Press play to listen to this article
Despite the bitterness of Brexit, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron proved a decisive strike force in taking down the European football Super League.
As fans, players and, well, pretty much everyone except the breakaway club owners reacted with outrage to the idea of a semi-closed football league, Macron and Johnson voiced fierce opposition that signaled how political forces at the highest level were racing to align with the sport’s grassroots — and prepared to do whatever it took to kill the proposal.
Within 48 hours the Super League was dead — and ironically enough, European football appeared to owe its survival in no small part to Brexit. The U.K.’s newfound sovereignty meant Johnson’s threat to drop a “legislative bomb” had to be taken seriously. It didn’t take long for the six English clubs that had signed on to the Super League to capitulate and ditch the idea.
Macron’s public praise for Paris Saint-Germain’s decision not to join the Super League, combined with the similar refusal of Germany’s fan-controlled clubs, showed the EU’s two most powerful countries in lockstep. Politicians in Italy and Spain, whose top teams did sign on to the breakaway league, also turned against it — choosing fans, i.e. voters, over billionaire club chieftains.
“Not all politicians are football fans,” a European football official who was closely involved in the Super League saga told ClixkPlayNews. “But every politician is aware that every fan is a voter.”
“So it was an opportunity for them,” the official added. “And Boris Johnson understood it better than anyone else.”
The swift, shocking demise of the Super League was the result of astonishingly poor planning and organization by business titans who normally leave nothing to chance, and reflected a terrible misreading of public sentiment after more than a year of a global pandemic. But ultimately, according to one official at a so-called Big Six English club, it was the backlash from political leaders, stoked by fan mobilization, that scuppered the Super League for good.
“It was the political pressure that probably made the difference,” said the official. “But that political intervention wouldn’t have happened without the strength of feeling from fans.”
A second Big Six official was reluctant to give elected leaders too much credit, but acknowledged they played a part. “Football is deeply rooted in the community, by the fans, for the fans,” the official said. “You can’t have a club here and lead a war against your own fans.”
As the dust settled Thursday following days of dissembling apologies by club owners like John W. Henry of Liverpool and Manchester United co-chairman Joel Glazer, it was clear the Super League controversy represented a convergence of sport and politics that could have long-lasting implications, particularly for the future reform of football governance that some insiders say is more crucially needed now than perhaps ever before.
Some fan groups, convinced the club owners will not easily give up their hunt for ever-richer revenues, are now demanding assurance the episode will not be repeated. And politicians, after scoring points by helping sink the Super League, may be all too eager to deliver.
In a statement to ClixkPlayNews, UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin promised to stop any future threats. “Being part of this demonstration of European unity — from fans and players to heads of state and EU leaders — has been humbling,” Čeferin said. “We will not allow the European-wide foundation for football and its values to ever again be held to ransom by those driven by profit, greed and their own self-interest.”
He added, “Together with our great partners in the EU and national governments, UEFA will find the necessary long-term solutions to protect our European model of sport for the next generation.”
Whatever the longer-term outcome, the Super League concept is now deeply discredited. Multiple fan leaders told ClixkPlayNews that it amounted to a “heartbreaking” betrayal that would have destroyed European football, by undermining the system of promotion and relegation that provides eternal hope for long-suffering supporters in underdog towns.
In his public apology, a chastened Glazer acknowledged this may have been the biggest sin.
“In seeking to create a more stable foundation for the game, we failed to show enough respect for its deep-rooted traditions — promotion, relegation, the pyramid — and for that we are sorry,” he wrote in a statement.
Boris and Emmanuel to the rescue
Some club leaders appear to be coming in for much harsher criticism than others. Glazer and Henry, for instance, have been slammed as clueless Americans, out of touch with the traditions of Europe’s cherished beautiful game. And Florentino Pérez, the president of Real Madrid in Spain, has been condemned as a key ringleader of the money-grabbing fiasco.
But if questions remain about how football’s megabucks owners — American tycoons, a Russian oligarch and an Emirati sheikh among them — so badly misjudged the public and political mood, the British prime minister has emerged as an unlikely hero.
Johnson, according to the first Big Six official, “read the weather” better than any of the owners in immediately backing the populist revolt against the Super League. But Macron was quicker to react, in part because of some strategic back-channel communication between the Elysée Palace and opponents of the Super League.
On Sunday afternoon, as the football world was thrown into disarray by a report in the Times that six English clubs — Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur — were planning to join a rebel Super League competition with other top Continental teams, much of European football’s traditional governance personnel were gathered for a UEFA event in Montreux, Switzerland. Officials quickly began mobilizing opposition.
Macron, alerted to the move, issued a statement to French sports journalists promising to back UEFA, European football’s governing body, in whatever steps it wanted to take to prevent the creation of the Super League.
Johnson followed soon after, tweeting that a Super League would be “very damaging” for English and European football.
