With the appointment of a new head of UEFA impending in just under three weeks’ time, there are a lot of decisions to be made which will shape the way European football grows in the next few years, massively impacting how everybody around the world views our sporting continent. One of the most prominent papers on the gleaming desk of the next incumbent of the hot seat in Nyon, Switzerland, will hold the proposition of whether headlining UEFA competitions, the Champions and Europa Leagues, should be scrapped in place of a new European Super League. We know that frontrunner for the Presidency, Slovenian Aleksander Ceferin, isn’t keen on the idea of this mega money-spinning exercise, but with growing support for the move from leading clubs around the continent, there could certainly be a change in the way European football is played, as well as governed, before too long. Is it actually a well-thought-out and progressive plan, though, or would it turn football on the richest continent of the globe irreversibly down the wrong path, wrecking its future? Would it jeopardise UEFA’s credibility (well, what’s left after having an officially corrupt President for the past nine years) across the vast area it serves, especially in minor nations who might feel more than a little miffed about being rejected from such a tournament? And how would such a change be carried out even if it was passed through?
Well, such questions can only be replied to with estimated answers for now, but I’ll do my best to explain why I believe in this proposed competition, despite my regular lamentations over greedy officials creating tournaments akin to this to make money. There a lot of unknowns so far that will only be clarified over time, such as the final plans being put forward for this tournament from a serious authority, such as a collection of top clubs, managers or players, and most importantly who will take over UEFA, succeeding the man who should’ve been destined for the FIFA presidency, Michel Platini. Without these vital facts to the story, we have to fill in the gaps ourselves, so we can imagine where the future might take us. Assuming Ceferin does take over (although he will be pushed to the line by Michael van Praag and less by Angel Maria Villar), it would be hard to see the project getting off the ground under his leadership, unless his power changes him, and like many other politicians, he fails to deliver on his promises. As current Slovenian FA President, he has a duty to stand up for his nation at UEFA conferences, and part of that duty encompasses protecting minor nations (such as Slovenia) and their clubs from being ignored on the continental stage, and that they get what they deserve in terms of money, opportunity and rights, as everyone else. Considering this then, it would be hard to see him change his stance on the whole European Super League idea. But you never know, it’s not as if Platini delivered upon all his promises during his reign, and in reality, Presidents do have to listen to their people every once in a while, and for Ceferin, those people would be the fans, clubs and players, not just his advisors.
So, with a little luck, this project could, and should, definitely get at least an investigation into the possibility of from Ceferin and his team of 54 Heads of FA’s around the continent, from England to San Marino and Germany to Gibraltar (and a fifty-fifth soon arriving with Kosovo, once they pass a few checks from UEFA). This investigation will at least entertain the possibility for the supporters across the continent, and maybe even open the stubborn eyes of those not so keen, so it could definitely provide some encouragement for the future of UEFA being an open-minded and progressive organisation for everyone. With the current system turning a little stale for most fans across the continent (I know it is for me), this may be the perfect time to give it a shake-up and change UEFA’s tournaments for a competition-hungry and BT/Sky Sports-subscribing generation who would love the opportunity to see all their favourite names in one place.
You see, that is the way the European Super League would work, with all the best clubs and players competing against each other in a top league of ten to twelve sides, and hopefully another three or four leagues using the same system below this with clubs with lower coefficient rankings. Each league would have promotion (except from the top, obviously) and relegation of maybe two spots, giving lesser sides the opportunity to progress through the ranks to potential glory. Honestly, this could give smaller sides a better opportunity than they get in the Champions League and Europa League, as they usually get pummelled in the group stage against sides like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and facing off against clubs with similar capabilities would improve their outlooks and form. While admittedly it could limit their opportunities in terms of sell-out home matches (as fans in countries such as Romania, Serbia, Ukraine and the Czech Republic, for example, would all want to see their side play Man United or Barcelona), these clubs may see it as a chance to become the best of the rest, getting promoted to face those at the top.
Qualification would be much the same as it currently is for both the Champions and Europa Leagues, with clubs in the top three of the top nations qualifying (no matter whether you were involved the previous year) automatically, and the fourth place side having to go through the preliminary phases with the champions of smaller nations. Only sides who won the tournament, or any of its respective leagues (which could be called leagues A, B, C, D and E) would be exempt from having to finish in qualifying places, such as the top four of the Premier League, and if these sides finished fifth, they would take the place of the fourth placed side, like Chelsea did a few years ago in place of Spurs after beating Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. There could be a cap of a certain number of sides, possibly three, from a nation in each league, to stop the domination of a certain country, such as Spain in the Champions League with the Madrid’s and the Europa League with Sevilla recently. After all, the whole concept of the European Super League is to make exciting competition for the masses, so four Spanish or English sides all competing in the same group of twelve sides or so could make the tournament a bit predictable and boring for those outside the major nations.
