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European Soccer’s Elite Club Wants to Become Even More Exclusive

A proposed restructuring of the Champions League will create an impenetrable division among the haves and have-nots

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Both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur will enter Saturday’s Champions League final in Madrid feeling that destiny is on their side. It’s understandable after Liverpool overcame a 3-0 deficit after the first leg of its semifinal against Barcelona, and Spurs came back from 3-0 down on aggregate of their second leg against Ajax, with Lucas Moura scoring the decisive goal six minutes into stoppage time. A berth in the final is worth leaving it all on the field, as merely an appearance, let alone a victory, showers both players and clubs in wealth and prestige.

UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, sanctions two group-and-knockout competitions for clubs: the Champions League and the second-tier Europa League. Currently, the returning winners of both tournaments are guaranteed berths in the Champions League group stage the following year; the other spots (78 of 80 between the two tournaments) are up for grabs based on domestic achievement, and all of them could theoretically be turned over to new clubs every year.

Every one of those 80 berths is a golden ticket, a chance for smaller teams to prove themselves against the biggest and best in the world, with tens of millions of dollars on the line. Ajax, now a de facto feeder club from Europe’s 11th-best league, had taken out Real Madrid and Juventus before bowing out to Spurs. As recently as 2012, tiny Cypriot club APOEL made it from the second qualifying round all the way to the quarterfinals.

That could change. The New York Times reported earlier this month that UEFA is mulling a proposal to restructure its club competitions that would be implemented in 2024. If approved, the new format would continue to see a 32-team tournament among top-tier teams, with a 32-team second-tier competition below it, but a brand-new, 64-team tournament below that would be added. And, instead of only the defending champions receiving an automatic berth to the following year’s Champions League, the top 24 finishers in the previous tournament would qualify automatically for the next season’s group stage.

According to the Times, the proposed changes would mean a group stage consisting of four groups of eight teams, rather than the current structure of eight groups of four, ensuring more matches and the possibility of fixtures not only set for weekdays but weekends as well, which are traditionally the province of domestic league competitions. Champions League berths for clubs outside UEFA’s five biggest men’s leagues—England’s Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, and France’s Ligue 1—would be even harder to come by, with only four qualifying spots reserved for clubs from UEFA’s smaller domestic leagues and four more for the semifinalists of the previous year’s Europa League successor.

The current system isn’t exactly a helping hand for ascendant clubs either; the reason Ajax’s run this year is exciting, or APOEL’s in 2012, or FC Porto’s in 2004, is precisely because underdog stories are rare. But “rare” is better than “almost extinct.” At least the current Champions League setup offers the pretense of social mobility.

This proposal, often referred to as a “European Super League,” would, to quote La Liga president Javier Tebas, create “an unsalvageable disparity of wealth between the elite clubs and the rest.” That disparity would almost certainly further the stratification of European club soccer, relegate entire nations (including all of Eastern Europe) to second-class sporting status, and possibly even threaten the viability of domestic club soccer leagues. But it’s not new. It’s just the next logical step in the game’s decadeslong reformation to concentrate the most power and money into the fewest hands.

Organized soccer dates back more than 150 years, to the first codified association football rulebook in the mid-1800s. But the modern game was born in 1992, with the creation of the Champions League and the Premier League’s split from England’s Football League.

Some of the biggest clubs in the world grew out of what contemporary society would recognize as beer league teams. Arsenal and Bayer Leverkusen were founded by workers at munitions and chemical companies, respectively, while the founding members of Everton attended the same church. But the game was professionalized within a few decades, and by the 1990s, had been fully capitalist for quite some time.

The Premier League and Champions League were born out of large clubs’ desire for a greater share of profit. The creation of the Premier League allowed the top 20 (originally 22) clubs in England to keep the lion’s share of their TV revenue rather than share it with teams from the next three tiers in the pyramid, while the Champions League opened its doors to more of the continent’s largest clubs. (Its predecessor, the European Cup, allowed just one entry per country.)

These institutions were founded at a fortuitous time. The early 1990s saw the game grow more exciting thanks to the back-pass rule, which prevented goalkeepers from using their hands when the ball was passed back to them, and revisions to the offside rule. A series of fatal accidents involving fans in the 1980s—most notably the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters—led to improvements in stadium safety and comfort as well as efforts to discourage hooliganism the following decade. In 1990, English clubs were allowed back into European competition after their five-year post-Heysel ban. The growing European Union and establishment of the Schengen Area allowed greater mobility of players, fans, and money across the continent, and Africa and the United States emerged as viable international markets.

All of this happened between 1990 and 1995, and in the years that followed, the communications revolution turned regional sporting competitions into global entertainment products for cable TV and online streaming. The Premier League, in particular, benefited from these trends. Italian and Spanish clubs dominated continental competition at the end of the 20th century. But by the late 2000s, Premier League clubs, flush with TV cash, were the richest and most successful in the business. From 2005 to 2009, the Champions League final featured at least one English team every year, and four different English teams at that.

