Does the Super League Ruin Soccer?

Over the weekend, some huge news dropped in Europe: it’s the formation of the “Super League” of soccer, which is basically the 12 biggest, richest clubs in Europe agreeing to form their own permanent league.

Now, as someone who doesn’t closely follow soccer, I always thought this was what the UEFA Champions league was. But apparently the Champions league is for clubs that win their league/national championship–key word–and thus qualify for the Europe-wide tournament that pits the best club in every country against one another.

So basically in Europe each nation has its own soccer league–like England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, and Spain’s La Liga–and then the winners of those leagues go and compete with one another in the Champions league, which is in reality a tournament, not a league. This is an over-simplification somewhat because in some cases you don’t have to be the champion of your nation’s league to qualify for UEFA Champions league–there are caveats–but in the broadest sense it’s accurate.

The point here is that entry into the Champions League is not permanent or guaranteed–you have to be really good that year in order to qualify. The difference with the Super League is that it’s permanent: all 12 clubs are permanent members. It’s the same 12 clubs every year. They’re planning on expanding it to 20, and some blue-chip tier clubs like Paris Saint Germain (PSG) and Bayern Munich are not in the Super League (yet), but eventually it’s going to include all of the biggest, best soccer clubs in Europe.

The 12 founding members are as follows: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus. Even if you don’t follow European soccer, you’ve probably at least heard of all those teams. And that’s because they’re the biggest, most popular clubs in Europe. They’re like the Yankees, Cowboys and Lakers of European soccer.

Soccer fans are up in arms over the formation of the Super League. Like, livid. It’s a massive change. Even the Prime Minister of the UK is opposed to it. I can’t even draw a parallel to American sports because our sports leagues are not structured the way European soccer is structured. It’s different over there because you’re dealing with different countries.

I guess imagine if Canada had its own professional hockey league and America had its own, and they were completely separate with different champions and no cross-league play. But then at the end of the year they’d take the top 8 teams in each league and pit them against each other in a North American Hockey Championship League tournament or something like that. That’s how European soccer is structured.

But then imagine they just decided to take the top teams in the Canadian and American hockey leagues and create a permanent Canada + America professional league, excluding all the other clubs that aren’t considered elite in each league. (This is what the NHL actually is, obviously.)

College football might be another example we can use: we have the Big Ten, the SEC, the ACC, the Pac-12 and the Big 12–and then there’s the Group of Five. These ten conferences plus a few independent programs that don’t belong to any conference make up the FBS, Football Bowl Sub-division, formerly known as D-1. Sure, there’s non-conference play in the regular season, but for the most part, competition in college football is limited to within the conferences in order to determine a conference champion. Then we pit the best teams against one another in post-season bowl games. We used to use the BCS, now we’ve emerged from the dark ages and finally have a College Football Playoff, and hopefully one day we’ll have an expanded playoff with automatic bids for the Power Five conference winners.

But then imagine if the best, say, 30 programs in FBS college football (out of 130 total) detached from the whole conference system and just formed their own permanent league. You’d have Bama, Ohio State, Clemson, LSU, Georgia, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Notre Dame, Miami, Auburn, Florida State, Texas A&M, Florida, Oregon, Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, and about a dozen other top programs leaving their conferences behind and starting their own exclusive club of the biggest, best and, most importantly, richest college football programs in the country. It would be like the NFL, but for college. They would only play one another, and obviously the national championship in this league would be widely considered the “true” national championship in all of college football. This league would obviously get all the TV money, all the media attention, and the top high school recruits would not even consider playing anywhere else. It would basically make the 100 other FBS teams that don’t meet the criteria for membership in the top 30 irrelevant.

This is what the European Super League is. And people are really pissed about it. Because it essentially renders 98% of the soccer clubs in Europe irrelevant.

Because each individual nation in Europe has its own league, there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of soccer clubs across Europe. There are 55 nations that belong to UEFA (Union of European Football Associations), and each of those 55 nations have their own individual leagues with dozens of clubs.

There are 20 clubs in the EPL, 20 clubs in La Liga, 20 clubs in Serie A, 18 clubs in the Bundesliga, and 19 clubs in Ligue 1. That’s almost 100 clubs right there. Then you have the Portuguese Premeria Liga with 18 clubs, 18 clubs in the Dutch First Division, 16 clubs in the Russian Premier League, 18 clubs in the Belgian First League, etc. etc. all throughout Europe. You’re talking about upwards of 800 soccer clubs in total if you just take 55 European countries multiplied by an average of, let’s say, 15 top-league clubs per nation on average.

And now they’re taking the 12 best of all 800+ clubs and forming their own permanent league.

