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The European Super League is coming whether we like it or not


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From The Times


March 30, 2009


The Super League is coming whether we like it or not


Gabriele Marcotti

Eleven years ago, a company called Media Partners threatened to turn the footballing world on its head. The firm, now known as MP & Silva, specialises in buying media rights from football clubs and selling them on to broadcasters. In the summer of 1998, it figured that the time was ripe for a breakaway European Super League.


The numbers looked good, the interest was there. Some clubs embraced the idea enthusiastically, others were lukewarm, but nevertheless signed on for fear of losing out. There were several versions of the project — one would have had clubs withdrawing from their domestic competitions, another would have kept them involved in both, perhaps fielding reserve sides in one or the other — but the concept remained one and the same: scrap the Champions League and have a competition for the biggest clubs around so that we can all make as much money as possible.


Uefa at first threatened Media Partners and the prospective breakaway clubs before, inevitably, reaching a compromise: it increased the Champions League participants from 24 to 32, bumped up the prize money and added another group stage, which has since been scrapped.


We heard little about the Super League idea until ten days ago, when France Football, the magazine, reported that such a plan was being revived at the behest of the European Club Association (ECA), the body representing some 150 European clubs.


France Football went into incredible detail — outlining three divisions of 20 teams with promotion and relegation, a TV contract worth ten times as much as the present one — while quoting Michel Platini, the Uefa president, as saying that “if the request comes from the clubs, it would be my duty to consider it”. Uefa quickly distanced itself from the idea, as did ECA members, claiming it had “never been discussed”. And, in fact, it now appears that the idea was floated not by the clubs, but by a media rights company, looking to “test the water”.


That version of the Super League seems dead, and with good reason. The tiered “divisions” are a goofy notion. It’s one thing for, say, Rotherham United fans to accept that they’re in the third tier of football, quite another for supporters of clubs such as Feyenoord or Sporting.


Having said that, don’t think the idea is dead and buried. However alien the concept may seem, it’s a fair bet we’ll see it in our lifetime. And, in fact, there are already hints that we are moving towards that model.


Consider the ECA’s proposed licensing system that would bar clubs that spend more than a preset percentage of turnover on wages and transfers from the Champions League. Effectively, this would discourage wealthy patrons such as Sheikh Mansour, the Manchester City owner, from bankrolling smaller clubs, while allowing bigger clubs to outspend the minnows. Just as importantly, it would keep down costs and virtually guarantee profits, without relinquishing a club’s competitiveness on the pitch.


Uefa has yet to rule on the proposal and Platini has been noncommittal. But such regulation — in effect, a salary cap — is a close relative of those that exist in American sports, where the leagues are continent-wide, television-driven, highly profitable closed shops. Much like Media Partners’s original vision.


There are plenty of factions who would oppose a Super League, starting with the domestic leagues. The Premier League would fight tooth and nail, knowing that a competition without its top four or five clubs would be worth a fraction of what it is now. But, ultimately, the Premier League is a group of clubs freely associating to play football. It’s not a prison. If one or more want to leave, there isn’t much it can do. Especially if all of this were to transpire with the blessing of Uefa and Fifa, which may seem far-fetched now, but, remember Sepp Blatter, the president of world football’s governing body, won’t be around for ever and Platini’s not omnipotent, nor is his mind immutable.


Super League proponents will point to the fact that it’s a natural evolution of the game. We live in an integrated Europe, why not integrate football?


After all, less than 100 years ago, English clubs south of the Midlands — with the exception of Arsenal — competed in the Southern League, not the Football League.


The pros and cons of all this can be debated endlessly. Just as, perhaps, in 1908 Southern League clubs asked themselves whether it was fair that Tottenham Hotspur should get elected to the Football League, despite finishing seventh.


The point is that economic imperatives and the political and social evolution of Europe are pushing football towards a Super League. And, whether we like it or not, it’s on its way. Let’s hope it arrives later rather than sooner.

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