“Created by the Poor, Stolen by the Rich:” The Rise and Fall of the European Super League

by Tárlach Russell

The world-renowned Oval cricket ground hosted the first FA Cup Final on March 16, 1872, contested by Wanderers FC and Royal Engineers AFC. The match-up pitted the club founded by former Harrow schoolboys against the “Sappers” of the British Army’s Corps of Royal Engineers, with the Wanderers winning one goal to nil. The Wanderers would return to the Cup Final a year later, retaining their title against the students of Oxford University.

149 years later, on April 18 2021, 12 European clubs announced the creation of the European Super League, a proposed midweek European league independent of national football associations and UEFA. The League represented the ultimate victory of the commodification of football, as clubs were set to earn an eye-watering €3.5 billion at the outset, thanks to major partners like banking giant JP Morgan.

Or so football’s oligarchs thought. The League ignited unified opposition from all areas of the game and beyond—fans, clubs, former players, national governing bodies, and even the British Prime Minister—which culminated in the rapid demise of the idea. In trying to create a league independent of the conventional football pyramids, rich owners took the furthest step yet in transforming the game from its competitive, exciting, and communal origins into nothing more than a marketable and profitable commodity.

“For the People; Of the People; By the People”

In England, many clubs including the Wanderers and Royal Engineers originated and grew out of working-class communities, themselves by-products of the Industrial Revolution. Arsenal and Manchester United, two of the six English clubs who were founding members of the new European Super League, were founded by workers’ organisations. Arsenal, founded by workers at the Royal Arsenal armaments complex in Woolwich, became so iconic that when the club moved in 1913 from Woolwich to Highbury Stadium in North London, the name Arsenal came with them. Manchester United, the Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football Club until 1902, were formed by members of the Carriage and Wagon Departments of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Depot at Newton Heath.

These are not isolated examples of a handful of clubs being created, organised, and developed by workers. Most British football clubs originated from groups of workers, Church groups, Schoolboy groups, and other athletics clubs. This rich history is still reflected in the clubs’ nicknames. Southampton Football Club, “the Saints,” one of the more recognised clubs in the English game and a stable feature of the English top tier, were incepted by members of the St. Mary’s Church of England Young Men’s Association.

In the early years of organised football, clubs existed as part of the urban communities that surrounded them. As railways offered proximity between clubs in northern England, the inaugural Football League took place in the 1888-89 season. Of the 12 clubs to compete in the opening season, only Accrington Football Club have since ceased to exist, folding in 1896 but existing in alternative forms since. Thanks to the railways and proximity of other Lancashire clubs in the Football League, Preston North End—the undefeated champions of the league that season—averaged over 6,000 fans for each home game. The feat of an undefeated season was not repeated until Arsenal’s “Invincibles” in 2004.

Boca Juniors team in 1919

Alongside the inception of the English Football League, Britain’s global empire allowed the game to spread rapidly by the end of the 19th century. British soldiers brought football to new corners of the world, while working-class immigrants assisted in helping it take hold. Paddy McCarthy, an Irish boxing coach who had immigrated to Argentina, taught early football lessons to the players of Boca Juniors, Argentina’s most successful club and the pride of the working-class La Boca area of Buenos Aires. 

The legacy of such pioneers and the entrenchment of football as a way of life across the world is still felt today. Upon the death of Argentine football legend Diego Maradona in November 2020, Buenos Aires and Pope Francis mourned Argentina’s most famous son with God-like reverence. This extended to the working-class supporters of Napoli, where Maradona helped bring the Italian Serie A title to the city for the first time ever in 1987. Maradona and other gifted footballers became heroes to the working-class communities and supporters that filled stadiums to watch them play, often transcending into national icons in their home countries.

While club teams are the cornerstone of their local communities, national teams have played a huge cultural role in the history of many countries, particularly through the FIFA World Cup. West Germany’s triumph in the 1954 World Cup, just nine years after total defeat in the Second World War, resulted in “a guilt-ridden, inhibited nation being suddenly reborn.” England’s win on home soil in 1966, along with Argentina in 1986 and France in 1998, are held up as the finest moments in a nation’s sporting history. What makes such seminal events so special? The feeling of national achievement, pride, and the players dedication for the nation’s betterment all play a part. 

Football as a Marketplace

Football started as a community game, whether that community be local or national, but it has increasingly become a cash cow for club owners. TV deals, transfer fees, and merchandising have brought in billions of dollars for wealthy clubs. Existing international football associations including FIFA and UEFA are complicit in this evolution, making the game more lucrative for owners and less competitive for fans. Seeking to protect their own cash cow at the expense of the European Super League, UEFA threatened to ban players in the European Soccer League from participating in the European Championships and FIFA World Cup. Sky Sports, whose current £1 billion+ TV deal is ending after the 2021/22 season allowed their pundits to orchestrate a top-down opposition to the new League.