At around 10 p.m., according to one U.K. government official, Britain’s Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden held a call with government officials and bluntly told them: “We need to pick a side here. Back the fans and go in hard to try to kill this.” Some people on the call reported being taken aback by Dowden’s forthrightness, but it would ultimately come to reflect the confidence of the opposition to the Super League.
Close to midnight and the announcement was official: the six English clubs, plus Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona from Spain, and Juventus, Internazionale and AC Milan from Italy, would be joining the competition.
The semi-closed league would have 15 permanent members (three others were never announced), with space each year for five new clubs. Details about how rotating clubs would be selected were never made clear, and perhaps were never quite sorted out before the whole thing fell apart.
On paper, though, it was a rich idea: The investment bank JPMorgan was said to be financing the league, and the 15 founder clubs would each have a share in a €3.5 billion startup grant.
Here’s what followed:
Monday morning brought front-page headlines across Europe and around the world, as well as waves of condemnation. In Brussels, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas told ClixkPlayNews that a Super League did not represent “his kind of Europe.”
“I would personally very much regret it if these clubs really were to sever links with UEFA and national associations and turn their backs on open competition, sporting merit and the support to grassroots amateur football it represents,” he said.
But while the Commission expressed anger at the concept, competition enforcers said they were not prepared to step in to block the Super League. “Disputes related to the governance of sports can usually be handled best by relevant arbitration bodies and national courts,” a Commission spokesperson dealing with competition cases said Monday.
The Super League, however, ended up defeated in the court of public opinion and the only legal cases may end up being disputes among the sponsors and clubs that backed the ill-fated idea.
In London, Johnson’s government had made its decision and proactive steps were being taken to bring the Super League down, the U.K. government official said. Dowden spoke to bosses from UEFA, including Čeferin, as well as England’s Football Association and the Premier League, which urged the government to stand squarely behind them.
In a statement in the Commons in the afternoon, Dowden said the government would not hesitate to protect football. “We will put everything on the table to prevent this from happening,” he said, adding: “We are examining every option, from governance reform, to competition law, and the mechanisms that allow football to take place.” A chorus of MPs from across the House spoke up to support the government position — a significant moment, showing crossbench support for the robust approach, with ministers ready to pass legislation to block the plan.
Meanwhile, across the Continent, tempers were flaring.
In an extraordinary press conference in the afternoon, Čeferin — godfather to Juventus chief Andrea Agnelli’s daughter — called the breakaway plotters “snakes” and liars who had delivered a “spit in the face of football lovers.”
Čeferin said he’d been lied to by senior figures at the clubs involved, including Agnelli, Manchester United’s Ed Woodward and Real Madrid supremo Pérez. And then he reiterated the threat of an explosive sanction: competing Super League players would be banned from international competitions, including the World Cup.
The fury kept coming, as European leaders tried to put their thumb on the scales in favor of UEFA.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi — a supporter of AS Roma — also weighed in against the Super League. Echoing Macron, he said the Italian government fully backed UEFA.
Club officials said the billionaire owners were prepared for the backlash, but miscalculated the ferocity of the resistance, and mistakenly believed they could ride out the initial wave of hostility.
“The idea that these tycoons running football didn’t know it was going to be unpopular because they’re so out of touch — that’s not true,” the first Big Six football official said. “Everyone understood that it was going to be unpopular.”
The second Big Six official said some clubs were unenthusiastic participants and believed they could address some of the Super League’s flaws down the line.
By then, the backlash had extended to the very top of British society. Prince William, second in line to the U.K. throne and the Football Association president, tweeted that the Super League risked damaging “the game we love.”
But as the high-level political pressure was growing, one voice was notably silent: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. Football insiders said Spain’s marquee teams — Real Madrid and Barcelona — may have had the most to gain from the Super League.
As behind-the-scenes jostling continued on Monday afternoon, there was speculation among multiple football officials that the hugely powerful Real Madrid had cowed Sánchez into silence.
But later that night, even the Spanish government came out against the plan, though its statement was notably weaker than those issued by Macron, Johnson and Draghi.
In a final late-night twist, Pérez, the Real Madrid president, appeared on El Chiringuito de Jugones, a late-night Spanish talk show, where he claimed the new Super League, among other things, could involve shorter matches because young people didn’t have the attention span to watch 90-minute games.
Representatives for the Super League did not respond to repeated requests for comment throughout the week.
By Tuesday morning, the political backlash had broadened to include Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, a Social-Democrat; Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a conservative; and their Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán, who calls himself a champion of illiberal democracy.
As Čeferin urged in a speech at the UEFA congress on Tuesday morning the breakaway clubs to reverse course on their “mistake,” the Super League’s house of cards began to teeter.
According to one person from within the football industry close to the developments, the Tuesday meeting between Johnson, representatives from England’s other 14 Premier League clubs and fan groups marked a critical “turning point.”
“They felt very confident that we had the right kind of regulations in place to do very serious battle with the breakaway league,” the industry figure said. “For Dowden’s initial message to be reinforced with such vigor and clarity by the prime minister was very encouraging indeed.”
