The European Super League (ESL), conceived by a cabal of financially distressed continental clubs and financially greedy American owners of Premier League clubs, went from launch to collapse in around 48 hours. A lot of the credit was ascribed to the howls of protest from fans of the prospective ESL clubs, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in particular. Journalists such as David Walsh in the Sunday Times and Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail pretty well said "it woz the fans wot dun it". Many did indeed make their views very plain, Chelsea fans saying they wanted their cold nights in Stoke and Inter Milan's Ultras (not a widely praised group hitherto) saying they weren't interested in the Inter v Bayern, Real Madrid or Man City games without the away day in Prague or even "the 24 hours to Benevento and back in the car". (Benevento is somewhere near Naples). I commend them all for their opposition to closed shop competitions. And there clearly was an impact on owners - John Henry of Liverpool's owners, Fenway Sports Group, especially. I'm not so sure about Arsenal's Stan Kroenke, hide of a rhino I suspect. But I'm also not sure that the fan reaction was the biggest factor.
The strong push back from UEFA was to be expected and was commendably quick and firm. It was UEFA's Champions League that was really in the sights of the breakaway group at this stage. The ESL clubs had realised that there are actually plenty of fans like me who have zero interest in group matches between them and BATE Borisov or Sparta Prague, let alone matches between teams like those two. So UEFA's truly awful tweak to the Champions League, guaranteeing entry to clubs with recent history of success who would otherwise miss out through their abominable and anti-competitive "club coefficient" concept wasn't enough for the likes of Juventus. They just wanted the marquee fixtures. The same ones, year after year.... boring!
UEFA reacted by threatening things that football authorities around the world have retained as powers for pretty much the whole history of the sport: expulsion from all officially sanctioned competitions for the clubs and their players. No World Cup for any of you! It was hard not to laugh as UEFA's spineless approach to the big clubs over the last 20 years helped to create the situation in the first place.
But I don't think UEFA's reaction was the biggest factor either. Firstly it would have been anticipated by the clubs and their legal advisers, who no doubt had looked into things like competition law. Oh, UEFA could have carried out their banning threats but would have been beset by injunctions which might well have allowed the ESL to launch without sanctions. And once launched it would have been harder to kill. Secondly, FIFA was suspiciously quiet on the matter, so it's not clear they would have backed UEFA up. The World Cup is FIFA's competition after all. Some conspiracy theorists have even suggested that FIFA quite fancied a world scale version of the ESL.
I felt queasy when the UK government waded in, possibly driven by the desire to seize on a populist issue, because I don't like politicians meddling in sport. Indeed on this and many other issues I long for the days when ministers used to bat away parliamentary questions with a dead bat, saying "that is a matter for the Football Association" or whatever body had responsibility, rather than commenting on and interfering in anything and everything.
However, unlike many journalists, I think the Prime Minister's threat to drop a "legislative bomb" on the ESL was material and quite possibly the biggest single factor. I can imagine the legal advisers of the owners of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal had told their principals that they could deal with UEFA's threats via competition or other laws giving folk the right to go about their business and earn a living. But when the Prime Minister of their clubs' host country talks of a legislative bomb...
For a start, exactly what does that mean? I've been critical of Boris Johnson's poor communication skills during the pandemic. He waffles, he makes things up on the spot, he uses confusing language and obscure analogies. The comparison with Mark Drakeford's clear coronavirus briefings in Wales has been stark. But on the Super League the PM, probably unintentionally and inadvertently, played a blinder.
The total lack of clarity and bewildering uncertainty behind the phrase "legislative bomb", especially when combined with the suggestion that competition law could be amended, would have left those expensive American lawyers saying something like "we don't know how to advise you on that". "But we're punting billions on this". "Yes, but we can't advise you how laws that haven't been passed will operate". The clincher was Johnson saying space would be found in the parliamentary legislative programme.
