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The European Super League Pyramid Scheme

Two contradictory imperatives—money and sentiment—fuel any discussion about the future of European soccer. Sunday’s announcement of a breakaway league revealed which side the game’s elite clubs have chosen.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For a long time now the underlying economic structure of European soccer has been in the grip of one of those logical conundrums that seem like they belong in first-year philosophy textbooks. You know the kind I mean? They always get their own names, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma or Zeno’s Paradox or Gary’s Ice Cream Sandwich Uncertainty, and they always seem hugely profound and utterly trivial at the same time—you think about them for a second, see the radiant core of the universe rotate 90 degrees in your mind, and then go, “huh! weird,” and tab back over to the video you were watching about a hedgehog that befriended a wheelbarrow (cute).

The conundrum that has gripped European soccer goes something like this:

  1. There are 475,000,000 European soccer clubs.
  2. Many, if not most, fans largely pay attention to around 16 of the most successful of these clubs, and somehow also Tottenham Hotspur.
  3. The popularity of these clubs both ensures their continued success (only they can afford the best players) and makes them the operational center of elite soccer worldwide (they pay the best players’ salaries).
  4. Each club is incentivized to advance its own competitive interests, such that the elite clubs, and also somehow Tottenham Hotspur, have reason to press their gigantic structural advantages to further marginalize and crush the other 474,999,983.
  5. The fans, whose preferences have helped turn the big clubs into Death Star–ish behemoths, also insist that they value the 474-odd million smaller clubs and that their passion for the game would be weakened without the rich histories and traditions that the big clubs’ Death Star–ish behavior threatens to destroy.

The conundrum, in other words, is that European club soccer is being steered by two contradictory imperatives at the same time. There’s an imperative of attention and money, which tells the big clubs to act as though they’re the center of the universe, and there’s an imperative of sentiment, which tells them to act as responsible members of a community. And both those imperatives come from the same source—you and me, and anyone else who loves the current league structure, feel nauseated at the thought of losing promotion and relegation, and yet would rather watch Manchester City–Barcelona inside an active volcano than tune in to Fulham-Burnley in a resort.

This is not a stable situation! It leads to all sorts of problems: lack of clarity about who’s actually running the game, constant resentment on all sides, massive yet haphazard power shifts (the TV rights deal in Spain, the entire existence of the Premier League) that leave small clubs clinging to life and big clubs annoyed that a translucent sliver of pie still goes to Ipswich Town. On Sunday, a dozen of the most elite clubs in European soccer—including, somehow, Tottenham Hotspur—announced their intention to form a breakaway league. The details are evolving by the minute, but it essentially involves a “Super League” consisting of 15 of the wealthiest teams who will play each other in a season-long competition meant to supplant the UEFA Champions League as the world’s premier club competition. Those 15 teams will have permanent standing in the league and will be joined by a rotating cast of five clubs that will qualify each season according to predetermined criteria.

Just about the only thing I can say in favor of the European Super League is that it’s at least an attempt to clarify the situation. It says: Between the imperative of money and the imperative of sentiment, money wins; the big clubs, not UEFA or FIFA, are the real power in the sport; soccer should be an American-style spectator sport oriented toward the modern global TV audience, not traditional local fan bases; preserving the game’s history matters less than catering to the conditions of right now.

As the explosion of derision and fury that greeted the Super League’s announcement on Sunday demonstrated, many people find these to be outrageously unsatisfactory answers to the question of what soccer should be in 2021. But at least they are answers. If the big clubs get their way and the Super League happens—that’s still a big if, for all that the press releases are treating it as a certainty—then we’ll be done with this weird hybrid version of the game in which raw commercialism exists in a confused muddle with concern for the little guy. (One of the funniest parts of the Super League’s rollout was watching the Premier League, which is literally a breakaway competition started in order to funnel more TV money to the big English clubs, suddenly becoming very morally grave about the sanctity of history and the league pyramid. The Premier League was founded in 1992.)

Don’t misread me here. All the criticisms of the big clubs are correct. They are greedy, bullying, self-interested, and perfectly happy to torch many of the attributes that make soccer wonderful if it means a tiny advantage for them. Somewhere there is a parable about a warlord whose rebellion reduced the country to a desert; he didn’t care if it was a desert, as long as he got to be king. I’m pretty sure he was a Manchester United fan.

On the other hand, I’m an American soccer fan who pays money to watch European club football on television. I am way more excited to watch games when the world’s best players are involved, which typically means when the big clubs play each other. Complaining about the Super League makes me feel a little like the guy who’s upset about the demise of independent bookstores even though he orders from Amazon 90 percent of the time, or the guy who’s sad about the struggles of indie bands even though he’s spent 15 years streaming nothing but Drake albums.

Of course fans aren’t always rational about the things we love. But the tidal wave of global interest that’s swept over European club soccer since the early 2000s—there was nothing stopping it from concentrating on Preston North End or Racing Santander, was there? If we care so much about promotion and relegation and the fate of smaller clubs? But no, we mostly gave our hearts to Liverpool and Arsenal and Barcelona and Milan, because given a free choice most people would rather watch great players and root for winning teams. And that’s not a bad thing! Marveling at the talent of other people is half the pleasure of spectator sports. I’m just not sure how to tease apart my natural human desire to watch Lionel Messi do transcendent things with a soccer ball from my desire to condemn the Super League—not when it’s my desire to watch Messi that’s made the Super League quasi-viable in the first place. You can’t pretend everything is the same when you, specifically, are the difference.

Probably the clever way to say all this would be to say that soccer is in a phase of transition: A new balance is being negotiated between an older model of the game and a newer model. The negotiation feels like a series of upheavals, as the interested parties on all sides test the limits of what they can get away with. The transition would be smoother if there were a centralized authority in soccer that could be trusted to oversee the transition intelligently, but neither FIFA nor UEFA nor the domestic leagues are really authoritative or really intelligent. At the moment, FIFA is threatening to ban players who participate in the Super League from the World Cup, which is another move that might help clarify where things really stand in world soccer. Under the imperative of sentiment, it would destroy the Super League; under the imperative of money … well, I might be the only person who sees things this way, but to me it looks like a bold move for FIFA to ask hundreds of the best players in the world to choose between a quadrennial tournament whose profits mostly go to FIFA and the clubs that issue their paychecks.

If I sound a little abstract and irresolute about all this, it’s probably because I’m finding it hard, the morning after the announcement, to believe that the Super League will actually happen. There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, and there’s also many a slip twixt the press release and the opening whistle of a competition that’s currently in the crosshairs of multiple European governments, that hasn’t even finalized its roster of clubs (Bayern and PSG are still saying nein and non), and that’s still hammering out the details of its multibillion-dollar funding package with JP Morgan Chase. Either way, though, change is coming to European club soccer. I hope it can take a better form than this one—suggest a Super League with promotion and relegation, for instance, and I’m at least sitting down for your pitch—but I don’t think it can be postponed for long. It will probably make fans uneasy. It will probably not kill the game. And it will definitely, somehow, involve Tottenham Hotspur.