As a result, both the Premier League and Champions League turned into money-growing trees. In the 2018-19 season, the two competitions combined to hand out about $5.3 billion in payments to their member clubs.

That money is distributed in what looks on the surface like a meritocratic fashion: The teams that win the most and appear on TV the most (i.e., produce the most revenue) get the most money. But it’s also gradually reinforced and calcified a pecking order in the global game. The richest clubs get to sign the best players, which leads to them winning more titles, taking in more money, reinvesting that money in the club, and so the cycle repeats itself.

In 1977, Nottingham Forest won promotion to the English first division. The very next year, they won the First Division title, and the year after that, they won the European Cup. That doesn’t happen anymore. Now it’s a massive underdog story when clubs like Spurs, Borussia Dortmund, or Atlético Madrid—all international giants with mid-nine-figure annual revenues—even reach the Champions League final.

In 2018-19, the champions from the top five men’s leagues in Europe—the Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga, the German Bundesliga, and France’s Ligue 1—all successfully defended titles from the previous season. English champions Manchester City and German champions Bayern Munich also took home domestic cup honors, while Barcelona and PSG made it to the cup final and lost. There’s already an unsalvageable disparity of wealth in domestic soccer, just not a codified disparity in continental competition.

Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli is one of the leading voices in favor of pulling up the ladder behind the continental elite. Juventus has won the past eight Serie A titles and lifted the Coppa Italia four times in those eight seasons. But Juve hasn’t won a continental title since 1996, which is so long ago the Champions League hadn’t even adopted squad numbers. Since then, Juventus has been derailed by problems of its own making—namely the “Calciopoli” scandal of 2006—but also the nouveau riche: English clubs that converted TV windfalls into all-star rosters and other continental rivals bolstered by lavish foreign investment.

In 2015, Agnelli accused Manchester City and PSG of “financial doping.” Agnelli’s family owns a controlling stake not only in Juventus, but Fiat and several other companies, giving the family a net worth in the tens of billions of dollars. Yet even this level of wealth is insufficient for Juventus to compete with clubs like City and PSG that are owned and run by Middle Eastern petrostates, specifically the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Ironically, Agnelli’s Juventus has been more successful on the continental level than the financial dopers, with two Champions League final appearances in the past five seasons. Since Sheikh Mansour of the Abu Dhabi royal family bought Manchester City in 2008, followed by Qatar Sports Investments’ acquisition of PSG in 2012, the two teams have combined to win 10 domestic titles but advanced to the Champions League semifinals just once, to the immense frustration of both clubs. Continental success—the crown jewel of European club soccer (perhaps professional sports anywhere)—cannot simply be bought.

Yet, over the past 30 years, the richest clubs in Europe have gradually accumulated structural advantages that insulate them from their competitors. But that insulation is not absolute. In Italy, AC Milan and Inter have gone from continental giants to domestic also-rans due to financial difficulties. Leeds United went from the Champions League semifinal to the English third tier in less than a decade. Not that it takes anything that dramatic to precipitate a decline—big clubs in all four leagues, from Villarreal to Arsenal to Marseille, have fallen off the pace and out of regular Champions League contention.

Meanwhile, massive investment has vaulted former also-rans into the highest class of continental giant: not just Manchester City and PSG, but Chelsea before them. And as long as all it takes to jump into the ruling class (namely, Champions League qualification) is a top-four finish in England, Spain, Germany, or Italy, every rich club is vulnerable.

Not so much if the top 24 teams in the Champions League can just roll over no matter how they finish domestically, particularly if as few as four new teams can climb the ladder each season. The Super League represents a codification of structural advantage, a grab for cash and power so brazenly noncompetitive it’s a wonder these rich clubs are even bothering with the pretense of relegation. It’d be more honest just to break away and leave domestic competition altogether.

The Super League is still far from a fait accompli. Bundesliga president Christian Seifert has spoken out against the reorganization, as have La Liga president Tebas and Bernard Caiazzo, owner of AS Saint-Étienne. Caiazzo’s team was the dynastic champion of France in the 1960s and 1970s, and would have next to no chance of recovering its former prestige in the new structure.

It’s a self-serving argument, but a revealing one. In terms of size and tradition, there’s no reason for PSG to be among soccer’s elite and not Saint-Étienne. Or Spurs and not Leeds, or RB Leipzig and not Schalke. Just as there’s no reason for the BCS or College Football Playoff to give TCU the ability to play for a national title and not Houston. Championships often aren’t won by the most deserving teams, just the best of a group that happened to be good, or rich, or lucky, at an arbitrary point in time at which the sport was stratified.

If the Super League is enacted, it will create a division in the sport that is as arbitrary as it is impenetrable, and if the scythe had fallen at another point in history, it would have anointed another group of clubs as its Holy Elect. Social mobility, even the pale, illusory version we have now, will be a thing of the past. It’s a shame that people and organizations with money and power are so afraid of being challenged that they’re not willing to fight for their position in the game, even when they enter that fight with all the advantages.