When English soccer club Brighton took the field prior to its match against Chelsea this week, its players wore white T-shirts that said, “Football is for the Fans.” The front of the shirt bore the logo of the Champions League, the continental championship that Chelsea and 11 other European clubs tried to usurp with their ill-fated Super League.
The shirts, which appeared across Europe in multiple languages, were a less-than-subtle display of the outright rage currently coursing through the continent’s top soccer leagues. The tension has almost everyone asking the same question: Now that the Super League has imploded, what happens next?
All 12 of the breakaway clubs are returning this week to games in their domestic leagues, where anger and distrust is at an all-time high. Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester City will also continue play in the Champions League semifinals, despite discussions that they be blocked from doing so.
“We’re playing [AC] Milan tomorrow and if it were solely up to me, I wouldn’t want to play,” Sassuolo manager Roberto De Zerbi said Tuesday. “This is the equivalent of telling the son of a factory worker he can’t grow up to be a doctor.”
The failed Super League—which “dissolved like a lump of sugar” in the words of La Liga boss Javier Tebas—will go down as a colossal misjudgment by its 12 founding members. Seen by many as a cynical money grab antithetical to the meritocracy built into European soccer, the announcement was met with almost immediate backlash from fans, players, executives and politicians. Even the British royal family weighed in.
The breakaway lasted roughly 48 hours. News leaked on Sunday, and clubs started backing out on Tuesday afternoon. It’s led to public apologies from some of the world’s richest men (and also one of its biggest banks). And while it’s not officially dead—there are signed 23-year contracts that need to be sorted—it’s clear the endeavor won’t move forward as planned.
Less clear is what that means for a group of teams whose owners include a trio of U.S. billionaires, a Middle Eastern royal, a Russian oligarch and a Chinese retail magnate. They remain the most popular and most influential clubs in the sports, and the desire of their owners to control more of the money in European soccer hasn’t evaporated like the Super League itself.
Leeds look like they should be in the super league tho 👀
— Patrick van Aanholt (@pvanaanholt) April 19, 2021
Individual domestic leagues could certainly punish the clubs in various ways, but that decision would hinder their most commercially viable members. La Liga executives tossed cold water on that idea earlier in the week.
“I’m totally against banning them or sanctioning them,” Villarreal president Fernando Roig told reporters, before stumbling into an endorsement of the powerful teams. “I think we have to talk about things, we have to sit around the table and talk, because football without the big teams isn’t important… Well, the big clubs, the small clubs, like Sevilla, or Barcelona, I think we’re all as interesting as each other.”
It also seems unlikely that the teams would be kicked out of the Champions League, even temporarily. That would meet resistance from sponsors and media partners, who pay millions to associate themselves with the world’s best club teams. Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane, whose team plays Chelsea in the semifinals next week, called the idea “illogical and absurd.”
Then there’s possibility of legal and political blowback. U.K. Prime Minster Boris Johnson, who originally threatened to do everything in his power to block the breakaway league, could back legislation that would restrict owners. Germany’s Bundesliga, for example, has a rule called “50+1,” which prohibits commercial investors from owning more than 49% of a club, thus preventing owners from making any large decisions without the fans’ backing.
Earlier this week Johnson promised a “a root-and-branch investigation into the governance of football and into what we can do to promote the role of fans in that governance.”
Now, more than ever, we must protect the entire football community – from the top level to the grassroots – and the values of competition and fairness at its core.
I share the concerns of fans about the proposed Super League and the damage it risks causing to the game we love. W
— The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (@KensingtonRoyal) April 19, 2021
In the meantime, European soccer fans should expect more dominoes to fall in the coming days and weeks. Some have already toppled. Ed Woodward, Manchester United’s chairman for most of the past decade, announced this week that he will leave his post at the end of the year.
The changes have also strengthened the position of some, like Nasser al-Khelaifi, who runs Paris Saint-Germain on behalf of the Qatari state. A European superpower in its own right, PSG refused to join the Super League as a founding member and has already been rewarded for its loyalty. Al-Khelaifi was named the new chairman of the European Club Association, filling the vacancy left when Juventus executive Andrea Agnelli resigned to become chairman of the Super League.
The irony of al-Khelaifi’s boost in power is that his club, backed by oil billions, has helped fuel the runaway spending in European soccer that has strained its economics. The Super League has only intensified a debate about whether the sport’s economic problems are a result of revenue distribution, or of spending.
“These [state-owned] clubs need to have some sort of control,” Tebas said when asked about that dynamic. “I still feel the same way. It doesn’t mean that I can’t be against Super League. I never said Nasser al-Khelaifi is a hero…If we talk about financial matters, I can already anticipate that I don’t agree with PSG.”