The Premier League itself was the brainchild of the “Big Five” of English football in the early 1990s, similar to the top-down conception of the European Super League. Before that, upstarts like Nottingham Forest could reach the top of the sport. In the 1970s, under Brian Clough, they were considered upstarts compared to Liverpool, England’s strongest club side in the 1970s who won two European cups in 1977 and 1978 before Forest’s consecutive triumphs. Excluding the Brian Clough era from 1975-93, Nottingham Forest have led a relatively moderate existence. The club would have to go back to the 1959 FA Cup before their last national title. Such a history is possible because of the English football pyramid.

With built-in mechanisms for promotion and relegation, the system has historically rewarded long-term planning and sensible management of clubs. Therefore, fans with a vested interest in a club’s fortune were safe in the knowledge that club owners would protect local talent and maintain fan involvement. In more recent times, Leicester City laid the groundwork for their remarkable Premier League triumph in 2016 with an equally impressive escape from the brink of relegation to the Championship in the previous season.

Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC, 1983

Clubs across the world have become caught up in the commodification of the neoliberal era since the 1970s. As early as 1979, Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest spent £1 million to sign Trevor Francis from Birmingham City, who went on to help Forest to win two European Cups. Even then, this fee would equate to a modest £4.6 million when adjusting for inflation in 2021. An explosion of transfer fees has occurred in the modern era, with the first £100 million player costing £198 million when Neymar transferred from Barcelona to Paris Saint Germain in 2017, fuelled by Qatari state investment.

The establishment of the Premier League in the 1992/93 season and the new television deals with Sky generated £304 million over a period of 5 years for exclusive live access to the new Premier League. Subsequently, promotion from the Football League to the Premier League has become increasingly lucrative for clubs. Norwich City, who finished bottom of the 2019/20 and were relegated as a result, earned £100 million thanks to the latest Premier League TV deal, while Leeds United, who won the 2019/20 Championship and promotion to the Premier League, earned just £3 million. Unsurprisingly, Norwich City have rapidly won promotion back to the Premier League.

The increasing sums of money floating around international football has led to corruption and graft among the sport’s governing entities. Football’s global governing body was brought into disrepute as corruption charges were brought against former President, Sepp Blatter, who is currently suspended from all football-related activity for 6 years and 8 months as a result of “various violations” of FIFA’s code of ethics. Even the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar amidst obvious signs of bribery and human rights violations raised by Amnesty International, has not deterred fans or players from participating or boycotting such a tournament.

The tournament, at the pinnacle of football, has become a lucrative marketplace in itself. While the Sepp Blatter corruption scandals harmed FIFA’s revenues, by 2018, FIFA’s top seven partners still paid €32 million per year to retain that status. France’s World Cup-winning squad in 2018 won a combined €38 million in bonuses. The European Super League is the latest venture in this increased commodification of football.

We Got It Wrong

The European Super League is what happens when cash is prioritised over competitive balance. Unlike in existing football pyramids, the 12 founding clubs would stay in the League without fear of relegation. A league without merit-based relegation or promotion involves greater financial security, as clubs will be guaranteed a minimum payment for participation. This compares to the model largely present in American sports, like the NFL and NBA, where franchises exist under a centralised business model. 

Unburdened by actual on-the-field performance, the shareholders can wait for the money to pour in. Take the NFL’s Detroit Lions as an example. Since 1960, the Lions have won just one playoff game, but due to the franchise model, have remained perennial members of the NFL. Forbes valued the Detroit Lions at $2.1 billion in 2020, despite coming off a season as the third worst team out of 32. Even with the existence of a salary cap bringing egalitarianism to team spending on players, results have not improved. Other American cities and fans have paid the ultimate price for stagnating and unprofitable teams: since 2016, three NFL teams have relocated to more profitable markets. Within the NFL’s cartel, loyal fans are punished with indifferent owners, while fans frustrated by poor on-field performances who stop attending games risk losing teams altogether as a result of lower profits.

London-based clubs Arsenal and Tottenham have faced significant debt due to expensive investments in new stadiums. Tottenham opened the 62,000-capacity Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in 2019, skyrocketing the club debt to over £1 billion. Tottenham’s debt has transpired to on-field struggles, with neither North London club qualifying for the UEFA Champions League for the 2020/21 season. Security on payments from the European Super League would provide exponentially larger returns for shareholders, allowing for improved long-term planning and finances to attract better players to the club. 

