Karl-Heinz Rummenigge sits comfortably in his crimson-red armchair. He inhales deeply from his Cuban cigar, before sending a circle of white smoke into his stuffy surroundings. He twirls the remnants of his Slyrs Bavarian whiskey in his right hand. Smirking, he looks out from his castle window, gazing down on the rest of us, the insignificants of football, as he prepares to pen the finishing touches to his European Super League master plan…
Talk of a European Super League in recent weeks has seen the likes of Rummenigge, formerly a legendary German winger and now Bayern Munich’s current chairman, become the latest arch-enemy to be scripted into the narrative of world football (following in the fated footsteps of Messrs Blatter and Platini). ‘King Kalle’, as he is affectionately known in Munich, is said to be one of the main exponents of such radical reform to the European game. He is not alone. Josep Bartomeu, the current President of Barcelona, spoke recently in a BBC interview of the need to introduce ‘tennis-styled’ wild cards to allow the so-called big clubs a free pass into Europe’s premier competition. Susana Monje, the club’s Vice-President, has since gone one further by pledging the Catalan giants’ support for a club-controlled Super League, free from the clutches of UEFA, following Barcelona’s defeat of Arsenal in the Champions League. And, of course, there was the meeting between the apparatchiks of five of England’s ‘biggest’ clubs with American billionaire Stephen Ross in early March. Clubs who, as things stand, sit third, fourth, sixth, eighth and tenth in the Premier League.
Why is this being discussed now?
The big clubs in Europe are feeling under threat. On the Continent, the threat is the Premier League. In England, the threat is Leicester City – and the growing strength of the Middle Class of English football. But how does this culminate in the suggestion of an invitation-only Super League?
Television Rights disparities across the Continent are a good place to start. The Premier League’s latest Television Rights deal agreed last year gives a good indication of the extent to which television companies are willing to go to corner the market. The deal, amounting to an astonishing £5.136 billion over the next three years, which equates to around £10.16 million per match broadcast, makes the English top flight far and away the richest league in the world. The Premier League winner this season will have earned £146 million by its close, whilst the side who finish bottom – probably Aston Villa – still stand to net £97 million. Last season’s champions Chelsea are thought to have only claimed £99 million.
This blows European competition out of the water. Even under the previous television rights deal of the 2014-2015 season, the Premier League’s bottom placed club, QPR, still earned more money than the French champions, PSG, the German champions, Bayern Munich, only slightly less than the Italian champions, Juventus, and more than everyone below 3rd in La Liga. Now, with an increase in revenue of a staggering 71% coming into force this season, European nations simply cannot compete. For the English ‘elite’—a self-appropriated title—this means that obtaining a coveted top four finish is all the more difficult. Previously mediocre sides are now able to invest more heavily in their squads, meaning not only are they harder to beat, but they now stand a greater chance of making it into European competition themselves, as we have all witnessed this season thanks to the truly inspiring performance of Leicester City.
The financial strength of the Premier League is a very real concern for clubs across Europe—and not just for the elite. Recently, it was reported that Europe’s second tier clubs are looking to resurrect the idea of an ‘Atlantic League’, an idea first proposed in 2000. The league, which would feature sides from Scotland, Greece, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Scandinavia and Portugal, is based on the blue print drawn up originally by PSV chairman Harry van Raaij and former Rangers chairman Sir David Murray. The idea would be to see select sides leave their domestic divisions in order to compete in another pan-European format, pitching the likes of Celtic and Rangers against PSV, Benfica, Copenhagen and so forth. The hope here is to appeal to both television companies and sponsors, enabling these sides to compete with the riches of the Premier League and arrest their current decline in stature. In essence, it is the European Super League’s equivalent to what the Europa League is to the Champions League.
These lucrative Super League formats are not simply emerging out of a wider financial concern on the part of world football. Indeed, the dominance of PSG in France, Juventus in Italy as well as Bayern Munich in Germany have led many to suggest that the rigours of their domestic divisions are not enough for clubs of their stature. The duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona, perhaps now including Atletico in that mix, also reflect this.
Working Man’s Game or Business Man’s Gain?
The motivation here is undoubtedly greed. If, as they claim, Barcelona were so keen to play in a more competitive and financially lucrative competition, they would start by addressing the staggering imbalance in Spanish Television Rights, which sees Real Madrid and Barcelona take well over €100 million more than anyone else in La Liga. It is not difficult to see the wood from the trees. The working man’s game is now the business man’s gain, an easy market with which to manipulate and milk for every penny.
For the five men who attended that secret, last-supper for-the-devil meeting with American money man Stephen Ross at the plush Dorchester Hotel earlier this month, the idea of a European Super League was music to their ears. It takes away the risk that comes with any sport, a risk they have to negotiate in order to do what is required of them from above and bring home the money. It is, therefore, unsurprising that only one of those five clubs, Arsenal, have openly condemned such a proposition.
