European football is facing up to the biggest crisis in its history, as a group of 12 of the wealthiest clubs on Sunday considering an announcement of plans for a new super league.
Figures involved told The Independent that the weekend had involved “chaotic” talks between all parties in a frantically moving situation, that was described as a “race against time”. Uefa is due to announce plans for the reformed Champions League on Monday, with much of the changes at the behest of the top clubs, and the threat of a new competition was initially seen as mere “brinkmanship”.
If a formal announcement of a super league were to be made – and some felt it could happen on Sunday night – it would move way beyond that, and drastically change the landscape of the game. One figure from a major European club told The Independent it would potentially represent “the end of football” as we know it.
It is for this reason nothing has been off the table in talks, with officials from various bodies – from the European leagues to Uefa – discussing the possibility that the clubs could be thrown out of the domestic and continental competitions. Prominent figures in the major leagues, including the Premier League, were said to be “apoplectic” on Sunday. Virtually all football bodies - from Uefa to fan groups - have condemned the move in the strongest terms.
Some involved still believe this is just an attempt from the group to guarantee more income from the Champions League, and that Uefa will eventually fold. Others in the talks have stressed that the time has come for the governing bodies to make a stand. An increasing number of people involved feel the situation now goes beyond that, though, and that the threat of a super league is more real than it has ever been. Many sources insist that the situation might already have gone too far, and that the disenchantment is very real. The Premier League’s “big six”, for example, are said to be underwhelmed by the domestic competition’s strategic review and the current leadership.
Those clubs - the Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Chelsea - have been concerned for some time that the Premier League is “approaching catastrophe”, and their relationship with the competition’s hierarchy has become increasingly fraught in the last year. It is described as “as bad as possible”. They are especially frustrated that it is now six months since the announcement of ‘Project Big Picture’, and nothing has been done.
On the other side, the Premier League are said to have been “completely blindsided” by Sunday’s reports, and that it came as a “major shock”.
The position of Fifa could be crucial to the whole situation, as the breakaway would really need some kind of approval to make it work, and prevent a split in the game - not least as regards issues like whether players would be prohibited from the World Cup. Earlier this year, the global body intimated they would consider that sanction.
Any announcement would cause chaos in the game, from legal challenges around existing competitions, to the financial viability of scores of clubs around Europe.
It is for this reason that the super clubs – who are at this juncture understood to be the ‘big six’ in England, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale – have devised the plan, since they believe it is their financial power and commercial attractiveness that drives European football at the top level. Many club hierarchies involved feel they should no longer have to compromise on that. There is also the implicit knowledge that millions of supporters around the globe would willingly sign up, regardless of any political fallout. Many in the game caution that the super clubs have badly misreasd the mood of fans, and the backlash could go beyond what they expect.
A further problem for competitions like the Champions League and Premier League in talks is that their broadcasting contracts would be completely compromised if the most glamorous clubs either walked out or were banished, creating financial shockwaves for the game as it still recovers from the effects of the Covid-19 crisis. Current negotiations about new deals are already said to be “in chaos”. The Premier League, as an example, was expected to go to clubs with a new Sky deal last month. Some feel the fact it didn’t happen “spooked” the big six. Either way, there are now said to be huge trust issues within the Premier League, and sources feel it is fanciful that all 20 clubs could be brought around the same table any time soon.
On the European side, the relationship between Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin and Juventus’ Andrea Agnelli - who has been the super league’s most vocal figure - is said to be close to “terminal”, barring any late negotiations.
As reported by the New York Times and The Sunday Times, the so-called super league would involve midweek matches, with an idealised 16 clubs split into two groups of eight, before a knockout phase. The number of clubs committed to the plans currently stands at 12, and no French or German clubs have yet signed up, but it is felt a formal announcement could push things along.
It would create a deep fissure in the game that it would struggle to recover from in its current form.
At the end of Manchester United’s win over Burnley, Gary Neville decried the “greed” of the clubs involved and demanded action against them.
“You have got to stamp on this, it’s criminal, it’s a criminal act against football fans in this country. This is the biggest sport in the world, the biggest sport in this country, it’s a criminal act against the fans. Deduct points, deduct money, and punish them,” he said on Sky Sports.
The UK government similarly condemned the plans as “deeply troubling and damaging for football” and a decision which should not be made without the backing of supporters, the “heartbeat” of the national sport.
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