European Cup Winners’ Cup first round match between Ajax and Tottenham Hotspur, September 16, 1981

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Premier League clubs were able to exercise their significant financial advantage in a benevolent manner, providing a £250 million bailout to Football League clubs in Parachute Payments and Solidarity Payments to avoid insolvency as a result of lost revenue. Gate receipts are an increasingly important revenue generator the further one drops down the football pyramid. Football League clubs are coming under more financial strain due to rising costs of maintaining stadiums, coupled with lower attendances at games. Increased TV access to elite levels has increased financial inequality between clubs. The working-class communities they typically represent are also stretched by the rising costs of living, leaving fans with less money to spend to follow clubs.

Extractive owners, increasingly worried by the tighter profit margins of clubs at lower levels, become more reluctant to invest. Recently, at Blackpool FC, fan activism helped remove owner Owen Oyston, after an emotional four-year boycott of home games by fan groups. In the past ten years, Blackpool has plummeted from the Premier League to League Two, the fourth tier in the English pyramid. Herein lies the inherent danger of exposing football clubs to regular market practices: once clubs are no longer profit-maximising machines, multimillionaires will pull their money out, and it will be the supporters in local communities who are left to pick up the pieces. 

How Supporters’ Collective Anger Killed the League

Football, as a product of community, can and should exist independent of market pressures. The german Bundesliga has a 50+1 rule that guards against corporate interest in the game, as clubs must hold a majority of their own voting rights. This has been challenged by the rise of RB Leipzig, 99% of which is owned by Red Bull. They’re able to circumvent the rules because the club only has 17 voting members, all of whom are either employed by or closely connected to Red Bull. The club are not allowed to use Red Bull branding on club merchandise, playing under the name RasenBallsport (RB) Leipzig, Lawn Ball Sports Leipzig. The German model has shown that clubs can still be successful domestically and internationally, even when the interests of the club supersede those of the shareholders. Bayern Munich have sustained success in Europe, albeit through allegations of poaching players from rival clubs. No German club has signed up to the European Super League, providing a path for fans from England, Spain, and Italy to oppose their clubs joining.

The clubs themselves offer a fascinating and tangible insight into the communities from which they emerge. FC St Pauli, who fluctuate between the Bundesliga and the second tier in Germany, regularly feature explicit left-wing political commentary off the field. Located near the port of Hamburg, the club offers insight into the history of Hamburg’s flamboyant past in the Reeperbahn, one of Hamburg’s main entertainment districts. German clubs, in comparison to Real Madrid and Barcelona—which are also fan owned—offer more democratic and community-rooted policies: the average season ticket price for the Bundesliga is €186 or just under €11 per game. In the Premier League, fans on average spend over £32 per game.

In Germany and throughout Europe, the culture of working-class attachment to football clubs is visibly stronger than exists in England. Clubs with strong working-class roots like Olympiakos in Greece, Hapoel Tel Aviv in Israel, and Red Star Belgrade in Serbia, founded by members of the Anti-Fascist League against Nazi occupation during the Second World War, all have red as their primary colour.

London’s Trafalgar Square, June 10, 2006

With or without a European Super League, football has major concerns to address that are increasingly amplified by conditions in the modern game. The scourges of racism and homophobia have plagued football for decades, before and since Justin Fashanu became the first openly gay footballer in the Football League in 1990. In more recent times, the gender pay gap has become a prominent issue as the American national team has sustained dominance in the international game. A European Super League would further entrench this inequality as no similar endeavours have been pursued in the women’s game.

Public pressure has made the League appear redundant. FIFA, UEFA, the FA, and other Football Associations will have to overcome internal animosities and inadequate responses to these problems that continue to plague football. Olive branches must be extended to clubs to keep them within the conventional pyramids, while punishment and expulsion are not implausible as a result of breaking away. This can not be a case of the oligarchs simply licking their wounds and devising the idea of something similar at a future date.

Football at the lower echelons of the pyramid has been neglected for decades, and the European Super League cannot be used to increase investment in the top domestic leagues and Champions League by incentivising the wealthiest clubs back into the fold. Until clubs can operate in an environment where survival is not a week-to-week objective, stagnation and increasing inequality will continue, whether or not the European Super League becomes a reality now or in the future. Alas, in the words of Thucydides: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The Old Harrovians or Royal Engineers of the 1870s could scarcely have imagined the multi-billionaire industry that association football has become today.

Tárlach Russell is a graduate of the MSc History of International Relations program at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research interests focus on Irish history and foreign affairs.

Categories: Europe & Russia