A Blueprint for Soccer’s Future Looks a Lot Like Its Present
The feedback to the latest proposal for a European soccer superleague could not exactly be described as positive. On Thursday, the so-called sports development company that has spent much of the last two years pitching the idea produced its latest vision of what European soccer could — no, should — look like.
The proposals were based on months of conversations with more than 50 clubs around Europe, according to the consultancy’s chief executive, Bernd Reichart. Those discussions, he said, had been boiled down into a set of 10 “principles,” most of them based on generic buzzwords like “sustainability” and “competitiveness” and “revenue distribution.”
The central idea, though, was to replace the existing competitions run by European soccer’s governing body, UEFA — most notably the Champions League, which returns with its knockout stages this week — with a “multi-divisional” European competition comprising 60 to 80 teams and controlled, owned and operated by the clubs themselves.
It did not, it is fair to say, go down well. Javier Tebas, the chief executive of La Liga and noted wallflower, described the superleague organizer as “a wolf disguising himself as a grandma.” The European Clubs Association called the latest ideas “distorted and misleading.” European Leagues, the umbrella body for the continent’s domestic tournaments, said that the game’s current model is “far from being broken and does not need to be fixed.”
The prize for the best statement, though, went to the Football Supporters’ Association, a British organization representing fan interests. “The walking corpse that is the European Super League twitches again, with all the self-awareness one associates with a zombie,” its statement began. That was, as these things go, quite a strong start.
Still, minor setbacks. Reichart, the Super League architect now flogging his company’s workshopped revisions, said the revised principles were intended as just a starting point, a way to begin a conversation with an even greater range of soccer’s “stakeholders.” It is, after all, one thing to knock down an idea. It is quite another to offer another in its place.
In that spirit of openness and construction, then, here is another set of proposals, an alternative blueprint for soccer’s future that takes into account each of the newest superleague suggestions.
The same teams — four from England, two from Spain and one each from Germany and France — should make the Champions League quarterfinals every year. Entitled fans of these teams should complain that the group stages are “boring.” All other clubs should be locked out, in both a sporting and financial sense. Also the Europa League and Europa Conference League should happen.
2. Domestic competitions
Domestic leagues should be won by the same teams, again and again, until those triumphs themselves become meaningless. England has special dispensation to have a maximum of three potential champions at any time.
3. Stable resources
The big teams should take most of the money, and win all of the trophies. The Premier League should dominate the financial landscape, allowing every other domestic league to wither on the vine. Clubs should be encouraged to be as irresponsible as possible in order to cling on to its coattails.
4. Player health
A variety of different organizations should insist on as many games as possible, paying only lip service to the idea of player health. The players must not, at any point, be consulted on this.
5. Financial sustainability
Owners should be welcomed with open arms, no matter how many people they have dismembered. Soccer should, effectively, become a competition decided by which investment banks steer which clients toward which clubs. Once in place, these princelings and private equity firms should be encouraged to spend as much as possible in the transfer market, forcing rivals to risk bankruptcy to keep up, distorting the idea of value and making their own clubs entirely dependent on their continued and limitless largesse.
6. The world’s best competition
All of the best players should play for the same handful of clubs, mainly in England. Whole leagues should be turned into informal feeder competitions. The most prestigious teams in those leagues should be converted into talent factories for clubs whose accidental wealth has made them lazy, and everyone else should be bought out as part of a network of teams that functions essentially as a holding pen for prospective transfers.
7. fan experience
Any suggestion of mounting disinterest among fans should be put down to young people no longer having attention spans, rather than the fact that soccer’s existing structures have turned the vast majority of games into meaningless processions.
8. Don’t forget the women
We have to mention women’s soccer, though how low down the list it is indicates where it lies in our priorities. Women’s soccer should continue to be an afterthought, modeled entirely on the men’s game — regardless of whether the men’s game functions effectively or not — because who has the time to think about it more deeply than that?
Any team that slips in status should face financial ruin. The constituent clubs of the Champions League would, ideally, be indistinguishable from one year to the next. Teams relegated from the Premier League should be handed parachute payments that essentially ensure they return immediately, but everyone should continue to pretend there is a pyramid that allows for near-impossible organic growth.
10. Respect for the law
Teams that break the flimsy financial rules we put in place should not be punished. Instead, craven organizations should let them off with piecemeal fines, subtly affirming that you can do what you want as long as you are rich enough. Clubs and leagues should claim to be self-policing, rejecting any oversight, despite all of the evidence to the contrary.
These 10 alternative principles, of course, are the obstacle that a superleague — or anyone proposing radical change to the status quo — must overcome. Reichart has to explain his ideas. He has to put them into an action plan. He has to try to make them palatable. He has to persuade people to come over to his vision.
Whether that vision has much merit is open to question. Its one concrete suggestion — a broad, league-based tournament sitting above the domestic competitions — is at best a matter of taste. Subjectively, a European superleague seems a downgrade on the Champions League’s current arrangement, but it is probably no worse than the so-called Swiss Model set to come into force next year. (It does, ironically, work far better as a paradigm for how to grow women’s soccer in Europe, even though it clearly cares little for that aspect of the game.)
The problem with criticizing new proposals is that nobody ever has to outline the alternative. None of the alphabet soup of governing bodies and lobbying groups ever have to explain where they think the game is going; how they envision its future; how they plan to address the blindingly obvious flaws in the “model that is not broken and does not need to be fixed,” the ones that — as UEFA’s own financial report, released on Friday, noted — have made soccer increasingly reliant on capital injections from owners and turning a blind eye to mounting debts.
So long as they can avoid laying out their own plan for the future, the game’s current leaders can instead cast anyone proposing change as greedy and cynical and self-interested and hope that nobody points out the hypocrisy in those charges.
They can rely on the fact that some fans yearn hopelessly for a return to a lost past, one in which the European Cup is a straight knockout tournament and Nottingham Forest is the champion of England, and that others, the ones whose teams either monopolize glory or happen to be in the Premier League, feel that things are working out quite nicely just as they are.
They can depend on the understandable, and largely correct, suspicion of all fans that anyone suggesting something new has an ulterior motive, without ever being moved to wonder quite why all of these bodies are so furious at the very idea of their authority being challenged.
There is no reason to believe that Reichart, and his consultancy, A22, have the best interests of European soccer at heart, just as there was no reason, in 2021, to buy into Florentino Pérez’s suggestion that he was trying to save anyone but Real Madrid.
But, when taking up the cudgels, it is worth asking not only what your opponent wants but what your allies want, too. It is worth assessing the reality of what you are defending: a reality in which the gap between the Premier League and the rest of Europe turns into a chasm, where the Champions League is a closed shop, where the rich have it all and still want more. That is what they are fighting for. They just never have to explain it.