When the least enthusiastic of the ESL members, Chelsea and Manchester City, pulled out the house of cards collapsed remarkably quickly. Indeed I should perhaps see City in a new light. Unlike the American owners of Premier League teams, who are all ultimately in it to make a buck, their owners - and Chelsea's Roman Abramovich - are in it for glory and prestige.
It was just as well it did collapse quickly. Had the ESL clubs got more of an act together, I had wondered on day one of the two whether they would seduce clubs like Everton and West Ham with the promise "be patient, there will soon be an ESL 2". So I was pleased to see Everton come out very strongly on the morning of day 2, before the other 14 Premier League clubs had even met. Saying the club was "saddened and disappointed to see proposals of a breakaway league pushed forward by six clubs" they went on to say (amongst other things):
Fans need hope and FFP practically eliminates the prospect of major investment allowing a club to break into the very big time. Jack Walker couldn't take Blackburn to the Premier League title now. The argument that it is to protect clubs from going bust is blatantly fallacious. For a start most super-rich owners want the club to become sustainable having reached their holy grail, even Roman Abramovich. Maybe a simple rule could prevent a small number of clubs going out of reach of the rest by having an absolute cap on spending on playing squads at all clubs, excluding projects such as new stadia and training grounds. What could be fairer than that?
I accept that, as FFP is fundamentally a UEFA concept modifying it can't all be done from England. So the Premier League 14 need to gang up with their equivalents in other countries to press for club representation in UEFA to be completely overhauled. The clubs are represented by the European Club Association which was a thinly disguised modification of the G14 group of "super" clubs. Oh sure there are "associated members", in England's case Everton, Aston Villa, Newcastle United and Leicester top up the founding members which were basically the Super League cabal. ECA is in a state of flux after the Super League group quit. A more democratic method of club representation is badly needed. It might be possible to construct Premier League rules that binds any clubs representing English clubs at UEFA to act in accordance with the democratic will of the Premier League clubs.
Thirdly, anticipating that the above measure might not work, I would enact a Premier League rule that says a club cannot compete in European competition if it has finished behind a club that has not qualified. I promise you this is not gobbledegook. The UEFA plans to appease the super league clubs include use of historical coefficients which could mean a club like Liverpool could finish 5th but qualify in place of a club like Leicester finishing 4th. This idea is not totally anti-competitive as it does draw on historical performances but it undermines the concept of a football season and would pretty much preclude a club qualifying for the Champions League on the basis of a one off fourth place finish. Indeed, without getting into Europe a club can't bolster its coefficient so the proposal is basically a way of constructing a closed shop.
As such the proposal, due to be implemented from 2024, would seriously undermine the Premier League's attractiveness. The race for 4th place has become a major feature of the season. Indeed this time it produced one of the great moments of last season, or any other, when Liverpool's goalkeeper Alisson Becker scored a memorable headed goal in the last minute of their match at West Brom. If Liverpool had been sure of their place in the Champions League even if they had finished outside the top 4 would Alisson even have bothered going up for the corner?
But remember UEFA want their Champions League to be the main event, they don't care about the Premier League and envy its commercial success. So a rule to frustrate such coefficients is needed.
I don't know whether the ESL clubs had a good business model anyway. I can't tell how many football fans, like me, are not very interested in those marquee matches. I can occasionally show some interest in, say, Barcelona v Liverpool or Man United when it is a knockout match with something significant at stake. But the Champions League group matches between teams like these have been a yawn. In the early group stages they are cagey affairs. Later in the group it is often already well on the way to being decided. Maybe it's just me, but I think the fans of Villa, Newcastle and the Baggies probably feel the same way. Of course those fans (and me) weren't the target of the ESL, that is the international audience.
But there was a potential upside of the Super League: I wouldn't have had to watch as much football, which would probably have been good for my blood pressure. And made me more pleasant to live with - after all I don't shout and swear at the TV when the golf or cricket are on.....
*It is worth noting that Everton's players voluntarily accepted to defer pay and the club kept paying its casual staff like stewards throughout the lockdowns.
The Everton board's statement on the ESL is at https://www.evertonfc.com/news/2111866/statement-from-the-board