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European leaders scramble as football stands on the brink



Fans, including some elected to high office, voiced fury and outrage on Monday over a new Super League for Europe’s top football clubs — but just don’t ask the European Commission to blow the whistle on the elite breakaway competition.

As anger mounted over the proposal, and politicians scrambled to show their loyalty to folks who can’t afford to sit in luxury boxes, the Commission said it had no immediate plans to challenge the new league on competition grounds.

With Brussels doing little more than proclaiming that sport should reflect European values including “transparent, non-discriminatory rules”, the question of whether the Super League could be stopped seemed to rest with national capitals. There too, it was unclear if governments would have legal grounds to act, even if some leaders were quick to talk tough.

In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron, a fan of Olympique Marseille, said the move — which involved creating gold-plated terms for 15 of the Continent’s top clubs — “threatened the principle of sporting merit”. He pledged his backing for any steps European football body UEFA might take to fight the new league.  

In Rome, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who supports AS Roma, said he “fully backs the position of the Italian and European football authorities to preserve national competences, meritocracy and the social function of sport”. 

And in London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for once, was quickly on the same page as his EU counterparts, tweeting that the Super League would be “very damaging”. Spain’s government also came out against the plans and called for compromise — despite the participation of three of the country’s top teams.

The outrage expressed by most leaders echoed the seemingly universal dismay of the Continent’s football fans, who reacted with contempt for the Super League and the betrayal they say it represents to the idea of fair competition. A snap poll by YouGov of 1,730 British fans found 79 percent were opposed to the plan.

The Super League would create an exclusive, permanent grouping of 15 top teams, and do away with the cherished system of promotion and relegation that has long given hard-scrabble teams from underdog cities at least a theoretical shot of achieving Champions League glory. The Super League would also have five slots for rotating teams, but the 15 top teams would remain.

In that sense, the Super League idea, which is being portrayed by its proponents as an appropriate economic model for the post-pandemic recovery, seemed to mark a new low in the beautiful game’s long decline into crass profiteering. 

Whether a saga or one-off crisis, the urgency of the current situation was clear. 

Stefan Szymanski, an economist and author of the book “Soccernomics”, said that the Super League’s plan to essentially end promotion and relegation — a bedrock of the European sports model — was the main reason for the widespread condemnation. 

To use a political metaphor, promotion and relegation is the sports equivalent of parliamentary democracy, even giving minor parties a chance to overhaul a mighty opponent and win power. Like the American two-party political system, the Super League promises a mostly closed contest between the same big-name combatants year after year after year. 

“The apoplexy is all about promotion and relegation — it’s the glue that keeps the system going,” Szymanski said. “Without promotion and relegation, many of Europe’s clubs will die — so it’s probably not an overreaction.” 

UEFA hits out, Brussels backs off

The reaction to the Super League from UEFA headquarters has been unequivocally severe. 

In a highly charged press conference on Monday afternoon, UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin took aim at the organizers of the breakaway league, calling Manchester United’s Ed Woodward and Juventus’ Andrea Agnelli “snakes” who were “spitting in football lovers’ faces”.

Čeferin again threatened that Super League players would be banned from representing their national teams in international competitions, a groundbreaking move that would certainly end up in a protracted legal battle.

Jesper Moller, a UEFA executive committee member from Denmark, said he expected this week that Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester City would be kicked out of this year’s Champions League, where the three clubs have reached the semifinals. Asked for comment, UEFA confirmed that it was exploring “judicial and sporting” measures against participating clubs.

At this point, any effort at regulatory intervention from Brussels or national capitals may be too little too late — at least in trying to build the case that market capitalism in the sport has only now gone too far. 

European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told POLITICO in a statement that he would “personally very much regret” the creation of a semi-closed Super League. Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, whose portfolio includes sport, tweeted that the Super League “would inflect irreversible damage” and wrote: “We must protect our [EU] #Sport Model based on #culturalheritage, integrity, diversity, #inclusion & solidarity.”

European Parliament President David Sassoli tweeted that he “stands against football becoming the preserve of a wealthy few”, but what specifically Brussels policymakers and European leaders can do to sabotage the Super League is less clear — even if they have a real desire to do so.

A Commission spokeswoman, Sonya Gospodinova, took pains to assure constituents that all of Brussels was focused on the Super League situation. 

“We have been following from media reports the creation of this European Super League,” she said. “We are very interested in that also as sports aficionados.”

But she offered no plan to counter the Super League move or even any specific comment on the proposal. “Sports including football is part of the fabric of society. The Commission defends a European model of sports, which is unique in several ways, the main principles of this model are the principle of autonomy of openness of solidarity and the interdependence of the international federations.”

Representatives for the Super League did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 

Fan fury

Antoine Duval, a sports law specialist from the Asser Institute in The Hague, said that Europe could be entering uncharted legal territory over potential sanctions on the Super League. 

But as European football faces its most dramatic shakeup in decades, the Continent’s fans are once again feeling left out in the cold.

While the European football landscape has been altered over the last 30 years by lucrative broadcasting deals and the influx of Russian, American and Middle Eastern owners, at some level the sport preserved the sanctity of the European sports model of promotion, relegation and uncertainty. 

UEFA’s Champions League, Europe’s premier football competition, remains a meritocracy. Clubs must finish high up in their national league in order to qualify for the tournament. And if they struggle domestically, as Super League founder members Manchester United, Arsenal and the Milan clubs have in recent years, then there’s no back door into the top competition. 

Ronan Evain, executive director of Football Supporters Europe, accused the breakaway clubs of stabbing fans in the back and demanded stronger EU regulation of the football industry. 

“Those big clubs are ready to dynamite everything that makes football special,” he said. “Sporting merit. The culture of fans. The uncertainty. That’s why people all over the world follow football.” 

Evain bemoaned the fact that the breakaway clubs pushed out the Super League proposal at a time when, due to the coronavirus pandemic, fans can’t gather in stadiums to make their protests heard. “We’ve lost our main medium of expression,” he said.

Barney Chilton, editor of Manchester United fanzine Red News and a supporter of the club for 45 years, said the Super League move was a “seismic” moment that felt “heartbreaking”.

But on whether fans trusted big-talking politicians to safeguard the domestic game, Chilton scoffed. “We’ve been arguing for proper regulation for decades,” he said, “and been ignored.”

Paola Tamma, Simon Van Dorpe and Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.



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