In Spain, Barcelona’s Vice President Monje has cited the importance of breaking away from UEFA. This, echoed by Rummenigge, is seen as a necessary requirement in order to allow clubs greater control from those ‘good-for-nothings’ at UEFA who are seen to control European football. Any such Super League, it has been said, would come separately through the European Club’s Association. The main motivation for this disaffiliation stems from the fact that UEFA controls all the revenue streams for European competition. A European Super League, directed by the clubs themselves, would remove the middle man, allowing the bigger sides a greater share of the TV war chest. This, in turn, would ensure that those smaller, ‘unworthy’ entrants to the Champions League from lesser nations – most of whom are reliant on Champions League participatory earnings – are kept out.
Pulling away from UEFA would be a truly radical step. But such talk still carries great weight, regardless of whether a Super League can or will be formed. The ‘big clubs’ undoubtedly still want change, or to put it more bluntly, a means of cornering the market. As a result, Bartomeu’s suggestion of guaranteed entries into the Champions League gains more traction as UEFA seek to appease their greatest money-spinners. This is all the more pressing with UEFA due to present clubs with its proposals for changes to European competition by the end of this year. These changes will come into force at the end of the current Club Competition cycle in 2018.
Who is set to lose out?
The losers in this brave new world of the Super League are set to be everyone else—from the smallest clubs to the glass-ceiling shatterers like Leicester. The hopes of the many that their club might one day rival today’s very best will be sacrificed for the profit margins of the few. From Accrington to Accra, every club, every fan, everyone involved in football dreams of the day their club claims the greatest prize in world football. For Leicester City, this truly magical dream is becoming an impossible reality. But Leicester’s reality is precisely what these corporate giants want to guard against. Leicester’s gain is their financial pain: whether it be a Super League or Automatic Entry to Europe’s top table, by killing outside competition, they keep the balance sheets looking pretty. They ensure their continued dominance in the game, as well as a dominance of the revenue streams.
These proposals are, then, quite clearly inadmissible. It is difficult to comprehend what gives these clubs the right to think they can choose to govern how football is run for everyone else. When sides like Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City contemplate such a move, it smacks of historical amnesia as both teams have only recently been the recipients of extensive financial investment themselves. In Italy, both Milan sides have been little more than mid-table outfits for the last few seasons. It is hard to see how they merit a Super League or guaranteed Champions League entry spot. Even Bayern Munich, you could argue, have only really come to enjoy such a domineering position in Germany since the 1970s: before then, the biggest club in Munich was 1860.
There is, therefore, a clear sense of entitlement being espoused here by these ‘big clubs’. Football fans—those who do not follow some of these ‘elite’ sides (the majority, no doubt)—would have no say in any sweeping change being discussed. As a Nottingham Forest fan, I long for the day we return to those heady days of ’79 and ’80, when we sat at the table of Europe’s finest and could say we belonged there. As things stand, the belief that we could still replicate this feat remains. But with a European Super League, these dreams are being swept by wayside.
Out of Your League?
It is not simply the individual clubs who would suffer though. Allowing the so-called ‘elite’ sides to leave their domestic divisions would have dire consequences for the leagues themselves. Some have suggested, as Rummenigge has done, that the Super League sides could field a second string side in their home top flights. The ramifications for these domestic league systems would be fatal. The inevitable withdrawal of television money would see those clubs outside the Super Leagues struggle to make ends meet. There is also the very real possibility that wealthy club owners would likely seek to withdraw their backing once elite football riches are rendered out of reach. As there are more clubs owned by foreign financial backers in the top two divisions in England than there are not, this would certainly see more than one side fold.
Additionally, any change to the current European format again would have painful implications for other competitions. The Super League would, in effect, kill the Champions League financially in the same way it would domestic divisions. For smaller European clubs of the stature of Partizan Belgrade in Serbia and Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia, this would shut off a vital income source that allows many of these debt-straddled sides to compete.
Beyond this, changes to entry requirements pose fundamentally more moral questions. For example, under the auspices of a European Super League, the possibility arises that domestic high-flyers, like Leicester City or West Ham United, might be refused entry at the expense of an underachieving side. But to imply that, for example, Leicester City do not deserve a shot at facing the best in Europe strikes at the heart of what makes football the sport that is adored the world over – its meritocratic nature. Take away the possibility of promotion into or relegation out of the highest leagues and you take away the motivation for the remaining sides to compete. For those teams left behind in the European domestic leagues, the only possible outcome here would seem to be a growing disinterest on the part of the fans as their teams lost any sort of competitive inclination.
An affront to us all
Rummenigge and his friends may not be sat, whisky and cigar in hand, hiding out in their castles. But they are looking enviously across the Channel at the wealth being generated by English clubs. They are wondering how they too can get a piece of it, and how they can ensure they will not be left behind. But the answer is not the reconstruction of European football as we know it. Football is known as the beautiful game because it is accessible to all. Shutting the doors to elite competition goes against the ethos of the game. Football breaks down barriers, it does not build them. Such entitlement, such greed and such elitism, would corrupt the very soul of the game.