And how would the champions be decided then? Well, (remember, this is if I was making the rules), each club in each division would play 22 matches (twice against each of the other eleven sides in their league), with three points awarded for a win and one for a draw. The winner would be the one with the most points, or in the event of a tie, best goal difference. Simples. But if UEFA needed a showpiece to really drag the viewers in, rather than a steady, season-long league system, then there could be a ‘final’, between the two top sides after their 22 matches, facing off at a neutral venue to decide the best side in Europe. With the top sides having to all face each other an equal amount of times, a level playing field should increase the drama for all those watching, as if Barcelona, Real Madrid or even Leicester City think they are the top force in Europe, they will have to prove it by beating each other, rather than clubs like Legia Warsaw, FC Rostov or Ludogorets Razgrad, to the prize.
Yes, I know, my version of the rules may be a bit confusing, but to round it up, the concept is pretty similar to a mini-Premier League, with fewer clubs, but the same concept, other than possibly a final deciding the victors. In actual fact, it’s more similar to the impending UEFA Nations League (ironically, as Ceferin would back that but not the European Super League), as the top sides get to face the other top sides, with world class players having to compete against their equals (in ability and wage), rather than a few nobodies playing for the side that finished second in the Kazakhstani league, or something obscure like that. It makes a lot more sense really, and proves that era-defining clubs like Barcelona can be beaten, but only if they are drawn against other great clubs.
For fans, too (well at least the Sky/BT Sport-subscribing ones), the Super League would be a massive step forward, as in this country we don’t get to witness the best international players live very often. Well, I certainly don’t as a non-Sky/BT Sport customer who can only really view the likes of Lionel Messi, Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale on YouTube or during the Euros/World Cup. And no, before you say it, the solution is not to pay the subscription fee to Rupert Murdoch and his goblins at Sky, nor their brethren at BT, as I should hope you know my thoughts on their monopolisations of the market by now. Realistically, I know that Sky and BT would also snap up the rights to this new league, but if ITV or BBC (preferably the latter) could get some highlights packages, it would be just as good for those of us with morals. I know that, being in the non-BT/Sky cut of the population, I would be happier than I am with the current system, as I would be safe in the knowledge that I could at least watch highlights, tune in to and read live updates of these great matches that would take place, rather than just have to bypass each meaningless match.
Honestly though, for a player I really admire and would love to see more of, other than in the Olympics and the World Cup back in 2014 (it seems a long time ago now), I don’t think I’ve seen Neymar live at all in the past few years (this is just one example by the way, I’m sure there are many others). This is also the case for millions of people out there, as a whole generation of amazing footballers are bypassing us because Sky and BT have capitalised on the UK’s obsession with football and stolen it from our screens. To see (or not, as the case may be) so many great players pass us by is a sad state of affairs, and proves that this new tournament wouldn’t fix every problem that arises in modern day football, especially for the fans.
First off, this new concept has kept itself worryingly secretive ever since Real Madrid President Florentino Perez stated his intention to lobby for its introduction back in 2009, so it hasn’t got credible reason for confidence and backing from fans or officials yet. It does seem like a selfish reaction from the top clubs in practically the world, as all your favourites including Los Blancos, Barcelona, Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea have been reported to mull over the deal, in response to the relatively meagre offerings UEFA hands clubs for winning or at least doing well in the Champions League. For example, Real only received £80 million for their entire winning run last season, less than they would need to pay for Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale again, which is pretty disappointing considering how much UEFA must draw in from broadcasting deals and sponsorship (the Russian state-backed, Arctic oil-drilling Gazprom in particular). £80 million doesn’t even cover one Manchester United transfer these days, nor probably a transfer window’s worth of spending by West Ham, so it won’t go very far for a club like Real Madrid.
Taking control back into their own hands, these clubs can receive funds directly from sponsors and TV companies, so it doesn’t have to go to ensuring that the middle man, UEFA, can keep restocking its offices in Switzerland with champagne and caviar. I’m sure sponsors would be queueing around the street for the chance to get in on the act by attaching their name to a tournament which would no doubt fast become the most popular club competition in the world. But is this what we as fans want? Well, if this happened, clubs would obviously have more funds to spend on players, and that would ensure that the £100 million mark for a player is reached sooner rather than later, for better or worse (definitely the latter if you ask me). But more importantly to fans, it could encourage higher ticket prices and more exclusive opportunities, pushing the average man on the street out of the ground.
