Clubs, capes, and cowls: The European Super League, part II

Part I

The foremost question that would come with any creation of a European Super League is: Who gets to be part of it? Beyond even the essential question of continuing with the standard pro/rel system, any club selected for the first grouping is going to have a significant edge on others attempting to move their way up, if they can. The question of membership runs into the barrier reefs of tradition and perception. In the case of England, should we be talking solely about the Big 6? Those are the clubs that are making money right now and would be the ones driving interest for large TV contracts. But is that what determines the size and intensity of a fan base? You look at the list of English champions and the top 3 are among the usual suspects: Manchester United with 20, Liverpool with 19, and Arsenal with 13. But right behind is… Everton with 9. In fifth place is… Aston Villa, with 7. Only then do you come to Chelsea and Manchester City, tied with Sunderland at 6 titles. You have to skip a number of teams before reaching Tottenham Hotspur at 2. Is the ESL based on historical success or the money that’s being brought in right now?

Again, in Italy, there used to be the concept of the Seven Sisters being elevated beyond the reach of the rest of the top division. But, in recent times, there’s really been only one Sister. Does that mean that clubs as rich in history as Milan and Internazionale are questionable? If we’re including German teams other than Bayern Munich, where is the line drawn? As mentioned in part I, Nürnberg, second in line with 9 titles, doesn’t even play in the top division and hasn’t won a title since 1968. Third is Borussia Dortmund with 8, but right behind is Revierderby rival, Schalke 04, with 7. Does anyone look at Schalke and think that they’d be one of the clubs driving TV ratings and subscriptions, especially given that their last title was 10 years before Nürnberg’s (1958)? But, of course, one of the highest-rated games in the entire Bundesliga season every year is the Revierderby; similar to the Merseyside derby, regardless of the current status of Liverpool or Everton. That’s tradition and history which is part of the game and apparently still drives viewers to their screens, which is one of the main to create an ESL in the first place.

But that leads to another question: Are we trying to be truly “European” about this or is the Super League just the Best and Biggest Clubs League? Does it matter that Ligue 1, based on recent history, might only have one club qualify in PSG? Or that the Bundesliga might have only two teams qualify in Bayern and Dortmund? Those three combined are one half of the number of clubs that people argue that England should have. And how do we assess Serie A? Juventus has made a joke of the league for almost a decade, but the success of the two Milans in European competition is still recent enough to think that they’re more than deserving of a spot. One could make the same argument for Atleti and maybe Sevilla, given their perpetual control of the Europa League. So, let’s look at a prospective list:

  • Liverpool
  • Manchester United
  • Chelsea
  • Arsenal
  • Barcelona
  • Real Madrid
  • Atletico Madrid
  • Juventus
  • AC Milan
  • Internazionale
  • Bayern Munich
  • Dortmund
  • Paris-St. Germain

That’s the list of definite inclusion, based on both history and recent success. That leaves seven spots if we want a league of 20 (Do we want a league of 20? Would 18 be better?) The first omission that sticks out is Manchester City, given their irrefutable recent success (4 league titles and 2 FA Cups in the last decade.) Their only international success has been a Cup Winners’ Cup from a half-century ago, but it’s hard to debate people when they’ve been considered among the best teams in Europe for the past three years. Also, the easy opening argument against Arsenal would be their lack of success in recent years, given that they haven’t won a league title since 2004 and, like City, their only international success was a Cup Winners’ Cup from a quarter-century ago (please don’t pester me with your Inter-Cities Faires’ nonsense), but given that much of the ESL is about TV monies, it’s almost impossible to leave the Gunners out (unlike City…) But that means 5 English clubs already, so we have to think about some degree of parity for the other big leagues (and maybe even smaller leagues, like the Eredivisie.)

One could possibly make an argument for clubs like Villareal and Valencia from La Liga, but neither recent success nor historical domestic or European success is on offer from either. Again, the best argument is Sevilla who, while having only won the Spanish league once (1945-46), have won the Europa League six times, most of them within the past decade. Serie A is another puzzle, in that the two Roman clubs (Roma and Lazio) are names of repute on the European scene, but not in the form of actual titles for some time. Like most of the southern part of the peninsula, everything tends to pale in comparison to the monsters out of Turin and Milan. Neither have won a league title in 20 years and Roma hasn’t won the Coppa Italia in over a decade. Roma has no major international trophies. Lazio at least has a Cup Winners’ Cup and a Supercup but, again, 20 years in the past. The semi-contrasting example is Napoli, who have only been league champions twice, in the 80s, and only won a single UEFA Cup in European play, but have been consistent contenders in the past few years in every competition in which they’ve played, and are even the current holders of the Coppa Italia.

