It's been a seismic week for soccer. After the hasty unveiling of the Super League on Sunday -- with 12 top clubs around Europe announcing their intent to form a breakaway competition in which they'd compete, consequence-free, outside the UEFA Champions League -- and its rapid collapse Tuesday as teams pulled out in the face of intense public scrutiny, the attention now turns to talk of punishments, reckonings and high-level discussions about how to plot a meaningful path forward.
Though UEFA voted on Champions League reforms, the road map remains unclear and there are lots of issues to unpack. From how UEFA uses its new-found leverage over the "rebel clubs" and how it actually reworks European competition, to England's top clubs attempting to assimilate back into the Premier League's power structure, there are issues everywhere.
The challenge for UEFA and the Champions League reforms
OK, so now what?
Forty-eight hours after the collapse of the Super League, UEFA find themselves pulled in opposite directions. In Britain, the government is studying the possibility of introducing something akin to Germany's "50+1" model, whereby no single entity can own a majority of the club and a supporters' supervisory board sits at the top. Already, the Champions League reforms passed on Monday -- with their Swiss model and expanded schedule -- are coming under attack, and many inside the game would like to see them rolled back to the current set-up.
On the other hand, the narrative, especially in Spain and Italy, was this: "Well, having places not awarded on merit is wrong, but UEFA need to get back to the negotiating table and listen to the clubs." The simple answer to this is that they've been listening to the clubs -- including the very clubs, especially Juventus, Real Madrid and Manchester United, who tried to set up the Super League -- for six months, which is how we ended up with the expanded Champions League in the first place.
UEFA will need to reconcile those opposing viewpoints and resume the balancing act that his kept this whole thing together. And make no mistake about it: this is a balancing act.
Think of UEFA as a government with elected officials that runs a society (European football competitions). Some in that society have fancy "white-collar" jobs -- bankers, industrialists, tech giants -- and generate lots of money. Others have blue-collar jobs -- taxi drivers, factory workers, etc. -- and generate substantially less, while others still generate nothing, perhaps because they are uneducated or because they have no marketable skills.
UEFA's job is to collect all the money and redistribute it. In doing so, they have to consider whom to give the plum business opportunities to (i.e., on what basis to admit clubs to the Champions League) and, most importantly, how to divide up the pie.
Divide it all equally and -- the thinking goes -- the guys with no marketable skills who produce nothing will be rewarded whereas the talented folks with white-collar jobs will be disincentivized to work hard. And since they are most skilled at what they do, you want to reward them because they, more than anyone, can grow the pie. Equally, if you give too much reward and too much opportunity to the white-collar folks, there will be no social mobility: the blue-collar guys might give up because they've got very little hope or opportunity to rise to the top. Same for the guys at the bottom who aspire to a blue-collar life.
That tension has been at the heart of UEFA vs. club power relations since the Champions League was created nearly 30 years ago, and it still is today. Over the years, that balance has shifted further and further away from an equal split and increasingly towards the big clubs from the big nations, both in terms of Champions League places (opportunities) and the way revenue is divided (reward).
Right now, in the wake of the failed Super League, UEFA hold all the cards. The rebel clubs -- or rather, the people at the very top of those clubs -- return to the fold shamed and humiliated. Popular sentiment is against them, but the challenges that took them to this point remain. You can call it greed or an unwillingness to face the realities of past overspending, but the fact is many are hurting: because they have bigger grounds and bigger sponsorship deals, they bore the brunt of the $6.5 billion to $8.5 billion they say the European game as a whole will lose between last season and this season.
Simply giving them more money is not just unpopular, it's also foolish, unless it's accompanied by serious spending restrictions.
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For all the negativity generated by Financial Fair Play -- and it does have its flaws -- we did go from aggregate losses of $1.8 billion before its introduction to two consecutive seasons of profit in just seven years, pre-pandemic. It will be tweaked and reintroduced.
In order for it to work, two things have to happen. First, it can't be so rigid so as to discourage investment, particularly when there is a change of ownership. Some clubs, like AC Milan, changed owners twice in three years, leaving the current owners in a deep hole not of their making that has stunted their growth. Second, where there are breaches, punishment has to be clear, firm and fully transparent. That obviously didn't happen in the past and indeed, the fact that Manchester City could receive maximum punishment and then have the ban overturned a few months later by the Court of Arbitration for Sport did little to restore trust.
