The revolution is coming. There’s nothing soccer’s governing bodies can do to stop it, that much is clear. A European super league is beginning to feel inevitable.
On Thursday, the New York Times reported that plans for such a breakaway continental competition, an alternative to the UEFA Champions League pushed by mega-clubs Real Madrid and Manchester United, are so advanced that funding is already being sought to pay each of the 20 would-be members a $425 million fee for their commitment.
This new league has been rumored for a quarter century, pushed by the biggest and richest clubs as a way of keeping more of the vast wealth generated by their head-to-head matchups. The Champions League has helped to enrich the big clubs, but it also funds UEFA, Europe’s governing body, which redistributes some of that money to its member nations and the grassroots game. The big clubs have used the possibility of a super league as a cudgel to extract ever more money and guarantees from UEFA over the years. And it comes as no surprise that this latest push comes in the midst of negotiations over a revamped Champions League.
But this time around, the proposal to create a permanent class of elite teams – either 20 fixed clubs or 15 and five qualifiers – seems so close to happening that it has alarmed UEFA and FIFA enough to make threats.
FIFA and its six regional governing bodies said in a statement that any player or club to appear in such a breakaway league would be barred from competitions put on by those organizations. Which is to say that such defectors would no longer be eligible to play in the Champions League or national team tournaments like the World Cup or European Championship. They could, however, remain in their domestic leagues, unless those decide otherwise.
That’s how you know that FIFA is powerless, and that UEFA is powerless, and that they are at the mercy of the clubs. There is no bite to their bark.
The clubs, for starters, would be delighted not to have to release their players to national teams any longer. The clubs pay the salaries – national teams give out relatively modest performance bonuses, for the most part – and are saddled with the repercussions of injuries. The players, for their part, might be disappointed to miss World Cups, although it might plausibly also come as a relief to some of them.
Oh, and the clubs couldn’t appear in the Club World Cup any longer either. Which won’t bother them any if a super league generates several hundred million dollars per club, as it projects to.
But it’s a threat FIFA could never actually carry out. It’s an entirely hollow menace. Because if the biggest clubs in the world did indeed break away from UEFA’s elite club competition, rendering their players ineligible for the World Cup, that tournament would be shorn of almost all of its star power. Rare is the player of a caliber capable of starring on the game’s biggest stage who isn’t already employed by one of those mega-clubs.
FIFA would be devouring its crown jewel event just to take a stand, cutting off its nose to spite its face. A World Cup without its stars isn’t a World Cup at all, it’s just some national B-teams playing a summer tournament. A World Cup without Messi and Ronaldo and Mbappe and Neymar would feel illegitimate. And FIFA’s Club World Cup would likewise implode without Real Madrid and Barcelona or Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus competing in it.
The rush to a super league seems to have been propelled by the pandemic, which cost the big clubs hundreds of millions in missed revenue. What was that old adage about not letting a crisis go to waste? But it always felt likely that we would end up here eventually. Absent any kind of mechanisms to curb soccer’s runaway capitalism – after UEFA’s Financial Fair Play scheme to limit large outside investments turned out to be toothless – the rich and famous would never reroute themselves from the path to maximum riches and fame. This is all of a piece with England’s biggest clubs proposing a scheme to consolidate their own grip on the Premier League in exchange for a payoff to the smaller ones.
Yet the proposed reform for the Champions League gives the big clubs a lot of what they want, generating more revenue and making it harder for the legacy teams to be knocked out. Still, they might just go it alone.
The governing bodies have lost this fight. All that’s left for them is to express indignation and, quite reasonably, accuse the powerful clubs of selfishness. But they won’t convince anybody that they would effectively euthanize what few money-making competitions they would have left as a matter of principle.
There’s isn’t anything to stop the clubs from doing what they want any longer. They’re in charge now.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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