Similarly, when we look at Ligue 1, there would seem to be two obvious inclusions in Olympique de Marseille and Olympique Lyonnais, but Marseille’s last major trophy was a decade ago (a league title) and Lyon’s was a Coupe de France, with only one European title between them; Marseille’s 1992-93 Champions League win, which fell under the shadow of the match-fixing scandal which saw them relegated. That’s not unique among this list of clubs (Hi, Juventus!) but it’s still something that adds to the question of whether we’d be including these clubs for the sake of national inclusion and not because of our two overriding factors: 1. Recent and/or historical success 2. Getting eyeballs to the screen. In the latter case, of course, few clubs outside of the initial 13 are going to reach the level that even the average Premier League side can attain… and that’s going to lead to a question of some importance: Is the Premier League the most-watched league in the world because of the group identity or because it contains the Big 6? La Liga has long since pre-determined their answer, but the PL and other leagues are a bit more nebulous. But, let’s get back to our list:

  • Liverpool
  • Manchester United
  • Chelsea
  • Arsenal
  • Manchester City
  • Barcelona
  • Real Madrid
  • Atletico Madrid
  • Sevilla
  • Juventus
  • AC Milan
  • Internazionale
  • Napoli
  • Bayern Munich
  • Dortmund
  • Paris-St. Germain
  • Marseille

That leaves three slots to get to 20, which could be filled by clubs like Tottenham, Roma, or even Schalke. This, of course, carries with it the assumption that has recently followed the concept of an ESL: no promotion or relegation. Once you’re in the ESL, you’re in. It doesn’t matter if you don’t spend money and finish on the bottom in one season or for five seasons in a row. You’ll still be part of the biggest football competition in Europe. That concept, of course, warms the heart of any billionaire owner and likely makes any decent football fan recoil. One of the best things about most football leagues is pro/rel. It means your team (and its owners) has to perform or risk getting kicked out of the top divisions (i.e. the big money.) That holds clubs accountable to their members and their supporters. It also means a significant amount of risk to wealthy people who are accustomed to living without such travails. A lot of the speculation around an ESL sees it following an NFL model, where there’s a permanently-installed upper class among football clubs in Europe. As we’ve examined, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that that already exists today, but in this outcome, it would be set in stone.

Which leads us to the biggest of questions for any club not invited to the Big Show: What happens to them and their domestic leagues? Obviously, most of them become sideshows, restricted to domestic audiences, with some exceptions for major clubs that haven’t made it into the ESL on a permanent basis, like Tottenham, Lazio, and so on. But the TV rights for a La Liga without Barca and the Madrids or a PL without Arsenal and the Manchesters will plummet. That means less money coming into those major clubs and an inability to catch up to their former peers. In the same way that there is no minor league American football and the minor leagues in baseball are farm systems for the majors, the domestic leagues will end up fading from broad relevance while the ESL thunders on. That’s a hugely transformative effect on the game as we know it today. As much impact as the creation of the Premier League had on England, there was ready acknowledgment that the interests of clubs like Liverpool and Stevenage just weren’t in the same sphere any longer. But if we’re talking about diminishing clubs like Valencia and Fiorentina and Wolfsburg and not just one or two of them but ALL of them… That’s a bigger change than the game has seen in quite some time. Most of those clubs have been in contention for national honors in their respective leagues within living memory and have histories that go way past said memory.

But the reality is that everything changes, right? Most wouldn’t have expected that second-tier Liverpool in the mid-50s would go on to become the most heralded club in the English game in the 70s and 80s. Most wouldn’t have thought that a middling London club with little to say in the history of football would become one of the monsters of the game in the new century, but here Chelsea are. Given the money involved and the worldwide appeal of European football, the transformation from the current, tradition-heavy, pro/rel national leagues to a closed shop, billionaires’ club, money-is-everything international league may be inevitable. If people are no longer interested in seeing Juventus rout Crotone and coast to the Serie A title, but would gladly tune in to see Juve play Man City or PSG or Dortmund on a weekly basis, this is kinda where we are. But just because we reach this presumed pinnacle doesn’t mean that the pace of change stops.

