ECONOMY

How Soccer Elite Eyes Breakaway Without Breaking Away

A plan by some of Europe’s biggest soccer clubs including Manchester United and Real Madrid to form their own “Super League” has drawn ire even from U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former Italian Premier Enrico Letta. To comprehend the backlash, it’s necessary to understand the confusing structure of soccer competitions in Europe as well as exactly what is being proposed: A seismic shift in the sport’s culture as much as its organization and finances.

1. Would a Super League be the end of soccer as we know it?

Sort of. It would have huge ramifications, even though the move directly affects just one element of the European soccer landscape. There are three major avenues for the professional sport:

  • International competition — national teams taking part in tournaments such as the World Cup.
  • Domestic club competition — regular teams playing in tournaments and leagues within one country such as the English Premier League.
  • International club competition — regular teams playing in tournaments and leagues across borders. The richest and most famous is the European Champions League.

A Super League falls into the latter category and would usurp — if not sound the death knell – for the Champions League. National leagues such as Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga may not be directly affected, but a large part of the excitement in those competitions is about teams trying to qualify for the Champions League. A Super League would remove much of the fizz.

2. Why is this being proposed?

Proponents argue the new Super League would create a more exciting competition because the top teams would play each other more frequently. It would also be highly lucrative for them, with permanent membership removing the uncertainty of the Champions League, whose teams must qualify annually or risk losing broadcasting and sponsorship revenue. The 15 founding teams would share an upfront payment of 3.5 billion euros ($4.2 billion).

Under the plan, the marquee clubs, including six from England, three from Italy and three from Spain, would play each other midweek, the traditional slot for the Champions League. In addition to what would be 15 permanent teams, another five would qualify each year. By creating a system in which five places a year are available through a qualification process, the organizers are seeking to head off criticism that the competition is closed — as with the National Football League in the U.S. and the National Basketball Association in North America. The group also pledged “solidarity payments” to European soccer of more than 10 billion euros.

4. Which clubs have signed up to it?

Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Internazionale and Juventus.

5. What are the objections to the Super League?

It runs counter to a deep cultural thread of meritocracy in European soccer. Having 15 permanent members would upset the tradition that any team can be promoted into, or relegated from, a league and none has the automatic right to compete in it. It would further widen the financial gulf between the top teams and others across the continent. Critics says it’s being driven more by the interests of business than sport, and at a time when soccer is under financial pressure because of the need to play in empty stadiums during the pandemic. Then there’s tradition: The Champions League stretches back to 1992-93 and its precursor, the European Cup, started in 1955-56. The proposed new league would lack that history and the prestige that goes with it.

6. Has this been done before?

Not on this scale outside soccer’s regular structure. Professional football and its competitions in Europe are administered by national bodies (such as the English Premier League) and UEFA, which oversees continent-wide events such as the Champions League. They all report to FIFA, the overall governing body for world soccer, which organizes the World Cup. The Super League would be the most significant event outside that setup.

7. How have authorities reacted?

Even before the plans were announced, national leagues from England, Spain and Italy, as well as UEFA, hit back at what they called a “cynical project” founded on self-interest. There’s talk of legal action (already countered by the Super League). Their joint statement raised the prospect of throwing teams out of their domestic leagues. Under the new project, any club would remain in its domestic league but pull out of the Champions League. FIFA weighed in, saying it would ban players from the World Cup who took part in the breakaway. That could potentially throw next year’s event in Qatar into chaos. Political heavyweights also chimed in, with leaders including Johnson voicing their concern. French President Emmanuel Macron praised French clubs for not signing up so far.

8. What about players and fans?

The idea of creating a competition that removes the drama of a smaller team such as four-time champion Ajax winning the trophy or of a bigger club having to qualify in the first place, has angered supporter groups and former players. Fans of Chelsea, owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, highlighted what they regard as the “greed” within soccer, with the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust tweeting that it would “destroy open competition simply for financial gain.” Gary Neville, who won eight Premier League titles as a Manchester United player and now works for Sky Sports, said he was “absolutely disgusted” with the move. The idea that teams could take part in a league and never be relegated from it was, he said, an “absolute disgrace.”

The European ruling body is trying to push through a controversial program of its own. It wants to expand its Champions League tournament to 36 teams from 32, giving each team 10 group games in the group stages rather than six now, an increase that irked some teams complaining the season already has too many games.

10. How would the Super League work?

  • An August start (perhaps this year) with clubs in two groups of 10, playing home and away matches.
  • The top three in each group automatically qualify for the quarterfinals.
  • Teams finishing fourth and fifth will compete in a two-legged play-off for the remaining quarterfinal positions.
  • A two-leg knockout format will be used to reach the final at the end of May, which will be staged as a single fixture at a neutral venue.
  • A women’s league will be also be launched “as soon as is practicable.”
  • “The Club” by Jonathan Clegg and Joshua Robinson. A book on how the Premier League became the richest, most disruptive business in sport.
  • A Bloomberg story on the proposed European breakaway league.
  • JPMorgan bets on disrupting world’s biggest sport.

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