And this doesn’t even include the clubs in the lesser leagues that can move up to their nation’s top league through the process of relegation/promotion. If the worst club in the Premier League gets relegated, then that means the top club in the second-tier English league can now move up to the Premier League and, theoretically, compete for a Premier League title and then a Champions League Title.

So not only can the 800+ clubs in the 55 European top-tier leagues (theoretically) win the Champions League, hundreds and hundreds more clubs in second-tier leagues can also, again theoretically, do the same.

This is actually what happened with Leicester City in 2016. Leicester City was playing not in the second-tier English league, but the third tier as recently as 2009, but somehow moved all the way up to the Premier League and eventually won the whole thing in 2016. It was one of the most remarkable Cinderella stories in the history of sports. Stuff like that never happens. The Exceutive Chairman of the EPL, Richard Scudamore, called it “a once in every 5,000 years event.”

We don’t have an analogy for it in American sports because we don’t have relegation/promotion, but it was truly one of the most remarkable, improbable and inspiring sports stories of all time.

Leicester City didn’t win the Champions League that year, they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Atletico Madrid, but all-in-all, they went from being a third-tier league English club to the final 8 in all of Europe in under 10 years.

We don’t have anything like that in America. It’s not like the top team in the NBA G-League can get bumped up to the NBA through the process of relegation/promotion and one day potentially compete for an NBA title. In order to win an NBA title, you have to be in the NBA. No exceptions. The AAA baseball Toledo Mud Hens can’t one day potentially compete in the World Series. The minor leagues in baseball are the minor leagues, period. Your players can move up to the MLB, but the minor league teams themselves cannot.

So this is why it might be hard for Americans to truly understand why this Super League is such a massive deal in Europe. It fundamentally changes the whole structure and nature of European football by making the highest level of competition a closed-off, elite club. In America, we’re used to the idea of the highest level of sports being an exclusive club. In fact, to us it seems bizarre to do it any other way.

But there will never be a Leicester City-esque story in the Super League. Because Leicester City and underdog clubs like them are not going to be part of the Super League. And there’s no way for them to get in. Ever.

But here’s the thing, at least in my eyes: I’d whole-heartedly support a college football system like I outlined above. I think it would modernize the sport. Imagine if the NHL didn’t exist and we couldn’t just have the best teams in America and the best teams in Canada in the same league.

I think European soccer has been stuck in the dark ages for decades, personally. I’ve always wondered why they don’t just have a Europe-wide soccer league of the best clubs from every country.

How has it taken them this long to finally realize that they should have the biggest, most popular clubs with the best, most popular players in all of Europe in one permanent, continuous league competing at the highest level?

Obviously it’s a lot easier here in America because America is one country, while Europe is many dozens of countries. The logistics of coordinating an international league are a bit tougher than coordinating a professional sports league in America. Even though we have Canadian teams in every American sports league but the NFL, it’s a lot easier to coordinate international sports play between two countries than it is four-dozen.

So coming from an American perspective, I think the Super League is a great idea. It’s a good thing for the best players and the best teams to compete with one another to find out who’s the best of them all. I think they should all be in the same league. Because I’m used to the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB. That’s how we do it in America: one league to rule them all. Everything else is just minor league.

Like all the football talent in America gravitates toward the NFL, all the soccer talent in Europe will gravitate towards the Super League. If you’re an up-and-coming star playing on a non-Super League club, eventually you will get signed to a Super League club and leave the lesser leagues behind. That’s just how it’s going to work. Eventually the Super League will be the only league that matters.

Because the Super League already has so many of the top clubs, it is inevitable that the current holdouts like PSG and Bayern Munich will eventually give in and join. They’ll have no choice. Because all the top players on their teams will leave to play on Super League teams if they don’t.

The Super League is like Thanos: inevitable.

It was only announced today, and the fight is going to get ugly. UEFA correctly sees the Super League as an extinction-level threat, so they’re going to do everything they can to make sure the Super League never comes to fruition. They’re going to sue, of course. However, maybe it’s just me, but I just feel like threatening to sue is generally something losers do. It happens a lot in elections: when it’s a bitterly-contested, close election, the loser always says they’re going to sue to get the results overturned. But it usually never works out. “I’m going to sue you!” is basically like saying, “I’ve lost and I’m in denial.”

FIFA has threatened that any players who participate in the Super League will be banned from the World Cup, which is a big deal, but you have to wonder if it’s an empty threat. These are the greatest players in the world, and the World Cup would suffer immensely without their presence.

The EPL issued a statement condemning the Super League:

“The Premier League condemns any proposal that attacks the principles of open competition and sporting merit which are at the heart of the domestic and European football pyramid.

