The European Super League will be bad for one simple reason: fairness

I don’t talk about football very often here on the website. In fact, I daresay I’ve discussed the FIFA football video games on more occasions than the sport itself! But with all of the discussion flying around online since last night’s bolt from the blue announcement of a possible European Super League, I felt compelled to comment.

The twelve clubs – six of which, I’m sad to see, are from my native England – have drawn a lot of criticism for this plan, and we’ll discuss in a moment the potential ramifications for them. But with so many people piling on with criticism mixed with ideas for “punishments” it feels like a really basic message is in danger of getting lost in the confusion. What it all boils down to is simple: fairness. That one word encapsulates everything wrong with a European Super League.

It’s deeply disappointing to see these six clubs – plus six of their European allies – planning to grab more money and power for themselves at the expense of basic fairness and sportsmanship.

Every sport, whether it’s curling, showjumping, ice hockey, or football, has to be fair and has to be seen to be fair. There will always be bad individual decisions; referees who make a bad call, a goal disallowed or allowed to stand incorrectly, and so on. Those idiosyncrasies will always be part of football, and indeed of any team sport. But the rules underpinning competition have to be seen to be fair – they can’t disproportionately favour one team, country, or club over everyone else. Yet that’s exactly what the European Super League would do. It would play favourites.

A closed league in which most clubs can never be relegated no matter how poorly they perform, and in which those clubs are given vast sums of money from the league’s sponsors is simply not fair. If those clubs are then allowed to participate in other competitions, such as their domestic leagues or cups, they have an additional unfair advantage in those as well. So the European Super League is not just unfair in that it would keep its fifteen “members” there in perpetuity no matter what else was happening in the wider game, it would give each of those clubs a massive boost in whatever other competitions they participated in.

Manchester United are one of the clubs involved in this scheme.

Money has already made the upper echelons of football incredibly difficult to break into. The fairytale of Leicester City winning the Premier League a couple of years ago came after decades of dominance by a handful of very wealthy clubs backed by even wealthier investors and owners. The reason why Leicester’s win was so truly unexpected is because pundits and commentators had felt that it would be impossible for any club without significant financial resources to be able to compete against the so-called “big six.” The European Super League would cement the “big six” at the top of the English game, doling out huge sums of money to them to keep them at the top of the league in perpetuity. There would never be another Leicester or Bolton Wanderers winning the Premier League – and that’s exactly the scenario that the European Super League is designed to create.

That’s bad sportsmanship. It’s antithetical to the nature of free and fair sporting competition. By further eroding a sport already awash with near-incomprehensible amounts of money, the European Super League would effectively kill any real competition at the top. The other 14 clubs of the Premier League will be locked in a perpetual battle for seventh place – and whoever finishes seventh might as well be crowned champions, because the top six places will be effectively beyond the reach of any club without the financial backing of this new institution.

Hopefully this proposal will be shown the red card.

FIFA, UEFA, and the Premier League all bear a degree of responsibility for what’s happening, though. And they are not innocent parties to this clusterfuck. I’m old enough to remember the controversy in 1992 when the Premier League was set up, breaking away from the Football League. The clubs were tempted by money then, just as they are now. For the Premier League to criticise the European Super League for doing something superficially similar is at least slightly hypocritical, and sadly this gives ammunition to proponents of the European Super League.

UEFA and FIFA are both institutionally corrupt, with members quite literally and demonstrably accepting bribes. The only reason next year’s World Cup will be hosted by Qatar (or the 2018 iteration was hosted by Russia) is because of bribes paid to voting members. That’s just one example, and both institutions have been plagued by bribery and corruption going back decades, putting their own interests ahead of the wider game.

FIFA – football’s governing body – is institutionally corrupt and has been for decades.

So there isn’t really a “good guy” to back in this fight. It’s the billionaires versus the billionaires in a battle for power, control, and the right to make as much additional money as possible – on top of the money they already have. It almost doesn’t matter which side wins, because the “big six” English clubs, and their equivalents in other countries, will still dominate the game regardless thanks to their international owners and the vast sums of money in the game. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a “lesser of two evils,” nor that the European Super League is somehow okay.

