As I began writing the headline for this piece, I found myself writing UEFA European Super League by accident multiple times. I realized, soon after, that I associate a lack of meritocracy with UEFA. The UEFA Champions League is by no means a fair competition; hence, when so-called smaller, but, sometimes, in reality, historical sides such as Porto and Ajax make deep runs, they are considered “fairytales.” The last new winner of the competition was Chelsea in 2012, a club which is set to join the European Super League and unsurprisingly so. Before the super clubs started destroying competition, UEFA and the Premier League were long at it.
However, this by no means gives the “super clubs” a pass. This is not for competition. Otherwise, Arsenal would have no part in it. I should know; my family are Arsenal supporters.
Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of watching Arsenal play Fulham in a London derby. Fulham is fighting relegation; Arsenal needed an equalizer in the seventh minute of stoppage time to rescue a point.
You can tell me that sometimes, supposedly big teams have bad days. Take a look at the Premier League table over the last two seasons. Arsenal is mired in mid-table mediocrity. In games against the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City, they have been swatted aside and the score-lines have not reflected the true nature of the oppositions’ dominance at times.
I have watched Arsenal for 15 years; they made one run to the Champions League final during that time. They were lucky that UEFA accommodates four teams from the Premier League in the Champions League because Arsenal would not have participated in a long time if that was not the case.
While nobody was under the illusion that the European Super League had anything to do with merit, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur are clear examples that this contest has nothing to do with merit and everything to do with money.
On the subject of merit, the Champions League is not fair; otherwise, a coefficient based system in which four teams from top leagues gain entry would not be employed. The Champions League perhaps should be just that - for the champions of the top 32 associations from Europe. Perhaps coefficients can be used to decide who the 32 associations should be.
Yet, despite that, the Champions League allows for a system in which the likes of Atalanta and Lyon came make a deep run. The Champions League allows for a smaller team to beat out a bigger side. While RB Leipzig runs under a quasi “50 + 1” dynamic, they did make a deep run into the competition last season.
I have not yet wrapped my head around the new format of the Champions League. However, the current format still allows for a surprise winner. If anything, while there is no such thing as a real meritocracy (it is incredibly difficult to make all conditions equal for every one), the answer is to make the game more competitive, not less.
Pushing aside meritocracy for a second, if historical context is taken into account, then it is Ajax and PSV Eindhoven who should be getting invites, certainly not PSG and Manchester City.
Going back to meritocracy, the competition includes 12 founding members; these members, if I am correct, cannot be relegated. The competition itself, hence, does not encourage winning every game. I doubt if Arsenal would even care about finishing midtable this season had relegation not been an actual threat in December 2020.
Schalke, who seemed too big to fail, is now almost certainly going to get relegated. As a fan of the game, relegation “six-pointers” are as entertaining and as important as a top-four clash. With the threat of relegation thrown out, clubs like Arsenal, Spurs and, to a lesser extent, Manchester United (since Sir Alex Ferguson) can forever aspire to be mediocre and not lift a finger in the Super League. Their model of ownership means what fans think is largely symbolic.
At least meritocracy was a myth that is sometimes true in the Champions League; under the European Super League, all meritocracy might be lost. Furthermore, within the structure of super clubs, there are “super duper” clubs. If I had to pick right now, I would tell you that the top six would comprise Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich (who haven’t joined), PSG (who also haven’t joined) and also, possibly, Liverpool. The Milan clubs, Juventus and the remainder would not be able to compete adequately based on recent performances.
And more than anything, the Super League is really a middle finger to historically well supported clubs like Borussia Mönchengladbach, Marseille and Napoli.
Real support, not symbolic
I am under no illusion that had Bayern not been fan owned, the club would have signed the deal to become a part of the Super League. However, let us not forget that the game exists for supporters. And, as a result, out of fear of backlash, Bayern had to say “No.”
In the Premier League, support toward the fans, unless individual players like Marcus Rashford, take action, is largely symbolic. Roman Abramovich does not care an iota of how Chelsea plays, but he cares that they win. I doubt the Glazers at Manchester United and Stan Kroenke at Arsenal care if they are winning trophies. For Arsenal, the Super League is a savior from their self-inflicted troubles; it is a guarantee that the club is profitable regardless of performance on the pitch.
When fans have the final say in matters, clubs have no choice but to listen. I have heard the argument that “50+1” holds clubs back. In fact, Martin Kind, the former president of Hannover 96 opposed it and applied for an exception. The DFL rejected it because of lack of support for the proposal. It stood. And today, as a result, Bayern and Dortmund have to side with the fans.
It is no secret that Chelsea and Manchester City are toys of billionaires. It is no secret that Liverpool and Manchester United’s owners do not care about the history of the clubs. It is no secret that fans of Premier League clubs sometimes want their club to be taken over by rich owners. It is no secret that the Bundesliga is said to struggle because of the “50+1” rule supposedly holding them back.
However, maybe the world needs more of “50+1” and fan ownership.
