Well, this is awkward. Less than 48 hours after its 12 “Founding Clubs” announced the conception of the European Super League, the breakaway league began to crumble before our very eyes. By Wednesday morning, it was as good as done. One by one, almost all of the founders jumped from a sinking ship that hadn’t even been built, let alone set sail.
And then came the statements. Some were matter-of-fact: “We have formally commenced procedures to withdraw from the group developing proposals for a European Super League,” read Tottenham’s. Manchester United said it “will not be participating in the European Super League,” shortly after executive vice chairman Ed Woodward announced his resignation effective at the end of the year. Others were more groveling: Arsenal was the first to apologize for signing up in the first place. “We made a mistake, and we apologize for it.” Liverpool owner John Henry delivered his statement on camera, making a heartfelt plea of contrition in front of some extremely sad-looking flowers.
After all six of the Premier League clubs withdrew, Inter, A.C. Milan, Atlético Madrid, and, rather begrudgingly, Juventus followed suit, leaving only [checks notes] Barcelona and Real Madrid remaining. Barça president Joan Laporta was under less pressure to withdraw immediately, seeing as his predecessor, Josep Maria Bartomeu, signed off on the club’s participation—Gerard Piqué made it clear that Laporta wasn’t to blame. The decision to join the Super League, Laporta said, would have to be approved by a central group of Barcelona members anyway.
The reaction from the Spanish capital was even more telling. Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez has held firm, kind of like Cersei Lannister did while watching a dragon torch King’s Landing. (“The Bernabéu has never fallen, it won’t fall today!”) There is something comically tragic about Pérez, one of the main instigators of this disastrously attempted coup, going on television 24 hours before the project’s suspension to declare the group’s resolve. “The contract of the Super League is binding. Nobody can leave,” Pérez said. “We will work all together.” He’s been left pretty much all alone. And while he was wrong on, well, pretty much everything, he may have been right about one thing: Maybe the European Super League will save the game, after all. Pérez made another television appearance on Thursday and reiterated the group’s commitment to the Super League. He said it was “not dead, it’s on standby,” and insisted the pushback was “a campaign, totally manipulated.” He even questioned the validity of the protests outside Stamford Bridge on Tuesday before the Chelsea game.
If it sounds like I’m mocking Pérez, it’s because I am; everyone involved in this venture deserves mockery. But before getting into the serious implications of this gambit, let’s briefly bask in the glow of a minor victory. Feels good, doesn’t it? Rarely—if ever—has there been an apology from a billionaire owner of an elite soccer club, let alone several of them. As Martin Tyler would say, we may not see anything like this ever again, so drink it in.
Never before have so many of Europe’s top clubs had so little leverage. Most of the executives at the 12 breakaway clubs resigned their roles at UEFA and the European Club Association, leaving a lot of extremely pissed-off club executives in their vacated seats. For years, the Super League was dangled like a menacing stick, used by the game’s elite to secure even more favorable conditions from UEFA. When they actually followed through on the threat, they did it with the arrogance of Thanos collecting the final Infinity Stone. However, the outcome was as though he clicked his fingers only to vanish himself.
These clubs’ influence remains, of course, and now comes an uncomfortable period of possibly returning to the status quo and everyone pretending this never happened. Henry and his counterparts say they have “heard” the fans, but fans have heard that before, too. It’s on UEFA and the various domestic associations—most notably the English FA—to ensure that this moment is used to enact genuine positive change throughout the sport. A sensible first act would be to get rid of the “legacy” spots in the new Champions League reforms, the details of which emerged as the Super League imploded. If UEFA were smart, they’d ditch the new reforms entirely because—currently, at least—none of the 12 Super League clubs deserve to play in any continental competition. And if they are going to participate, they should do so on sporting merit.
There has never been a better time for UEFA to enact meaningful reform and face such little internal resistance: Fans of the six Premier League clubs involved in the breakaway were integral to its unraveling and will likely expect some form of sanction. Various supporters’ groups met with members of Parliament, released statements, and protested to condemn the actions of their clubs. Much more is required, but the brunt of the reconciliatory work should be done by those responsible for creating this mess, not the fans.
As I mentioned on Tuesday’s Stadio podcast, what should happen next is a decade-long pursuit of parity. Of the plast 29 Champions Leagues/European Cup winners, only three have come from outside England, Spain, Germany, or Italy. If Paris Saint-Germain win it this season, they’ll be the first French winner since Marseille in 1993 (whose domestic title that season was subsequently stripped after team officials attempted to bribe an opponent). Ajax (1995) and Porto (2004) are the only other winners from outside the top four leagues.
This Super League debacle has highlighted what everyone has known for years: European soccer is broken, but UEFA’s response shouldn’t be to consolidate more wealth at the top in order to placate the “Founding Clubs,” so they don’t attempt another coup. Unlike the Super League’s founders, UEFA has the benefit of witnessing the fan response this week and now arguably has an opening for their biggest free hit in history: reduce the size of the European club competitions, make sure that lower-profile league champions are guaranteed places, have access to more of the revenue generated, and embark on a process of raising the floor level rather than making the ceiling even higher.
Idealistic? Absolutely. Impossible? Nope. This week’s events will have shaken those at the very top of the sport to their core. The game they refer to as beautiful hasn’t been so for a long time, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t be again. Let’s just not prioritize the interests of the 12 clubs who were so desperate to make it even uglier when attempting to do so—their actions this week should never be forgotten.