Soccer is going to 'nuclear war' with itself over controversial Super League

·7 min read

On Monday morning, less than 12 hours after their club announced a break from tradition in the name greed, some Liverpool fans ambled up to Anfield, the 137-year-old stadium they adore. A stadium synonymous, in many ways, with a working-class club. A stadium where, for decades, locals and their parents and grandparents have cheered, sung, cried, and celebrated soccer teams that brought them immeasurable joy.

But on Monday, they came to tell the club they loved that it was dead.

"SHAME ON YOU. R.I.P. LFC. 1892-2021," one banner read.

"LFC FANS AGAINST EUROPEAN SUPER LEAGUE," another beside it said.

And as they hung them, all across Europe, the world's most popular sport dug deeper into a deeply troubling war with itself. Fans of 12 elite clubs, who on Sunday announced the launch of an exclusive Super League, feel betrayed. Many are organizing protests. Nearly all of them, regardless of team affiliation, are furious. "We feel we can no longer give our support to a club which puts financial greed above integrity of the game," a Liverpool supporters group said.

Players also criticized the Super League plan. "I cannot remain silent about this," PSG midfielder Ander Herrera tweeted. "I believe in an improved Champions League, but not in the rich stealing what the people created, which is nothing other than the most beautiful sport on the planet."

Coaches, too. Hansi Flick, of Bayern Munich, which hasn't yet signed onto the plan: "I’m focused on different topics, but I can say that the Super League wouldn't be good for European football."

Even clubs whom the Super League founders have recruited on Monday voiced their opposition in official statements.

But as all the fury fomented, the 12 Super League clubs readied for battle. On Sunday, UEFA, soccer's European governing body, threatened to "consider all measures available to us, at all levels, both judicial and sporting in order to prevent this happening." Hours later, the clubs wrote to UEFA and FIFA to say they'd already filed legal motions to protect themselves. They are all in, backlash be damned.

"This isn't a civil war," a board member at one of the Super League clubs told Sky Sports. "It's a nuclear war."

Anti-European Super League posters hang outside Anfield stadium, home of English Premier League football club Liverpool, in Liverpool, north west England on April 19, 2021. - Fan of the six Premier League clubs leading the breakaway European Super League have slammed the controversial plan, branding it the
Anti-Super League banners hang outside Anfield. (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Soccer's governance structure splinters

Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli woke up Sunday morning as a member of UEFA's executive board, and as the head of the European Club Association (ECA), an organization representing the interests of hundreds of top European soccer teams.

On Sunday night, he was perhaps the biggest villain in the sport.

Agnelli abruptly resigned from both posts, lobbing political grenades on his way out. He and Juventus, along with the 11 other Super League founders, ditched those hundreds of clubs. They left the ECA to create their own league, one that many believe will benefit its members and harm just about everybody else.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said he'd spoken with Agnelli on Saturday. “I have never seen a person lie so many times, and as persistently as he did," Ceferin said. He said Agnelli then "turned off the phone."

Speaking more broadly of the Super League engineers, and specifically naming Manchester United CEO Ed Woodward, Ceferin said: "We weren't aware that there were snakes among us. Now we know."

The Super League founders, in their Sunday announcement, said they hoped "to work together in partnership [with UEFA and FIFA] to deliver the best outcomes for the new league and for football as a whole." And indeed, there remained some belief Sunday that an amicable solution could be found.

By Monday morning, much of that belief had evaporated. UEFA pushed through a defiant vote to ratify changes to its Champions League – changes the Super League clubs had backed as recently as Thursday, but that now stand in conflict with the Super League vision.

Then Ceferin, the UEFA president, stepped to a microphone and accused those 12 clubs of "spitting in football lovers' faces."

UEFA threatens bans

Ceferin also reiterated a threat that FIFA had made back in January: That players at Super League clubs would be banned from the World Cup.

“They will not be able to represent their national teams at any matches,” Ceferin said. The bans could extend to the Euros, a quadrennial continental championship, the latest edition of which is set for this summer. When pushed on details, and on when bans would take effect, Ceferin said he was consulting lawyers.

He also said the Super League clubs could be barred from the Champions League and other UEFA competitions as soon as next season, even if the Super League isn't yet off the ground. 

“My opinion is that as soon as possible, [the clubs] have to be banned from all our competitions, and the players from all our competitions,” Ceferin said.

(Three Super League clubs, meanwhile, are scheduled to play in the 2020-21 Champions League semifinals next week.)

Ceferin also said that FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who has not yet publicly taken up arms in the war, will strongly condemn the Super League when he address UEFA leadership on Tuesday. The English Premier League, La Liga, and other national leagues have already condemned it.

But the Super League clubs anticipated war, and the threat of bans on clubs and players. The threats, they wrote in a letter to Ceferin and Infantino, "compel us to take protective steps to secure ourselves against such an adverse reaction, which would ... be unlawful."

And with that, the war bled into courts. Governments are already involved, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson promising to prevent the league.

It's unclear whether UEFA and FIFA would or could actually bar players from the World Cup. What is clear, though, is that some players aren't on board with the Super League.

Players push back against Super League

The new league, its clear, has been driven by and for uber-wealthy owners, without the input of the people who actually drive the sport: players.

"Players were not consulted and aren't keen," The Independent's Melissa Reddy reported on Monday.

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Some began to voice that opinion. "Kids grow up dreaming to win the World Cup and the Champions League – not any Super League," former Arsenal and Real Madrid star Mesut Ozil said.

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And Lyon's Ada Hegerberg: "I grew up loving the Champions League. ... It's the past, present, and future, so is meritocracy in sports. Greed is not the future."

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The war of words, too, has only just begun. Managers of Super League clubs, such as Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp – who in 2019 said, "I hope this Super League will never happen" – will be asked to comment. The soccer world will expect them to condemn their own bosses. Will they?

Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel, when asked Monday, was hesitant and equivocal. Managers and players have been thrown into difficult situations. The players, individually, are relatively powerless. But as a collective, they could be extremely powerful.

As fierce as the sparring has been over the first 16 hours, hundreds of influential people haven't yet taken sides. The war will be long and ugly. The future of soccer rests on the outcome.

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