That word -- trust -- is paramount. One of the reasons U.S. sports leagues are profitable is that the owners neither attack each other in public, nor encourage others to do so. Where there is confrontation, it happens behind closed doors and gets resolved, usually quietly. When "Spygate" happened, you didn't hear the Dallas Cowboys' owner argue that the New England Patriots ought to be thrown out of the league. That was left to the commentariat.
Those owners understand they're not just "stakeholders" -- they're business partners. And they trust each other (OK, maybe it's "trust, but verify," but still). That's what the clubs need to rebuild with UEFA, with each other and with the fans. -- Gab Marcotti
The situation with English clubs
After the Super League unraveled every bit as quickly as it was proposed at the start of the week, the English teams -- Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham -- are now tasked with repairing the bonds broken by their attempted split. They face challenges of reconciliation on several levels, too.
How clubs rebuild trust with fans: This week has seen unprecedented displays of contrition from the owners of the "Big Six." Liverpool principal owner John W. Henry apologised to the club's fans in a video message, while Joel Glazer made his first direct communication with Manchester United fans since buying the club in 2005 to "apologise unreservedly for the unrest caused" and admitting "we got it wrong."
Those mea culpas, and others by owners of fellow rebel clubs, have done little to assuage anger among supporters, however. United fans broke into the club's Carrington training ground on Thursday with protest banners, while Liverpool fans' group Spion Kop 1906 wrote a letter to club owners demanding "change, not patronising apologies" and calling for a meeting to discuss representation on the board.
The Football Supporters' Association are backing a fan-led review of football governance, announced by the UK government in the wake of the ESL collapse, which will investigate potential changes to ownership models and strengthening of tests to assess the suitability of prospective new owners. But while regarded by many as an ideal outcome, fan ownership of clubs is unlikely due to the value of the Big Six. A 50% stake in United, based on their current share valuation, would cost £1.5 billion, a level of funding that would be virtually impossible for fans' groups to secure and manage.
Open dialogue, concessions on ticket prices and kick-off times would all help mend broken bridges, but fan discontent remains high and protests are being organised for games involving this Big Six this weekend. United and Liverpool supporters are also planning a joint protest ahead of their Old Trafford clash on May 2.
Fixing broken relationships with clubs, leagues: One source at an "Other 14" club has told ESPN that the events of the past week have given the smaller teams a chance to clip the wings of the six teams that tried breaking away and ensure a more equitable share of power within the Premier League. But another source at a Big Six team says that the smaller clubs have been a constant handbrake on reform and exploring new revenue streams due to self-interest and fear of investing in projects in which they will see no benefit.
"We wanted £1m from each club to fund research into tapping into the market in India," a Big Six source said. "But we couldn't get it off the ground because the other 14 know that three of them will be relegated, so they wouldn't finance something that may end up giving them nothing in return. That's what we're up against."
Such seemingly petty squabbles are a regular occurrence within the Premier League, and it is why the broken relationships may never be repaired -- the reality is that they were never healthy even before the ESL plans came to light.
Talk of punishment and sanctions for the Big Six is likely to prove to be nothing more than bluster due to the reality that those clubs drive the commercial revenue from which all 20 benefit. Hitting them hard would only store up resentment, with one Big Six source telling ESPN that smaller clubs would quickly find themselves having to pay much bigger fees to sign players from those six teams if any sanctions were imposed to damage their earning potential. In turn, the smaller teams know that they have little real power to rein their bigger rivals in.
In short, don't expect any real rapprochement. It has always been the Big Six vs. the Other 14, and nothing has changed.
The way forward for the Big Six and the rest: One Big Six source told ESPN that one of the biggest frustrations of the ESL plan was the failure to deliver the message that all clubs would earn more from the proposed new competition. "Our PR was a disaster from the start," the source said. "Under the Super League plan, the consolidation payment to Premier League clubs would be €160m a year -- more than ten times what they get from the Champions League -- but we were never in a position to get that across. It was all about how we would leave the rest behind, but this was about safeguarding the whole game for years to come."
There is also a view from within the Big Six that many angry voices from the other clubs are largely being aired to suit their audience, when in reality, there is a shared determination to increase revenue in the years ahead. The challenge now is for the 20 teams, in their two clear factions, to work together in an uneasy truce, with neither side trusting each other.
Ultimately, it will come down to the Big Six dragging the 14 along financially. If the top teams are able to boost income that benefits all of the clubs, resistance from the others is likely to subside. Both sides know that they need each other, but it always been an unhappy marriage. Right now, though, they can't live without each other, so they will have to continue as they always have -- by putting up with the friction and tension for the greater good. -- Mark Ogden