juventus earn from their domestic TV deal. The leading Spanish and Italian clubs have long feared that the financial advantages of the top Premier League clubs will eventually lead to English teams dominating European competition. Spanish teams may have been the dominant force over the past decade, but the relative strengths of domestic leagues vary over time as players age and top clubs need to rebuild their squads. This is now happening with the leading clubs of the last 8 seasons all in varying stages of transition - Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich have key players coming to the end of their careers that will need to be replaced in the next few summers. If they spend poorly than the advantage English clubs have in UEFA competitions could be extended.

UEFA Concerns

No one is more concerned about the situation than UEFA. It's well known that they hate seeing European finals being contested between two teams from the same country, and the Premier League has more top teams capable of contesting finals than rival leagues. It is no coincidence that the governing body have reversed their long-standing opposition to a European Super League. The proposed Champions League changes for 2024 bear a remarkable similarity to the structure of the proposed European Club Association (ECA) breakaway competition first leaked by Der Spiegel last year. Premier League clubs have been fully involved in the super league discussions as well as the proposed Champions League reforms, but they have been notably less enthusiastic about them than their continental peers. That's not a surprise given that the proposals are explicitly intended to erode their financial advantages.

The real surprise is the vociferous pushback the proposals have received from La Liga President, Javier Tebas, who claimed that they threatened the future of the Spanish league. Tebas has realistic ambitions for his league to supplant the Premier League as the richest and most popular in global football. His aborted plan to play a Barcelona game in the United States last autumn was a step towards that direction. That proposal failed but it is likely the Spanish Super Cup will become an overseas tournament at some point.

So far, none of the top leagues have supported the proposed Champions League reforms with the big leagues being particularly active in their opposition. The race for European places is a strong component of the success of domestic leagues in recent years. This year, the race for Champions League places went to the final match day in England, Spain and Germany. It will likely do so in Italy too. Fans and players care more when games matter leading to a better standard of football, which benefits the leagues and the clubs both on the pitch and off it. The proposed Champions League reforms would kill the race for European places and make domestic leagues irrelevant for the top clubs.

League Opposition

UEFA have suggested at this stage that the proposals are only a consultation and that they're looking for ideas. Yet, strangely, there have been no alternative ideas from them or anyone else. That will change. The French league have already said they intend to put their own plan forward. It is probable that the top clubs - including PSG won't like it. More importantly, the far larger rank of second-tier clubs are even more bitterly opposed to the reforms than anyone else. Any alternative plan will be pitched to get their support. These are the clubs that hold genuine ambitions of closing the gap with the top clubs and start regularly qualifying for the champions league. This season may even see one of their number win the top prize in the form of Tottenham Hotspur. If these proposals were in effect, it's doubtful that Spurs would even have been allowed to enter the competition in the first place.

That the only people willing to defend the proposed Champions League reforms are the chairmen of Juventus and Barcelona should indicate its likely fate. Other clubs are secretly in favour but have not been public about their support because of concerns about the backlash. A u-turn could well happen, just look at the proposed La Liga overseas games to see what happens when the top clubs go too far. UEFA know the top clubs want a closed shop Champions League and hope to get extra TV revenues in return. The fact this doesn't benefit the people who actually control UEFA - namely the national associations - will be its undoing. The 2024 champions league will probably look very different from the current one, but it won't match the current proposals.

The Basketball Precedent

Some of these clubs tried a similar closed shop European league in Basketball with some success, but football is a far more popular and more global game with different traditions. In 2000 the top European Basketball clubs created their own European league as an alternative to the official FIBA organised one. For one season the breakaway league and the official league operated in parallel, before FIBA backed down and gave their blessing to the club's breakaway league. Many fans would turn on their clubs if they tried the same thing in football, and UEFA would be less likely to back down to a breakaway super league than FIBA purely because the domestic football leagues are far richer and more powerful than the domestic basketball ones. Ultimately, the Champions League reform plan probably only has the support of at most 16 top clubs not all of whom would be prepared to support a breakaway league should UEFA choose to turn on the clubs. The Premier League clubs would be highly unlikely to.

Nor can the ECA force it through with a breakaway - as a super league wouldn't attract enough clubs or fans to be successful. By trying to force through their proposed Super League format with UEFA's co-operation, the ECA have probably killed off any potential of it actually working. It's the support of their domestic leagues that the top clubs actually needed to make it happen, by going over their heads they've lost their chance to get it. When the top European basketball clubs broke away to form the EuroLeague they had the support or at least the acquiescence of their domestic leagues and continued to play in those leagues alongside the breakaway competition. Neither UEFA or the domestic leagues would allow that in football, and this will be the difference which prevents a European Super League from getting off the ground. Football fans should be thankful.

Written by Alan Chatfield