I am in the camp which thinks fans have more power than they think. A unified fan response, as happens in Germany on multiple occasions (the protests against Dietmar Hopp of Hoffenheim in 2020 come to mind), particularly in England, might stand in the way of the Super League. It is no surprise that this decision comes at a time when fans cannot attend games and cannot make their voices heard.
Romanticism of domestic football
Domestic football is the heart of the game; there is no question about it. One of my favorite fixtures is Bayern vs Mönchengladbach on a Friday; that game is a clash between two of Germany’s most storied clubs, one which the Super League obviously chose to ignore.
Football doesn’t necessarily “happen” when Chelsea plays Manchester City; it is more prevalent when Gladbach plays Köln. It is more prevalent when Roma takes on Lazio. The domestic game has provided us with the most storied of rivalries. The Super League threatens to destroy the competitiveness of domestic football. Why should Eintracht Frankfurt try so hard to beat Dortmund knowing that Dortmund will be in the Super League and they won’t?
Furthermore, because UEFA is also in charge of the smaller federations, all the money does not go to the big sides. That means that, as one of our readers, servus_gb, pointed out, the likes of Robert Lewandowski can develop in a virtually unknown club, at least outside of Europe, Lech Poznan. Cristiano Ronaldo was developed in Portugal by Sporting Lisbon. These two players are synonymous with the game. This shows that the players at the top have to come from somewhere; a Super League overall could diminish the level of quality at the top as a result.
Ultimately, the prize for all players are the European nights we all wait for. Lower down, the ultimate prize is promotion to the top league in the nation. Why should one even play league football when the ultimate prize of Champions League night is gone?
What are your options as a fan?
If your team, like my family team, Arsenal, decides to join the Super League, what should you do? I think it ultimately comes down to what the sport means to you and the following:
Morality vs “Product”: If you care about being entertained only and that is your attachment to the game, you should want your team to be a part of the Super League, although I am not quite sure how entertaining Chelsea vs Manchester United will be multiple times a year.
However, if your love of the game is down to the game itself, meaning that you are the type to tune into the Berlin derby because of Union’s passionate fans and because you know the game will be feisty despite the quality of the play not being of the highest level, then the idea of “morality”, despite UEFA not being the most moral of bodies, means something to you.
If it is about morality for you, watching your team in the Super League (unless you are a sadist like me and just want to see them beaten week in week out for the fun of it, and, yes, I am talking about Arsenal) might be difficult. If you care simply for the “product”, then by all means, watch.
Global vs Local: While the nature of the sport is global, local flavor adds value to the game. For example, if you care about the local nature of the game, then players like Thomas Müller matter to you because they represent the region and the club. This does not mean Manuel Neuer (the captain) and the likes of Joshua Kimmich do less for the club — this means that there is a leader in the side who knows what it means to be Bavarian and can help global fans understand the flavor, if you will, of the region.
If you want to see the best players play for your team such as Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Lionel Messi etc, and you do not care if, for example, Christopher Richards (virtually homegrown) and Josip Stanisic make it in the first team, then, perhaps you do not care about the local flavor. You can also want both of course: a scenario in which your team has the best players and homegrown talent is ideal.
If you care about the best players only, however, the Super League should be entertaining. If not, however, you have a tough decision to make.
Emotions vs Rationality: My initial response to this decision was littered with emotion. I was angry even when I went to bed last night. An emotional response, even from fans of the Premier League billionaire-run clubs, was to be expected. Nonetheless, I saw others had a more rational response: their response was that the Super League is only the natural conclusion of years of power being transferred into the hands of top clubs.
If you are in the camp which believes this is the natural conclusion, then the Super League is for you. If not, and your response remains emotional like mine, you might have to think long and hard about it.
For fans like me who came into the game at a time when four English but only three German sides (the third had to come through qualifying as far as I can recall) were allowed into the Champions League, I virtually grew up with this format and it is incredibly difficult to let go off. My emotional response to the Super League partially comes with letting go of what I know. I am used to a system in which there are some consequences for not performing well. There were times in the 2000s stretching into 2011 when qualification for the Champions League was not guaranteed for Bayern; after all, Bayern found themselves in the UEFA Cup (now the UEFA Europa League) in the 2007-08 season. Perhaps, this is why I am having a tough time grappling with it all.
What is Bayern to do?
Bayern has so far decided not to join. The structure of German football makes it almost impossible to join. For now, I believe, Bayern has taken the correct stance. When those in positions of power hold out, then others might follow. For Bayern, the fear of being left behind might eventually mean that they reluctantly join. However, Bayern never needed to circumvent “50+1” to be one of the major powerhouses in the game and became successful while remaining connected to the fans.
The Bayern Ultras are surely watching this with a keen eye as are the members. This club has it all and is a well-run institution, despite the recent bickering involving Hasan Salihamidzic and Hansi Flick. Dortmund, as well, is an incredibly well run club.
It remains to be seen what happens in the long run.
What should you do if your club joins the Super League? Leave us your thoughts below and, as always, thank you so much for reading!