European football has just witnessed the rise and fall of a multi-billion sporting empire — in less than three days. The plans to form the breakaway 20-team European Super League (ESL) are in disarray as English and Italian clubs have pulled out of the proposed league. Football leagues in Europe have a rich and cherished history, with fan loyalties going back four or even more generations. ESL’s base was, it was clear, the greed of the biggest clubs of Europe, except the ones from Germany and France, who didn’t join. The plans to form a league of elite, super-rich clubs who were to be given membership in perpetuity, with no need of qualification or fear of relegation, struck at the principle of sporting meritocracy. It was an attempt at a great heist, and it met with very hostile public opinion.
Fans of football were shocked. Football being the people’s sport, heads of government got involved. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson threatened legislation to thwart the breakaway league, while France’s Emmanuel Macron spoke against ESL’s threat to “principles of solidarity and sporting merit”. The pressure bore fruit, and ESL seems to be a stillborn project — for now. ESL’s plans were grounded on a solid financial argument: It would have replaced the elite UEFA Champions League — for which the clubs must qualify — and have inherited its massive TV and digital rights revenues. The ESL clubs would have simply pocketed that money rather than sharing it across Europe, as is done in the Champions League structure.
Right from the 1990s, ideas have been floated by individuals or entities for a separate league in order to get a share of the massive pie of football revenues. Falling revenues in the times of the Covid pandemic have made the clubs desperate — player salaries have spiralled out of control and top clubs are more business entities than football institutions. Many European clubs are owned by oligarchs from abroad — Russian, Arab or American — who are chasing money and glory. Pressure from fans, football associations and governments has thwarted ESL, but it could only be a tactical retreat.