What happens when Arsenal playing Bayern becomes old hat? Part of the attraction of the Champions League was and is in seeing sides that rarely encounter each other go head-to-head on the pitch. Indeed, the claimed waning interest of some traditionalists in the CL is based on seeing the same group of “elite” clubs match up every year in the competition in the last decade. Presumably, that interest would wane even faster if the Gunners and the German superpower were meeting twice a year, every year. But that’s debatable. The NFL certainly does not lack for rivalries or intensity on the field and among the fans, despite the fact that it’s been the same (evergrowing) group of franchises since the 60s. But even more important is when the inevitable division arises in the ranks of the ESL. The complaint leading to this idea of a Super League is that there are a certain number of clubs who simply outstrip the domestic competition. But what happens when the upper slice of that upper slice begins to dominate the ESL? How long will it take before clubs like Man City and Bayern are routinely finishing in the top half, while clubs like Dortmund and Marseille are routinely finishing in the bottom? Is being a permanent member of the ESL worth finishing with a losing record every year and watching all but the most diehard of supporters lose interest in the club? Will the money be so good that it’s worth becoming the European version of Burnley?

From a personal perspective, I can say that I’m not overly concerned about those two factors. Playing Lyon every season would be no different that playing Southampton every season for Liverpool fans. There would certainly be a tougher slate of games than simply the rest of the Big 6 and I could see some murderous slates showing up (imagine playing Juventus, Barcelona, Chelsea, PSG, and ManU in one stretch of fixtures), but I’m confident enough in both Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp’s system to be able to compete with any club in Europe, so being “trapped” in the bottom half of the ESL doesn’t strike me as an immediate concern. Plus, playing the same sides over and over is pretty close to the reality right now, so I can’t see the appeal dwindling that quickly. But that’s the perspective of a Liverpool fan with my club at the peak of its game right now. Others may not be so sanguine.

Plus, one of the main drawbacks to this whole concept would be whom we’re not playing as I mentioned at the start of this segment. Many of the other clubs in that list would either have their main rivals accompanying them into the ESL (ManU rivalries with City and Liverpool, for example) or don’t have rivalries/derbies that carry a tremendous amount of weight. Technically, there’s a derby between Juventus and Torino, for example, but no one really takes it seriously because the former totally outclasses the latter and almost always has. Indeed, a lot of derbies have been built on the history of two clubs being the heavy hitters in their league and said derby having huge implications for who wins the domestic title (see: Real Madrid and Barca as the most obvious, but also the Milans, Bayern and Dortmund, etc.) But in the cases of three teams- Liverpool, Arsenal, and Dortmund -it’s a bit more serious. Those three have games- with Everton, Tottenham, and Schalke, respectively -that would mark a huge change to the way things have been for over a century. Geographical proximity is a factor for all three of them with the distance between the Germans clubs being only 17 miles; that of the North London clubs being only 4 miles; and between the Merseyside clubs being only about half a mile (or, as we like to say, 49 points when last measured.) We’ll still be able to see Goodison from Anfield on every matchday, but we’ll never see them on the pitch again, if the league becomes permanent.

Now, that’s not usually relevant to a lot of younger fans, since the games of real competitive importance in the past two decades have been with clubs that would be accompanying us to this new arrangement; the Manchesters, Chelsea, etc. Indeed, some might find a separation from Everton something of a relief, given the ridiculous number of injuries that we’ve emerged from those matches with over the past several seasons. But some of us old and cranky types still remember the time when our biggest competitor, by far, in the English top division was the team across Stanley Park and who, again, were part of the Big 5 that led the separation from the EFL to form the Premier League. Leaving that behind for an ESL might make a lot of sense for financial (it’s always about the money), competitive, and commercial (still about the money) reasons, but it would engender a lot of regrets at some point. That is, despite the enormous amount of schadenfreude derived from Everton fans finally getting into the now-lesser Champions and/or Europa Leagues and finally achieving the “European glory” they always blame us for missing out on, only for said glory to come in the leagues no one now cares about.

So, yeah. A lot of ifs and maybes in that whole construction and we didn’t even nail down a definitive list. In part III, we’ll talk about some of the remaining constructive details (legal challenges, player welfare, etc.) which will be probably appear some time after the Atalanta game, at this point.

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