“Fans of any club in England and across Europe can currently dream that their team may climb to the top and play against the best. We believe that the concept of a European Super League would destroy this dream.

There won’t be another Leicester City again, but Leicester didn’t even with the Champions League, as we went over above. You know who won it that year? Real Madrid, a club that has won the Champions League a record 13 times, most ever, and a club that is not only a founding member of the Super League, but whose team President, Florentino Perez, is the head of the Super League.

There are only 22 clubs that have won a Champions League title since the inception of the Champions League in 1956. Let’s not act like the UEFA Champions League is this egalitarian big tent where any team can win. The Champions League is dominated by the same elite clubs that formed the Super League. It’s Real Madrid (13 titles), AC Milan (7 titles), Liverpool (6 titles), Barcelona (5 titles), Manchester United (3 titles), Inter Milan (3 titles), Juventus (2 titles), Chelsea (1 title, 2012). The only teams that have been dominant in the Champions League but are not in the Super League are Bayern Munich (6 titles) and Ajax (4 titles, but none since 1995).

But give it time. Bayern Munich will eventually join. It’s inevitable.

Guess who’s in the Champions League final four right now for 2021? Real Madrid, Chelsea, PSG and Manchester City. 3 of the 4 are Super League members, and PSG will have to join eventually.

I totally understand why people are opposed to it. It’s going to upend decades of tradition. Longstanding rivalries between local clubs will be damaged, even outright killed. It’s going to change football culture for good. It’s going to change everything.

The Super League’s founders say the teams in it will still be able to compete in their domestic leagues and maintain their traditional rivalries with other domestic clubs, but it’s never going to be the same. Super League teams will be at a massive financial and talent advantage. You can argue that they already are, and that’s true, but it will be even more so now with the Super League.

But the Super League has all the leverage. The TV networks want it to happen, the biggest and most powerful clubs and their billionaire owners want it to happen–it’s going to happen. There’s too much money to be made with it.

They’re “Americanizing” European soccer, and obviously it’s going to be a painful process and there’s going to be a ton of push-back. And it’s all understandable, too. You’re taking what’s fundamentally a local and national game and globalizing it. You’re essentially telling the vast majority of soccer clubs and their fanbases that they don’t matter anymore, they don’t get a spot at the table, and they’re relegated to the minor leagues permanently. It’s a massive, massive decision, especially because the game of soccer is so fundamental and interwoven into the cultures of these European countries.

I’m not even a big soccer follower and even I felt compelled to weigh in on the matter, because I respect the game and, more importantly, what it means to so many hundreds of millions of people around the world. The European soccer club model is highly complex and has been built up over many decades, and now this Super League completely upends the whole thing.

But over the long term? How can you argue that it’s a bad thing to form an elite league of the best-of-the-best, where every matchup is star-studded, intense and represents the game being played at the highest possible level of competition?

The Super League is going to happen because it should have happened decades ago, in the sense that it’s just logical to have all the best players and all the best teams and all the best coaches in one elite league, duking it out to determine who is the best of the best. The logical conclusion of sports is one centralized, elite league that serves as the pinnacle of competition.

Eventually, down the road, people will get used to it and then wonder how they ever lived without the Super League. It’s good for soccer fans to be able to get regular matchups between teams like Real Madrid and Manchester City. It’s preferable to see the top teams regularly competing against one another, rather than maybe once a year. The best teams should play each other frequently, not rarely. Iron sharpens iron.

It benefits the game to have the greatest talent concentrated in one ultra-competitive league rather than dispersed across many different leagues. It will make the game of soccer even more global than it already is, because Americans and Chinese and any other non-Europeans can tune into any Super League match and instantly recognize the most prominent names and clubs.

I pulled up this list of the 50 best soccer players in the world for 2021. There’s maybe 3 out of 50 that aren’t on teams that aren’t on either Super League teams or PSG & Bayern Munich, teams that we all expect to join the Super League at some point in the near future. It’s a good thing to have them all playing in the same league.

Personally, I’m not going to tune in to a soccer match if it’s one really good team beating up on a weak team. Even if Lionel Messi or Ronaldo is playing. I’m just not. But if it’s Barcelona vs. Juventus (Messi vs. Ronaldo), or PSG vs. Bayern Munich (Neymar vs. Lewandowski), I’ll probably watch that. Because I know it’s an elite matchup of the best teams and best players in the world. I know those names and faces. I’m interested in that. It’s almost like a World Cup match.

The Super League opens up the game to a much wider global audience. It just makes sense to form a Super League or something like it and it always has.

Octavian

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