Column

The 91st Minute: Let’s talk about the European Super League

How a few billionaires almost stole the beautiful game away from those who love it most.

The 91st Minute is a column by Sam Reno about professional soccer.

This past Sunday, twelve of the world’s biggest football clubs announced that they would be forming a breakaway competition called the European Super League (ESL), intending to replace the UEFA Champions League.

The twelve clubs included six from England (Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City), three from Spain (FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid) and three from Italy (Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan).

As night fell in London on Tuesday, however, thousands of supporters gathered outside of Stamford Bridge ahead of Chelsea’s match against Brighton. They were united, not in the club they supported, but against the ESL and its member clubs’ leadership that chose to abandon the rest of the football world in pursuit of greater profits.

The crowds erupted as news trickled in that Chelsea had decided to withdraw from the ESL. They were shortly followed by Manchester City and Atletico Madrid, all but forcing the remaining clubs to ultimately do the same. Just two days after it was announced, the European Super League was no more.

So how could the ESL be so bad that supporters around the world crossed historic rivalries to stand in unison against it?

Under the current system in Europe, each spot in every competition is available to all competing sides across the continent. Likewise, each of those spots can be lost by any club that may currently hold them. Fail to finish in the top four of your domestic league? You will not play Champions League football the following year.

Some of this upward mobility is certainly a facade for the giant clubs, many of whom joined the ESL, have unmatched spending power. However, the inability to qualify for the Champions League can still significantly hamper a club’s ability to attract world-class talent and ultimately sustain their ridiculous spending output.

The prospect of failing to qualify has always been a check on the massive clubs at the top, for if they spend beyond their means and underperform, disaster can ensue. Just ask newly-promoted Leeds United, for they are all too familiar with these consequences.

Once a Champions League club, overspending sent Leeds spiraling down the ranks of English football and bringing them to the brink of financial implosion. It is only now, sixteen years later, that they have made their return to the Premier League.

The proposed Super League, however, would render these member clubs immune to similar consequences. Many clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona most notably, have found themselves in their own financial predicaments, and the Super League, for lack of better phrasing, is their way of saving their asses.

In recent years, more and more money is being pumped into the clubs that are chasing at the greatness of those twelve. Champions League positions are less guaranteed now than they have been in a long time.

Juventus have won the Serie A, Italy’s top league, title for nine consecutive seasons, yet they find themselves in a fight for their Champions League lives with fifth-place Napoli breathing down their neck. Before Chelsea’s draw against Brighton on Tuesday, four of the six English clubs who agreed to join the ESL were sitting outside of the Premier League’s UCL spots.

Many of these greedy owners have made one reckless spending decision after another, and it finally appeared they might have to answer for them. Of course, they chose to run away instead, doubling down on the rapacious ventures that brought them here in the first place.

Led by Florentino Pérez, president of Real Madrid, these owners opted to close the doors of European football and hoard the profits entirely for themselves, turning their backs on the rest of the football world from which their clubs were born.

While the European Super League may never come to fruition, two things have become clear in the wake of its failure.

For one, these billionaire owners will stop at nothing to put more money in their own pockets. In response to a question regarding FIFA banning ESL players from the World Cup, Pérez simply said, “We will create our own world cup.” They do not care about anybody other than their own wallets. They have no love, respect or passion for the very sport they control at their fingertips.

The other being that football truly is nothing without its supporters. The fans hold an immeasurable power to influence the highest levels of the sport when in lockstop, and we need to continue to do so, remaining united in those efforts.

Whether it is the negligence of racist incidents in UEFA or the human rights abomination that is the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, we must use this influence as fans to continue to push the game in a positive direction.

While the ESL may have failed this time, another Super League, in whatever form it may take, will emerge in its stead. The fans and players, as they were this week, will be the only line of defense against future attempts to rob the sport from those to whom it rightly belongs.

But until that moment does come, let’s enjoy this rare victory that football has earned over the wealth and greed that sought to poison it.

“The 91st Minute” typically runs every Wednesday.