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‘A toxic endeavour’: How Super League went from breakaway to breakdown

A staggering 72 hours for the game has seen clubs try to force a move to a new competition only to see fan backlash and outcry see it stutter and stumble towards collapse

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Tuesday 20 April 2021 22:46 BST
Boris Johnson calls European Super League 'a cartel'

As the news spread around boardrooms, and some ashen-faced officials realised the European Super League project was starting to collapse, the true meaning of it all could - fittingly - be seen on the streets and among the people.

Thousands of Chelsea supporters had gathered around Stamford Bridge to vociferously protest the plans when it suddenly went quiet. Shortly before 7pm, the word came through that the club were preparing to withdraw from the project.

The reaction was a moment to behold. It was celebrated as joyously as any goal, but it was really so much more. It was a victory.

It was a testament to the power of fans, given Manchester City and Chelsea were so convinced by the emotion of their own supporters.

It was also the start of one of the most remarkable single hours the game has ever known, a whirlwind of sensational developments that brought a staggering three days to a head.

City very quickly followed Chelsea out of the project, with the rest of the English clubs falling four hours later. Ed Woodward resigned as executive vice-chairman of Manchester United, and many other figures from the Super League were considering what next. There is now huge pressure on some of the individuals, not least primary agitators like Andrea Agnelli and Florentino Perez.

A greedy power grab, that had caused more unifying fury than the game had ever known, instead became a humiliating collapse. Sources say that the Super League had purposely launched on Sunday - around the new Champions League announcements - specifically to cause “maximum embarrassment” for Uefa. The irony of that. The delight at that. Some of the most oppressively big clubs in football, as well as some of its most obnoxious and reviled figures, have faced a humiliation of immense proportions. It is worse than any on-pitch defeat, any “6-1”. The big clubs, this time, didn’t get their way.

The tumultuous route from breakaway to breaking point really started the previous evening.

Some officials were genuinely taken aback by the scale and vociferousness of what was near total condemnation of the project. It had even been a rare issue that had “100 per cent united the UK parliament”.

The obvious question is what exactly did they expect? That alone reflects many of the follies and misjudgements at the very core of this project.

“I thought it would be bad,” one source said, “but this is off the charts”.

Later on Monday, what was no doubt intended as a victory lap of a TV appearance by Mr Perez further sowed the seeds of defeat.

Some officials among the Super League 12 were aghast at the tone of the Real Madrid president, and even some of the things he said. Among a few untruths, Mr Perez claimed Paris Saint-Germain had not been invited. A series of sources insist they were not just invited, but “cajoled”, “lobbied” and “pressured”.

Florentino Perez led the proposals (AFP via Getty Images)

It was the same with Bayern Munich, and the fact they issued a second statement on Tuesday to more strongly reiterate their rejection of the project was just another mounting problem for the Super League.

The absence of “European” in that description is pointed. This was really a three-country league, and the 12 involved were becoming increasingly isolated. Many involved knew a “conciliatory” tone was needed, far removed from the typical abrasiveness of Mr Perez. Because an absolutely crucial point was missing in much of the narrative.

The Super League - regardless of anything else - was ultimately going to need sanctioning from either Fifa or Uefa. That was an inescapable reality, that was properly dawning on some of the involved clubs. It was why Uefa were always fully confident this would fail.

The 48 hours since the announcement hadn’t exactly made that long path for the Super League any easier. Some involved in the plan began to realise the need for more positive public relations, but the key figures weren’t interested in speaking publicly.

It was one grand act of cowardice to go with everything else.

Concerns were growing, though, and not just in England. Officials at Atletico Madrid and Barcelona had also been wondering about the worth of all this.

Word of this got back to Uefa, and sources maintain it was this that caused a hugely distinctive change of tone on Tuesday morning.

Aleksander Ceferin offered an olive branch, and a way back. It was conspicuously far removed from the fire and brimstone of Monday. “What matters is that there is still time to change your mind,” the Uefa president said.

It was around this point that the media began to report all of these doubts, which prompted some Super League sources to absolutely insist that, no, nobody was changing their mind.

They were strident that everyone was 100 per cent committed, “full steam ahead”, “they’d prepared for this”, all the rest. There was even bullish talk of how it might be legally impossible for clubs to leave, because of the existing contracts, and how punitive any damages might be.

The preliminary legal ruling in Madrid, “prohibiting Uefa and Fifa from stopping the launch”, was also referenced.

There was a development in London, though, that was potentially much more relevant from a legal perspective.

Boris Johnson, emboldened by his typical populist opportunism and - more significantly - the support of his entire parliament, told the English football authorities he would give them full backing in terms of legislation. Mr Johnson asked the Premier League and EFL what sanctions were available to them. When they said everything up to and including banishing the six from the Premier League, he asked would they use it.