Johnson’s intervention was “very significant” even if it was a populist move on his part, said the first Big Six football official.
One breakaway club was already reportedly beginning to waver, as Johnson threatened to drop a “legislative bomb” to stop the Super League.
Amid the growing political pressure, in-fighting broke out among the Super League clubs.
A senior figure at Chelsea privately accused bosses at Liverpool and Manchester United, the two clubs driving the split domestically, of lying to them and “fucking up.”
In Paris, Clément Beaune, the junior minister for Europe, said France was actively working on how to push for European legislation to protect football — and that it would make it an issue during its 2022 EU Council presidency.
And inside English football, anger mounted on Tuesday afternoon — but with added weight, as key figures at Super League clubs came out against the project.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said the concept was “not sport.” Manchester United defender Luke Shaw blasted the project. And later in the day, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, together with his teammates, announced “we don’t like it and we don’t want it to happen.”
Clearly the owners “underestimated the intensity of the reaction and overestimated their ability to drive through that initial wave of opposition,” according to the first Big Six club official. “I think, in particular, they underestimated the willingness of politicians to step in in response to the fans.”
And by Tuesday night, the writing was on the wall for the Super League.
Early in the evening, Chelsea were reported by major media outlets to be pulling out — drawing praise from fans for Roman Abramovich, the club’s Russian oligarch owner.
Club supporters, protesting outside the stadium in London, broke into wild celebrations. Then Manchester City were said to be on the edge of deserting. Johnson praised the clubs in a tweet, provided their U-turns were “confirmed” — a sign that even he was not certain where things stood.
Shortly after Johnson’s tweet, the first domino officially fell. City backed out and were quickly followed by Manchester United, Spurs, Liverpool, Arsenal and, now confirmed, Chelsea.
“The intensity of the reaction was greater than the architects of this plan had anticipated,” the first Big Six football official said.
On TV, British football pundits were gleeful. Graeme Souness, a former Liverpool player and manager, grinned: “We’re not America … Britain’s a proper country.”
Despite the mass withdrawals, contrition was initially in short supply among the Big Six owners.
Henry, owner of Liverpool and the Boston Red Sox, did deliver an apology on Wednesday morning. Speaking directly to camera, Henry awkwardly referenced “LFC” — a previously unheard acronym — while apologizing to fans for his role in the debacle.
By Wednesday morning, after Internazionale and Atlético Madrid backed out, even Agnelli, one of the primary drivers of the project, had thrown in the towel.
In a bizarre twist, while claiming he’d been lied to by unnamed people inside European football, the Juventus chief blamed Brexit for the collapse of the Super League. And in a way, he was right. Without Brexit, Johnson could hardly have threatened to take various steps, such as denying visas to the U.K. for visiting players or changing national competition law.
For officials close to the battle, the government’s role was unmistakable.
“It was sort of a chain reaction,” the first Big Six official said. “Once you had politicians who were threatening legislation and serious regulatory intervention then any major business, which football clubs are these days, can’t ignore that.”
Where football goes next from here is unclear. But fans are loudly demanding better oversight of the game.
If the Super League stunt leads to further regulation of European football’s imbalanced financial ecosystem, potentially reining in the spending of top clubs, then it will be regarded as a historic example of a self-inflicted wound.
One of the Big Six officials confessed the breakaway plot had been “strategically disastrous.”
Describing the Super League fiasco as an “earthquake” for sport, one EU official said that considering the strength of public and political opposition to the closed-shop concept, it was the ideal moment for Brussels to work toward legislation that would “safeguard the European model of sport.”
The official pointed to Schinas’ early tweet thread, which went beyond a regular European Commission holding statement, as evidence of the executive’s strength of feeling against the Super League — even if it was unclear whether Brussels, through its competition directorate, had the required tools to step in, or even which side a protracted legal battle might have favored.
One senior EU official said the Commission and UEFA were currently looking at ways to “deepen their long-term partnership.”
Multiple EU officials told ClixkPlayNews that, based on several meetings with senior Brussels figures, including with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, UEFA’s Čeferin is a straight-talker and a “reliable partner.”
But is the breakaway league buried for good, or just on ice?
Late Wednesday night, one lonely figure continued to battle for the Super League concept.
“The Super League is not dead, we’ll continue working on this project. Now it’s on stand-by,” Real Madrid’s Pérez claimed on Spanish TV.
But the magnitude of the political opposition was clear. At one point, the U.K. ambassador in Paris, Ed Llewellyn, was said to be coordinating a meeting between French and British ministers — although the Super League collapsed before it could take place.
By the end, opposition to the Super League had allied not only Johnson and Macron, fans and national football associations, but also sponsors, broadcasters and, of course, even the British royal family.
Pointing to the immense scale of the backlash against the billionaire owners, one of the European football officials said: “The second in line to the British throne came out to criticize the plan. That takes quite some doing.”
Simon Van Dorpe, Paola Tamma, Laura Kayali and Alex Wickham contributed reporting.