Despite the money sloshing around football, there are still surprises. Leicester’s title-winning season is a recent one, but we can also point to the successes of clubs like Wigan and Portsmouth in the FA Cup, Leeds’ successful return to the Premier League in their first season after promotion, and in Europe the likes of Montpellier’s title win in Ligue 1. Even with all the money at the top of the game, football can still be unpredictable – and that’s why so many fans around the world love it.

Portsmouth’s 2008 win shows that the FA Cup can still create wonderful surprises.
Photo Credit: Jon Candy profile, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Taking away the most basic tenet of sportsmanship and competition – fairness – would leave European football in a very dark place. Those fairytale seasons, already eroded by the long dominance of a select few wealthy clubs, would fade into history, with all but a handful of clubs effectively relegated to second-tier status.

This is why there’s so much backlash, even if not everyone commenting on the situation can fully put it into words. A European Super League in which fifteen clubs can compete against one another in perpetuity with no threat of relegation is not only unfair as a concept in itself, but that unfairness would not be contained and would spill over into every other league on the continent. The crux of why fans of all clubs – even those proposing to join the new league – are united in opposition is because everyone recognises the inherent unfairness of the proposal, and how that unfairness would kill sporting competition.

This proposal is all about money and power – and retaining both permanently for the big clubs.

So what measures can domestic leagues, as well as bodies like FIFA and UEFA, take to prevent this from happening, especially given how far advanced the plans seem to be?

Because this is a fight over money – and the television and broadcast rights that give whoever wins the right to make money – simply expelling the teams involved, as some have suggested, doesn’t seem viable. The Premier League would lose out in that scenario, because the broadcast rights would suddenly bring in far less revenue if the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea aren’t involved. This is the game of brinksmanship that the European Super League is playing – effectively throwing down the gauntlet and saying “you can’t make money without us.”

That said, there are measures short of full expulsion that could be taken – but they’d only work if every league in Europe and FIFA can all agree. First of all, there could be automatic points deductions for all participating teams. A deduction of ten points is automatically applied to any English teams that go into administration (i.e. that become financially insolvent), and something similar could be applied in this case. This would mean all European Super League clubs begin their domestic campaigns with -10 or even -15 points, which might go some way to restoring some semblance of fairness at the top, allowing the rest of the league to potentially compete on fairer terms with an effective handicap – giving them back their shots at the championship.

Barcelona (Camp Nou stadium pictured) are one of twelve teams planning to join the European Super League.

Secondly, one proposal UEFA threw out last night was that any individual player who plays in the European Super League would be banned from international competition, including in the World Cup. This sanction would make a lot of players think twice before signing for a European Super League side, even if a lot of money were on the table. Some would still take the money, of course, but any player with dreams of representing their country would think twice.

This proposal in particular is a threat to the European Super League. If it could be expanded, with players who play in the European Super League banned from all other competitions including domestic leagues and cups, the only players who would ever agree to participate would be has-beens. The European Super League, if it were forced to operate under such restrictions, would end up looking like the Chinese league or, at best, Major League Soccer in the United States – where players who used to be good enough to play in the big European leagues essentially go to retire!

Banning players from international competition could be a way to fight back against this proposal.

By pushing restrictions onto the individual players instead of (or as well as) the clubs themselves, and remaining united in doing so, the big European leagues, UEFA, and FIFA could drive a wedge between the clubs and their players, forcing players to choose. Maybe this kind of tactic feels shady and wrong, but if it kills a bad proposal it would be worth it. Though the big clubs do wield a lot of power, they don’t hold all the cards, and if players felt that signing for Manchester United would be bad for their career, you’d see better players moving away from those big clubs, and the already-boring European Super League would look worse and worse.

And that’s another good point. The European Super League will be boring, or at least unexciting. A league where there’s no relegation for the big clubs has no threat, and with no threat comes no drama. There’ll be no reason for players to push themselves in the final minute to score that amazing goal because… what’s the point? Once you’re in the European Super League you’re set for life, apparently. If you lose fifteen matches in a row there’s no consequence, except perhaps for the manager who’ll lose his job! By destroying one of the most basic elements of sporting competition – relegation – the European Super League doesn’t have much to offer anyway.

But whatever you think about these clubs and this announcement, it all comes back to one central point: a European Super League with permanent positions for wealthy clubs is inherently and inescapably unfair. There will be consequences, somehow, for any clubs that go down this road. I just hope that, when the dust settles, football isn’t too badly damaged by this latest self-inflicted wound.

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