Secondly, it brings the entire concept of knockout competitions into disrepute, as it would reject UEFA, and pretty much any national cup system, by radically opting for a league-like set-up which would shatter the establishment by making a clique of the top sides and forcing UEFA to go along with them. Realistically, UEFA and Ceferin will make it as tricky as possible for Perez, Ed Woodward, Josep Maria Bartomeu and any other club representatives at the table to make any progression towards their goals, but that could turn out to force both sides further apart. This would only cause the biggest clubs to irreversibly reject the Champions League, maybe even refusing to compete until they get their way, and nobody wants that. When thinking that far ahead, UEFA would lose all respect if they let things go that far. In my mind, I can only see things escalating to that point in only really three or four years, in which time the whole idea could be shelved, so don't expect any immediate movement from either side on this subject, especially not as Ceferin or van Praag (fairly unlikely) is settling into the top seat. Instead, there will be a whole lot of hand-shaking, talks over dinner and sucking up going on across the continent over the next few weeks and months.
Theoretically too, the heads of FA’s Europe-wide shouldn’t be too keen on a big-club split from the governing body, as it then disregards their importance too, because if clubs didn’t have to answer to UEFA, the respective FA’s wouldn’t have to either. Also, if the Champions League was dissolved, so could each country’s domestic cups, such as the FA Cup in England, as the big clubs would either have to complain about facing off against lower-league opponents or face the threat of being called hypocrites for nit-picking on the continental stage but not nationally. I don’t think anybody in this country would be keen on removing (or even changing) the FA Cup, such is its heritage and importance to us all in England (and for six Welsh clubs), the old saying that ‘anyone can beat anyone’ on its stage being effectively part of our national mentality. So why do we see the Champions/Europa League differently? Well, they aren’t as well established or loved, as the fixtures to and fro between countries west and east, north and south, and we can’t keep up with it all, retaining interest and intrigue, especially when 99% of ties don’t involve our clubs, with the only national representation being from Manchester, London, Glasgow and on occasion, Leicester (it still sounds crazy to say). So as a result, we’ve never really fallen in love with the competition. Well, most of us. Liverpool fans still hold onto it as their only claim to being dominant over every other English club (having won five times), but the days of Liverpudlian forays into Europe (especially successful ones) are numbered.
As a result, I think UEFA need to bring something new to the table. No, ensuring four automatic spots for England, Spain, Germany and Italy will not do the job, as the first two always get four clubs in that far, and the latter two’s third and fourth placed clubs are just happy to be there most of the time. It might well quieten the naysayers for a bit, but UEFA won’t have long before their current changes backfire, as smaller nations will realise that this may be the start of something bigger, as their spots get lost to Inter Milan, Sevilla and Schalke, for example, and they get pushed out to the preliminary stages, where they will get demoted into the Europa League. So honestly, any selfishness from either side will be met with anger, and there can never be an agreement that everyone can settle on, nor any that would suit one and all.
What would you do in this situation then? Try and appease the top clubs by offering them more places in the competition like UEFA has just done, stick to your guns and keep your colleagues in smaller nations satisfied by keeping the current system, or give in to the top clubs, and your biggest names, by giving them reins to do what they wanted? Either way, I seriously think the position of UEFA President could be a poisoned chalice for Ceferin, as he won’t make everyone happy in the way I’m sure he’d have dreamt about when he put his name forward. He’s inherited (or is about to at least, unless he’s already bought the votes of each nation) an impossible challenge, an impending disaster of colossal qualities and a broken system from Michel Platini, and I’m not sure he’ll be too grateful for that, nor too prepared for the eventual drama. All he can do for now though is state his cause, whose side he is backing, and wait for the results. The thing is though, I can’t help personally feeling he is wrong, and that UEFA should listen to what the clubs they dictate have to say, at least staying open minded and attentive to any suggestions the clubs have. While it may be a money-making concept designed by Perez and the rest of the big cheeses across Europe’s major cities and clubs, it’s difficult not to at least entertain the idea of, and for me, it’s a leap into the unknown that should be explored somewhere down the line, providing it doesn’t bulldoze the European footballing landscape. After all, who wouldn’t want to find what would happen if Mourinho, Zidane, Conte, Guardiola, Enrique and Ancelotti, or Ibrahimović, Ronaldo, Bale, Hazard, Aguero, Messi, Neymar, Suarez and Lewandowski all went head-to-head on a fortnightly basis?
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!