The 48-hour history of European soccer’s long-discussed, hastily arranged, belatedly announced, much-derided and quickly abandoned Super League was short on chapters but long on drama.
The battle for control of soccer’s billion-dollar economy — a fight that Rory Smith of The New York Times referred to on Friday as The Sunday-Tuesday War — began with rumors of a blockbuster new league, then burst into the open with talk of lies, deceptions and betrayals; prompted street protests in several countries; and produced threats of official government action and sporting excommunication in many others.
And then it all ended, only two days after the news broke, with a cascade of humbling reversals by half of its member clubs.
If you weren’t paying attention, you missed quite a bit. Here’s a recap.
The idea of a superleague of top European soccer teams had been discussed for decades, but never with the detail and the concrete plans that emerged on Sunday morning.
After months of secret talks, the breakaway teams — which included some of the biggest, richest and best-known teams in world sports — confirmed that they were forming a new league, unmoored from soccer’s century-old league systems and Continental organizational structure. They declared that the soccer economy no longer worked for them, and that their new project would create a shower of riches that would reach every level of the game.
European officials, national leagues and the clubs left out — not to mention fans, who smelled greed as the prime motivation — recoiled.
The league they have agreed to form — an alliance of top clubs closer in concept to closed leagues like the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. than soccer’s current model — would bring about the most significant restructuring of elite European soccer since the 1950s, and could herald the largest transfer of wealth to a small set of teams in modern sports history.
Read more from Tariq Panja, who broke the news.
Rory Smith noted not only what soccer would lose with the play by the big clubs, but also why fans (and sponsors, and TV broadcasters, and the news media) bore some of the blame for the idea’s coming to fruition.
And it is here that those who hope to benefit from shutting the door, from fixing the rules of engagement, cannot take all of the blame. Many of those who spent Sunday spitting fury at the greed of the conspirators have been complicit, over the last 30 years or so, in making this — or something very much like it — the only conclusion possible.
That is true of the Premier League, which waved in money from anyone and everyone who could afford to buy a club, which took great pride in its “ownership neutral” approach, which never stopped to ask whether any of it was good for the game. It is true of the Spanish authorities, who made it clear that the rules did not really apply to Real Madrid or Barcelona.
It is true, perhaps most of all, of UEFA, which has grown fat and rich on the proceeds of the Champions League, from bowing to the demands of its most powerful constituent clubs, giving more and more power away just to keep the show on the road. It is true, even, of the rest of us in soccer’s thrall — the news media and the commentariat and the fans — who celebrated the multimillion-dollar transfers and the massive television deals and the conspicuous consumption of money and did not stop to ask where it would all go.
The Fight Begins
By Monday morning, the battle to stop the Super League was on. Governments and heads of state weighed in. So did FIFA, which often views itself as an independent nation. Secret intelligence was shared, frantic phone calls were made, and shouts of “Judas!” and other insults, like “snakes” and “liars,” added to the tension.
By first light, the fight was on. In a letter written by the breakaway teams, they warned soccer’s authorities that they had taken legal action to prevent any efforts to block their project.
A few hours later, Aleksander Ceferin, the president of European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, used his first public appearance to denounce the group behind the plan and vowed to take stern action if it did not reverse course. He raised the possibility of barring players on the participating teams from events like the World Cup and other tournaments, and threatened to banish the rebel clubs from their domestic leagues. Sunday’s announcement, he said, amounted to “spitting in football fans’ faces.”
Wait: What’s a Super League?
Still not sure what the Super League even was? We can catch you up really fast right here.
The Tide Turns
With prominent players, respected coaches, everyday fans, and sponsors and television networks adding their voices to the opposition, Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, was persuaded to pull out the biggest threat in the arsenal of those fighting for the status quo: In a speech at the congress of European soccer’s governing body, he reiterated FIFA’s threat to ban any players who took part in an outside competition from the World Cup:
“If some elect to go their own way then they must live with the consequences of their choice, they are responsible for their choice,” the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, said in an address to European soccer leaders at their congress in Montreux, Switzerland. “Concretely this means, either you are in, or you are out. You cannot be half in and half out. This has to be absolutely clear.”
It All Falls Apart
Tuesday was a blur. First, whispers, then street protests, and then news: Manchester City was out. Chelsea was looking for ways out of its contract. Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United walked away. Liverpool followed.
Forty-eight hours after it began, it was all over.
The denouement was a stunning implosion for a multibillion-dollar proposal that had prompted howls of outrage from nearly every corner of the sport since it was announced on Sunday, and the culmination of a frantic 48 hours of arguments, threats and intrigue at the highest levels of world soccer.
What Were They Thinking?
How, Rory Smith asked, could the founders have been so blind? How could they not have seen this coming? Where was the people backing this idea? And do we ever have to take their threats seriously again?
By Monday, less than a day into their brave new world, they had lost the governments, and they had lost the European Union. Not long after, they lost the television networks that, ultimately, would have had to pay for the whole thing.
Then they lost the players and the managers, the stars of the show they were hoping to sell around the globe so that they might grow fatter still on the profits: first Ander Herrera and James Milner and Pep Guardiola and Luke Shaw and then, in a matter of hours, dozens more, whole squads of players, breaking cover and coming out in opposition to the plan.
By Tuesday, there was scarcely anyone they had not lost. They had lost Eric Cantona. They had lost the royal family. They had even lost the luxury watchmakers, and without the luxury watchmakers, there was nothing left to lose but themselves.
The Tick Tock
The back story, reported in rich detail by Tariq Panja, was even richer, though. How Barcelona tipped everyone’s hand. How Paris St.-Germain and Bayern — after receiving offers to join — turned down the league and instead helped to kill it. How an olive branch tucked into a speech in Switzerland gave England’s clubs a way out.
The full, definitive story reads like a movie thriller:
Still, the drumbeat of rumors continued, and Ceferin felt he needed to be sure. So as he slid into the front seat of his Audi Q8 on Saturday to start the eight-hour drive from his home in Ljubljana to his office in Switzerland, he decided to get to the bottom of things. He placed a call to Agnelli. His friend did not pick up.
Ceferin — the godfather to Agnelli’s youngest child — texted the Italian’s wife and asked if she might get the Juventus president to call him urgently. He was three hours into his journey when his cellphone rang. Breezily, Agnelli reassured Ceferin, again, that everything was fine.
Ceferin suggested they issue a joint communiqué that would put the issue to rest. Agnelli agreed. Ceferin drafted a statement from the car and sent it to Agnelli. An hour later, Agnelli asked for time to send back an amended version. Hours passed. The men traded more calls. Eventually, the Italian told Ceferin he needed another 30 minutes.
And then Agnelli turned off his phone.
By Friday, even the bankers were apologizing. But soccer’s problems were not over.
The plan hatched by Europe’s elite clubs was wrong on almost every level, but its architects got one thing right: Soccer’s economy, as it stands, does not work.
Now it is gone. It is possible that, by the end of this weekend, as either Manchester City or Tottenham celebrates winning the League Cup, as Bayern Munich inches ever closer to yet another Bundesliga title, as Inter Milan closes in on a Serie A crown, all of this will feel like a fever dream. On the surface, it will be behind us. The insurrection will have been defeated, condemned to the past. Everything will be back to normal.
But that is an illusion, because though the Super League never had a chance to play a game — it barely had time to build out a website — it may yet prove the catalyst to the salvation of soccer. It has, after all, stripped the elite of their leverage. They played their cards, and the whole thing became a bluff. Now, for the first time in years, power resides in the collective strength of the game’s lesser lights.
They will need to use it.