Chaos theory

In lights of calls to change the Champions League's format, Simon Evans details the controversial idea of forming a European Super League

“There will be a league formed outside of UEFA with a team from each country, sponsored by that country’s biggest company… a super professional football league like American football, which will attract millions of viewers”
– Silvio Berlusconi, president of AC Milan, 1998

Berlusconi is one of the most vocal supporters of the European Super League, but he is by no means the only one. According to a recent report by the financial consulting group KPMG, 69 per cent of a sample of “opinion leaders drawn from football clubs, the media and financial institutions” believe a European Super League is certain or likely. Most expect the new league to be up and running within five years.

The reasons cited for the inevitable emergence of the new pan-European championship are mostly financial. The Champions League has demonstrated that there is a market for European football – sponsors and television companies have paid more and more each season for the rights to the competition. Those clubs who qualify are receiving bigger and bigger rewards. A Super League appears to be a logical step forward, another way of maximising club revenues and dazzling us with stars.

The consensus emerging among Europe’s top clubs is that the new league should run alongside domestic competitions and clubs that qualify (or are appointed) to the Euroleague should continue to play in their domestic competitions. The KPMG report indicates that opinion is in favour of weekend domestic leagues with Wednesday night Euroleague. To help make the fixtures manageable, domestic Premier leagues would be reduced to 14 or 16 clubs. With a similar sized Euroleague that would mean around 50-60 games a season for the top clubs, who would probably drop out of domestic cup competitions.

UEFA is against the idea. After all, they set up the Champions League as a means of stalling Super League plans and placating the big clubs. But it has merely had the effect of strengthening the hand of the elite clubs – the likes of Juventus, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Barcelona, who with their Champions League cash can spend freely on maintaining their position at the top of their domestic championship and keep themselves inside the lucrative cash loop, are getting more and more powerful within the game as a result. They are now in a position to do their own TV deals and organise their own league, with or without the bureaucrats from UEFA.

While against the Super League plans, UEFA recognises that the current Champions League format needs change. Indeed there are strong signals that all three European club competitions are being reviewed with a view to a radical overhaul. The main problem with the Champions League is that it has created a large number of meaningless games. Whereas in the old knockout European Cup, every match was crucial, we now have fixtures like this season’s Kosice v Feyenoord, where neither side can qualify and where only 3,000 people bother to turn up. Of course, domestic leagues are full of games where neither promotion or relegation are at stake, it is inevitable in any league, but European football has always been about games that matter.

But the Super League would not tackle this fundamental flaw in the current set-up, indeed it would by its very nature create more meaningless European games. Whatever moral, romantic or emotional arguments can be made against the creation of an elite continental championship (and there are many) the strongest argument against the Euroleague is a business one.

There appears to be an assumption that European football is a cash cow. TV companies will continue to pay higher and higher fees for rights, sponsors will fork out more and more to be associated with the games and fans will pay increased ticket prices. But TV, sponsors and fans are only interested in European football when it is an event. And European football is only an event when the result matters. In the Premiership, Liverpool v Manchester United is an event, regardless of the league position of the two clubs at any given time, because of a traditional and regional rivalry. A Euroleague game between 8th placed Manchester United and 9th placed Bayer Leverkeusen has neither tradition, rivalry or reason.

The situation could be further exaggerated by the changes that the super-clubs would have to make to their squad structures. Given the number of games they would have to play it is likely that Manchester United would expand their squad size even further. Presumably a weaker side would play on Saturday in the Premiership, while the full-strength squad would play in the Euroleague ( a situation that has emerged at many top clubs during the Champions League era). But if in March, United were lying in mid-table, out of contention in the Euroleague, yet were in second position in the Premiership, the club’s priorities would surely shift – a weaker team would play in Europe. Would Sky be happy to pay top rates for United reserves v Dortmund reserves? Would the fans pay to watch it?

The clubs should know better. Their success has created a national (even international in the case of United, Juve and Bayern) support and consumer base. But inevitably in the Euroleague, most of the almost-always winners will become also-rans. In the old European Cup, a defeat at the hands of another European giant was a brief disappointment, swiftly cured by a domestic league win. In the Euroleague, however, the likes of Ajax, Real Madrid and Glasgow Rangers could conceivably lose half of their games over the course of a whole season, with defeat after defeat severely denting their brand image.

Although concrete plans have yet to emerge, the recent meeting of the major leagues in Athens, comments from club officials and data from the KPMG report suggest that the proposed Euroleague would have heavy representation from those countries with strong leagues and the highest TV audiences. England, Germany, France, Italy and Spain would get two or three teams, with Holland, Turkey, Belgium, Scotland, Portugal and Sweden battling for a spot each. Eastern Europe would be locked out (sorry Dinamo Kiev, Spartak Moscow, Red Star Belgrade, Steaua Bucharest) and the occasional successful side from Scandinavia, Switzerland or Austria would have little or no chance to ever make a mark, consigned to the Euro equivalent of the Nationwide League.

The European Super League would have the major drawbacks of the English Premiership – an increasing gap between the big clubs and smaller competitors, oversized squads, spiralling transfer fees and inflated wages – but without the advantages. The danger is European football would be devalued as a competition, as a spectacle, or, in the terms of our age, as a product.

From WSC 135 May 1998. What was happening this month