How European soccer should design its controversial Super League

European soccer’s vaunted super league is coming. Supposedly. Just as it was last year and two years ago. Just as it has been at various points for decades. On Tuesday, English broadcaster Sky dropped a self-dubbed “bombshell.” Manchester United, Liverpool and a cabal of top clubs are reportedly in talks with FIFA over a new continental competition that would essentially overthrow the UEFA Champions League. According to Sky, firm plans could reveal themselves by the end of the month.

To skeptics, it’s the latest act in an intermittent years-long charade. La Liga president Javier Tebas decried the “ignorance” of the authors. To many, this is merely a multi-pronged power play from soccer’s global governing body and its richest actors. FIFA wants control of the sport’s most potent annual competition. Clubs like United and Liverpool use the threat of a top-heavy continental league as leverage to win more influence domestically.

To realists, though, the current structure of European soccer is unsustainable. Domestic leagues are increasingly and irreversibly stratified. Change, therefore, is both necessary and inevitable. A super league could prove beneficial for everybody, including the sub-elite clubs initially left out.

That is, as long as it’s done right.

Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, PSG, Real Madrid and Manchester City would all be involved in a European super league. (Visionhaus/Getty Images)
Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, PSG, Real Madrid and Manchester City would all be involved in a European super league. (Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Which is why this feels like time for an intervention. Because the plan vaguely described by Sky sounds unfeasible and counterproductive. It calls for an 18-team league, comprising clubs from England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France, that would run concurrently with domestic leagues. It would overload players with up to 80 or 90 games in a calendar year, pushing already-overworked bodies to a breaking point. It would, effectively, be a more exclusive and robust version of the Champions League, created in the name of gargantuan profit, potentially funded by Wall Street giant JP Morgan and other investors.

It would, however, leave many of European soccer’s systemic problems unsolved.

While it seems radical, it actually isn’t radical enough. To create a super league that benefits most and satisfies all, we instead have to reimagine the top of global soccer’s pyramid.

How a European Super League could work

European soccer’s current hierarchy has multiple peaks. Most games are played in domestic leagues – the EPL, La Liga, and so on. But most prestige is concentrated in the Champions League.

This dichotomy is a product of history. The premise of every sporting competition is to pit best against best within certain constraints. And those constraints, back in the 19th and early-20th centuries, were geographical. Soccer developed before airplanes did. National borders became league boundaries. National leagues, therefore, became the primary competitions. Continental tournaments developed as secondary circuits when technology made them feasible.

What the super league concept proposes is that those roles should be reversed. And in the 21st century, role reversal makes complete sense. Geographical constraints have been eliminated by air travel. It’s now possible to marry quality and quantity, to pit Europe’s best against Europe’s best weekly, to wage prestigious battles consistently. And if it’s possible, it’s preferable.

The goal, in other words, is to create a single peak. The way to do that is not to increase the size of an already-existing peak and keep it crammed among others, as the latest proposal suggests; but rather to create a new peak, atop the existing hierarchy.

We’ll call it the European Super League, or ESL for short. It would bring the 1 percent together in the most entertaining, lucrative 18-team league the world has ever seen. But it would be open, accessible based on sporting merit. And, crucially, it would keep the 99 percent financially stable and relevant.

Here’s the outline, the first slide of a PowerPoint that UEFA and FIFA could present to Europe’s top clubs – or vice versa:

  • The 18 best European clubs leave their domestic leagues and the Champions League to form the Super League (ESL).

  • Everybody plays everybody home and away. Games occur weekly, in nine different time slots Thursday-Monday, optimized for TV. After the 34-game regular season, the top four make the ESL playoffs. Semifinals and a grand final decide the champion.

  • The bottom two ESL clubs get relegated back into their domestic league and the Champions League every year.

  • The domestic leagues exist just as they do now, except without Super League teams.

  • The winner of every top-flight domestic league in Europe goes into end-of-season playoffs. The winner of those continental playoffs gets promoted to the Super League.

  • The Champions League also exists just as it does now, except without ESL teams. The winner of the Champions League also gets promoted to the ESL.

  • Each top-flight domestic league begins with 18 teams, but numbers may fluctuate in subsequent years based on ESL promotion and relegation.

  • Domestic cups – FA Cup, Copa del Rey, etc. – still exist, and become the main secondary competitions for Super League teams. Early-round matchups determined by geography to preserve local derbies such as Liverpool-Everton and AC Milan-Inter.

  • Super League revenue shared semi-equitably among Super League clubs, and with clubs further down the pyramid to prevent further stratification.

  • Super League squad size limited to 23 players, ensuring talent is also distributed throughout domestic leagues.

Here’s a very simple visualization of what the new pyramid would look like:

(Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
(Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Why the Super League would work

We could get deeper into specifics. We could outline how the ESL promotion playoffs would in part be modeled after the current Champions League qualifying rounds. We could introduce a Bundesliga-style relegation-promotion showdown. We could lay out the entire calendar, with the Super League playoffs comprising three-game series in May.

We could even devise a plan to start with 12 clubs – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus, Inter Milan, PSG, Man United, Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea – and let the other six earn their way in over multiple seasons, with a relegation freeze until we get up to 18.

But most important is the overarching concept: that this Super League would be so exciting, so attractive, so commercially mighty, with soccer’s biggest brands dueling every weekend, that nobody would suffer financially. Discussions around revenue sharing would be the trickiest part. But in theory, if the Super League is lucrative enough, an agreement can be reached that benefits almost everyone. The pie can grow. Everybody’s slice can be bigger.

Oh, and domestic leagues would still draw very significant interest domestically. A title fight between Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton, Leicester, Wolves, Leeds and Aston Villa still sounds appetizing. The Champions League, with clubs like Ajax and Leipzig and Lyon potentially vying for promotion to the Super League, would be wonderfully exciting. Domestic cups would take on heightened importance. Supporters of non-elite clubs could legitimately dream of trophies. Revenue streams and fandom would both remain relatively diverse.

There are all sorts of contractual issues that stand in the way of any super league scheme, including the one currently being discussed by elite clubs, and including the one described above. But the current Champions League format expires in 2024. Negotiations surrounding its future will heat up next year. UEFA would be smart to enter with an open mind; to get in on plans for a true super league rather than resist them. The future of the sport, and almost everybody involved, would be better off.

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