Words by Esteban Ramirez
The announcement of the European Super League in April 2021 was met with heavy opposition from fans, players, other football clubs and major footballing bodies like FIFA and UEFA. So much so, that most clubs invited to take part had withdrawn their participation within 48 hours.
For many however, its elitist and exclusive culture was in-part misunderstood (that’s not to say it wasn’t there). By comparing the model to basketball’s NBA, it is possible to understand the excitement it would have brought, and in turn realise why it has no place in the world of football.
In summary, the proposed European Super League (ESL) would have consisted exclusively of 12 of Europe’s ‘elite’ teams and would have been played concurrently alongside their domestic competitions.
It was criticized heavily for its arrogant nature and lack of competitiveness, owing to it having no relegations, meaning the same teams would participate every year.
As you can imagine, this did not sit well with the footballing community, who are used to the excitement of relegation battles, new teams and a constantly changing landscape (or so we think, more on that later).
This lack of understanding of the emotions and love people worldwide have for football may in-part arise from an increasing number of American owners. Historically disliked, 7 clubs in the Premier League (including those invited to take part in the ESL) are American owned.
Their unpopularity can very much be attributed to their attempts to ‘Americanize’ football. To those unfamiliar with this term, it should be pointed out that sporting clubs in North America are run rather differently from European clubs.
For starters, American clubs are actually franchises, with the larger business being the NBA. This immediately attaches connotations of profit and financial motives to the clubs, which subsequently plays a large role in their identity.
The franchises are there not just to represent the city/state in the sport of basketball, but to make money, like a business. Contrast this with football clubs, who are separate organizations within themselves, but report to a higher governing body, such as FIFA. Of course, they too are run with profit in mind, but to less of an extent.
In fact, owning a football club is often very costly to the owner, generally requiring them to pump in huge finances into the club in order for them to do well. However, greedy owners attempting to turn their clubs into a profit-making machine to line their pockets has become an all-too-common occurrence in today’s Premier League.
The second important difference lies in how the clubs compete. European clubs use a system of promotion and relegation throughout multiple leagues, based on performance. The NBA, on the other hand, is a closed league with no promotion or relegation (sound familiar?)
Instead, teams who perform well compete in the playoffs (a knockout competition to decide an overall league winner) and those who don’t get better odds of landing a higher pick in the ‘draft’ (where teams select rookies to join them).
In this way, competition is more balanced year-to-year as worse teams get the opportunity to sign better rookies, who can have a large impact on the team if they perform well. Therefore, the competitiveness of the league and the skill of each team becomes more balanced between every year (before trades, etc.)
Unlike the Premier League, where the same top 5/6 teams dominate the title race, the NBA landscape has the potential to change drastically year-to-year.
As mentioned previously, one of the main criticisms of the ESL was the lack of competitiveness that would occur given the no promotion/relegation rule. However, as you can see, this does not have to be the case.
People may argue there is no draft system to ensure a competitive balance, but the generous financial rewards granted to these clubs every year would give them more than enough to strengthen their teams year-to-year (as if they don’t already).
Not only does this closed league of highly talented teams create a competitive, constantly changing league, but it exhibits blockbuster match-ups with big teams playing each other regularly. This generates hype and big storylines throughout the season, with stadiums being packed out every week due to the attraction.
This is what the creators of the ESL thought it would be. Huge teams playing each other every week, Ronaldo vs Messi, the best of the best.
However, they failed to take into account what ultimately became their downfall: football culture. Football was invented more than 100 years ago. In those years, deep-rooted cultures, rivalries and livelihoods have emerged surrounding hundreds of clubs.
Football fans have often been described as ‘tribal’ when it comes to their clubs. Football hooliganism (where opposing fans physically fight each other when their teams play) raged in the 70s and 80s, to the point of serious injury and even death.
To break teams and fans away from this culture and boost a select few teams into the financial and sporting elite was a shot to the heart of every football fan, even those supporting the clubs invited into the ESL.
Lastly, due to the sheer size of the U.S.A., fans are not expected to travel to away arenas to support their teams. This is not the case with football, where a number of fans regularly travel up and down the country to support their team at away grounds.
Therefore, away support has become very much a part of football culture. But these fans pay for travel themselves. How can they be expected to travel across Europe every week?
This alienation of local fans and the enticing of society’s elite who can afford to travel to all of these games is another reason the ESL gained so much opposition, even from fans of the clubs who were invited to the league.
In summary, the ESL could not work because football is too far gone to break teams away. This deep-rooted, historical culture is the very foundation football stands on. Without fans, football is nothing.