The Super League's provocative offshoot: Do soccer players still care about the World Cup?

·4 min read

Of the many threats levied by politicians and soccer powerbrokers to prevent a breakaway Super League, which now appears likely to materialize amid ferocious backlash, the most fascinating came from FIFA months ago.

Global soccer's governing body has been relatively quiet since Sunday's bombshell. But back in January, in response to speculation about a Super League, it floated its nuclear option.

"Any club or player involved in such a competition would, as a consequence, not be allowed to participate in any competition organized by FIFA or their respective confederation," FIFA said.

Those competitions, of course, include the grandest sporting event on earth, the World Cup.

FIFA's warning relies on a serpentine string of logic. FIFA doesn't want this Super League to happen. If playing in it disqualifies stars from the World Cup, the reasoning goes, stars would shun the Super League. The league's commercial potential would be considerably weakened. Perhaps so much so that its founders would think twice about creating it.

But within that logic are provocative questions: Would stars really prioritize FIFA's showpiece? Or might they choose the Super League? How much does the modern player actually value the World Cup?

Super League or World Cup?

Decades ago, in the age of Pele or even Maradona, the answer to those questions would have been exceedingly obvious. Pele, for years, was considered the greatest ever despite never competing against the sport's greatest clubs. Legends were born and raised at World Cups. Careers were structured around them above all else.

But this, now, is a different age. The Champions League, English Premier League and Spanish La Liga are remarkably visible around the globe. The salaries their teams can pay, the result of gargantuan commercial and broadcast contracts, are lucrative. The platforms they offer are enormous.

In fact, the three most popular players of this current era, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, have built their legends almost exclusively with their clubs. They've mostly underwhelmed at World Cups. But they've won prestigious trophies, and made billions of dollars, and accumulated hundreds of millions of followers because they've showcased their talents annually, more consistently, on soccer's second-biggest stage.

They have sweat and bled and cried for their countries. But they've given more to, and been given more opportunities by, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, PSG and Juventus.

CAMP NOU, BARCELONA, SPAIN - 2020/12/08: Cristiano Ronaldo (L) of Juventus FC is challenged by Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona during the UEFA Champions League Group G football match between FC Barcelona and Juventus. Juventus FC won 3-0 over FC Barcelona. (Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have become global superstars with their clubs. (Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The question is what the next generation would do if given the ultimatum: Super League or World Cup? The Super League would likely become the most visible and competitive club competition on the planet. Its clubs could offer the highest wages. Would players spurn all of that for lesser leagues just so they could play for their countries a dozen times a year in mostly meaningless games, and then in a few meaningful ones once every four years?

Would, for example, 20-year-old sensation Erling Haaland rebuff Real Madrid and Barcelona, and spend the rest of his career at Borussia Dortmund, just for a chance to lead his native Norway to the World Cup?

Would – gasp – Christian Pulisic really leave Chelsea for Everton just so he could represent the U.S.?

Some would opt for national teams. Many likely wouldn't – because clubs, not national teams, pay salaries and enrich day-to-day life. (National team pay, in men's soccer, is largely confined to per-game bonuses.)

The questions, then, would be thrown back at FIFA: Really? Are you seriously going to bar the world's best players from your own World Cup?

Why FIFA would cave

The answer, in all likelihood, would be no. FIFA's threat, in theory, could harm the Super League. It would be far more damaging to ... FIFA.

The men's and women's World Cups account for more than 80% of FIFA revenue over every four-year cycle. FIFA's unflinching primary commercial objective is to maximize the pull of those World Cups. If half of the sport's stars aren't present, because they've been branded pariahs by tournament organizers, a World Cup would still be a spectacle, but the event's attractiveness would dwindle over time.

And so FIFA, surely, would eventually cave.

The Super League, in a way, could become a referendum on the World Cup. It would reveal that the sport's banner event isn't as colossal as it once was – not because it's any less exciting, but because exciting soccer is more prevalent and watchable in the interim.

The threat, in the end, would be empty. The World Cup will go on, with the sport's biggest stars, as it always has. FIFA will profit, as it always has. It just won't be able to stop a group of elite clubs from snatching control of soccer's professional riches.

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