Europe’s Super League & the fragility of corporate power.
The people held European soccer clubs accountable. They won—and so can we.
English Premier League soccer has become a bit of a pastime for me over the course of the pandemic. Like many American kids, I played soccer growing up. But by middle school I shifted my focus to football (the American kind). My interest piqued again while in graduate school in the UK, when one of my best friends, who grew up in North London, turned me back on to the sport through his childhood team, Arsenal F.C..
Back in the US, games were hard to catch and my interest again waned. But after hearing about how Mo Salah, the Egyptian-born star of defending champion Liverpool F.C., changed attitudes about Muslims in Liverpool, I began to take a deeper interest. I came to appreciate just how international the game is: more often than not, Salah’s goals are assisted by Sadio Mané, a Senegalese player, or Roberto Firmino, a Brazilian—all passionately adored by fans in the hard-scrabble town of Liverpool, the UK’s Detroit, and celebrated all over the world.
But European soccer also speaks to my politics. Compared to American sports leagues, the sport is also deeply egalitarian. Every year, a different 19 teams compete for the Premier League Championship. That’s because the worst three teams are relegated to a lower league, and the lower league’s three best teams are promoted to the Premier League. The top four teams in the Premier League get to play for the title of European Champion in a Europe-wide “Champion’s League” alongside top teams from across Europe.
Make no mistake, the richest, most storied clubs you’ve probably heard of—Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal—tend to dominate with larger budgets and better facilities. But they still have to win to compete. And every once in a while a team pulls off the kind of Cinderella run that is the essence of sport. Leicester City (pronounced “Lester”) did just that, going from promotion from the lower league in 2014 to become Premier League champions two years later. Residents of Leicester—a city known better for its cheese than its soccer—will never forget it.
The European Super League
Two weeks ago, the egalitarian structure of European football came under dire threat as news emerged of a new European “Super League.” The six richest Premier League teams hatched a plan, alongside the richest clubs from Spain’s La Liga and Italy’s Serie A leagues, to create a new elite league that would do away with the Premier League’s long-held meritocratic relegation-promotion structure.
The Super League would combine the richest programs in the world into one competition that would command far bigger, more lucrative television deals. With so much money, the league would attract the world’s best talent, sucking other leagues dry.
The idea of a super league has long been a rumor in soccer circles—the dreaded “Americanization” of soccer, where advertising money and TV deals reach so deeply into the sport as to change the very structure of gameplay. Indeed, after the Super League was announced, it was revealed that American banking giant JPMorgan was due to finance it with an upfront loan of $6 Billion.
The plan was hatched in nearly complete secrecy. Many coaches were told only a few hours before news broke publicly—their players learned of it through the media.
Slaying the Goliath.
It was roundly denounced. Liverpool veteran James Milner took to Twitter with a message on behalf of his teammates, “I don’t like it, and I hope it doesn’t happen.”
Pep Guardiola, the coach of Premier League-leading Manchester City, one of the teams that was supposed to join the Super League, said of the plan:
It is not a sport where success is already guaranteed or it doesn't matter if you lose. I said many times, I want the best competition. It is not fair when one team fight, fight, fight at the top and cannot be qualified because it is just for a few teams.
Former Manchester United Captain Gary Neville’s disavowal of his former team went viral.
Even UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson weighed in, asking:
How can it be right that you create a kind of cartel that stops clubs playing against each other without the hope and excitement of fans up and down the country?
He pledged that his government would “take whatever action necessary to put a stop to these plans.”
But the deepest of all opposition was reserved for the fans. It’s important to understand the context here. English soccer fans are another breed. Soccer is akin to civic religion in big cities and small towns where the same clubs have played for over a century.
Prior to their next game, the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust held a protest outside the stadium. In a blistering statement, they called Chelsea’s move to join the Super League “the ultimate betrayal.”
This is a decision of greed to line the pockets of those at the top and it has been made with no consideration for the loyal supporters, our history, our future or the future of [soccer] in this country.
Those sentiments were echoed across the UK. In Liverpool, where Salah plays, a group of fans who organize flags, banners, and displays at the stadium asked the club to remove them, declaring that they can “no longer give support to a club which puts financial greed above integrity of the game.”
A YouGov poll found that a whopping 79% of fans opposed the Super League.
And then a magical thing happened. Not 48 hours after the league was announced, Manchester United announced that it was pulling out. Arsenal and Tottenham followed suit. Then Chelsea and Liverpool. The jig was up. The Super League had collapsed.
The people—the heart and soul of European soccer—had spoken. And they forced the multi-billion dollar corporations and their multi-million dollar executives to heel. This is what the leadership at Arsenal said in a statement:
As a result of listening to you and the wide football community over recent days we are withdrawing from the proposed Super League. We made a mistake, and we apologise for it.
The lesson we should learn.
It’s tempting to dismiss the story of the Super League as something happening on another continent in a sport to which Americans don’t pay much attention. But given the role of American corporations in the league’s development, it’s worth a closer look.
Because here’s another way to read the story: A few rich and powerful companies that people rely on for a critical, irreplaceable public good were spurred by the scions of wealth and capital to consolidate their market position by colluding with other rich and powerful companies to lock out their smaller competitors and fleece their customers. That story? It’s as American as apple pie.
This time it was European soccer. But it’s also American healthcare: finance-backed health systems collude with big insurance to negotiate reimbursement rates that cripple their competitors and force patients to choose between one or two options with inflated prices. Or prescription drugs: finance-backed Pharma corporations buy the patents for old meds and arbitrarily inflate prices on people who would die without them just to raise their stock price on Wall Street. Or education: for-profit charter school operators buy local schools and then extract money off the top of the tuition dollars that would have gone to local public school districts.
But here’s the difference: when it came to the Super League, the people stood up. They forced accountability on their soccer clubs. And they won. It’s a reminder that these battles are worth fighting—that they are winnable. It’s so astounding because it's so rare. Most of the time, we don’t fight in the first place, believing that the power of corporations and their C-suite decision-makers is inviolable.
If English soccer fans can stand up to fight for their soccer clubs, perhaps we too can fight for our healthcare, our prescription drugs, our schools, and our lives.