The answer at that point was “no” because the legal proceedings could be opened according to competition law. Mr Johnson’s response was to say he would drop a “legislative bomb”. Many sources take that to mean that, if there was a clause in competition law that would prevent the clubs being thrown out, he would use full power to have it removed.

Boris Johnson vowed to stop the move (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The potential banishment of the six biggest clubs in England from the Premier League was at this point seriously being considered. It would have scuppered many new financial plans before they even started. Some sources from within the English big six say that the speed and strength of government intervention was immensely influential. “That’s when it really changed.” It was also why there was a sense of confidence at the Premier League’s 11am meeting, a landmark in itself in that it only featured 14 of the stakeholders. That would previously have been seen as unbelievable, but here fostered trust between that group.

While fan protest only continued, adding more and more pressure, there was increasing unrest among the players.

The possibility of being banned from the World Cup was a much more serious issue than some club officials had anticipated. Players were hugely distressed by this. That again only showed how out of touch the whole project was with the reality of the game.

Club administration and legal teams were meanwhile poring over sponsorship contracts, trying to work out the implication of it all. This was no way clear and proving hugely complicated, which only added to the difficulties. Sponsors were getting unnerved.

Within the boardrooms and internet meetings, then, debate was growing. Talks were getting more feverish. Figures at Chelsea began to talk of a “toxic endeavour”, that was at odds with their community work as a club, as well as the immense potential for irrevocable reputational damage.

Super League sources had insisted upon the “robustness” of the body of work behind the plan, but others were talking about the lack of substance behind it. The fact it has utterly imploded in just 48 hours is as hilarious as it is indicative of that. The entire “launch” ended up feeling amateurish. There were supposedly 15 founding members yet only 12 were named. The level of detail was pitiful. Some people referred to it as little more than a “mass refinancing for about five clubs”. Many pointed to the problems of Real Madrid.

“Why is the rest of football financing this,” one source at a Premier League club complained, “when one of the leading figures has his club hundreds of millions of pounds in debt?”

Chelsea and City were beginning to come to the only logical conclusion. This was unviable, and just not worth the needless strife. The other clubs should have realised the same, but City and Chelsea going made their withdrawal an inevitability. The Super League’s spectacular collapse could yet take others with it.

Mr Perez has been publicly humiliated, with that all the worse because a moment of televised hubris saw him essentially admit Madrid are in huge financial trouble. Another self-inflicted defeat. His position at the club is said to be unassailable, but pressure outside is growing. His authority has been demolished. Mr Agnelli’s big hand was meanwhile no more than a bluff.

Other people in football are openly talking about whether it will lead to the sales of Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.

The Super League was after all a long-term ambition, always hovering over the game, always on the horizon. Many long believed it was the ultimate aim of some owners. The threat of a Super League conditioned the game in subtle and significant ways for decades, as so many crunch meetings bent to it. Its power has now gone. That is an immensely significant development in itself. A long-held threat can never be used in the same way again. That card has been played, to little effect other than laughter by the end. The idea has lost its credibility for some time to come - although maybe not forever

Chelsea fans took to the streets to protest (AFP via Getty Images)

This is another reality of the situation. The structural inequality that led to the growth of these super clubs, and the path to the Super League, hasn’t been changed.

The reformatting of the Champions League that was done at their behest will only make the problem worse.

But that isn’t the only development amid all this. The financial cost for the 12 will be expensive, given the JP Morgan commitment fees. There might well be Premier League sanctions, since the six did break Rule L9, that prohibits members from entering unsanctioned competitions. The other 14 have meanwhile been emboldened, and also found common cause with the EFL and the wider football pyramid. At the top of it all, the breakaway 12 no longer have the same influence in the European Club Association, or Uefa. Positions have been resigned. Clout has been lost. Authority has been shattered.

That points to perhaps the most significant change.

Some of football’s more selfless figures are talking about how this might have finally released the huge impetus for reform. There is now a political will for a German system in England alone.

“A Super League is terrible for football and could have led to the wreckage of the game,” one source said. “From the point of view of the reform agenda, though, it’s great.”

Something has been tapped into. The crisis has made people realise the deep problems that almost brought the game to the brink of irrevocable transformation. Politicians - for now - properly realise the need to protect clubs as social institutions and prevent the scope for this in future.

That was one of the fundamental problems here. A laissez-faire embrace of ultra-capitalism had allowed a group of clubs to grow to such a size, that they were appealing to interests - both political and financial - that had little concern for the playing of the game or the social role of clubs.

That was what led to the history and future of the game potentially being obliterated by a small group of owners, that left everyone else feeling utterly powerless.

At Stamford Bridge, the wider game took its power back. There was the feel of a revolution, even if some say it might prove to be an Arab Spring.

Whatever the future, it fully displayed the true spirit of the sport, and the communal power that really drives it. The pyramid, the sport, has stayed unified.

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