A plan by some of the biggest clubs in soccer to form a European Super League has collapsed after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson threatened a “legislative bomb” to stop English teams from joining the venture.
Outrage had been building since Sunday when the 12 teams – six from England’s Premier League and three each from the top flights in Spain and Italy – shook the sports world by announcing plans to create the breakaway league and upend the structure of soccer in Europe. The teams had secured US$6-billion in financing and had high hopes that three other teams would join as founder members.
But the project began to unravel late Tuesday when Manchester City pulled out, followed by Chelsea. Within hours, the four remaining English teams – Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool – had left as well, while Barcelona, AC Milan and Atletico Madrid appeared certain to follow. Manchester United also announced the resignation of Ed Woodward, the club’s top executive and a leading force behind the Super League.
“The last few days have shown us yet again the depth of feeling our supporters around the world have for this great club and the game we love,” a statement from Arsenal said. “We needed no reminding of this but the response from supporters in recent days has given us time for further reflection and deep thought.”
The collapse came hours after a flurry of attacks on the venture from the head of soccer’s governing body, FIFA, and Johnson, who said the British government would introduce legislation to block the league.
“Be in no doubt that we don’t support the creation of this [league],” he told a news conference on Tuesday. “It’s not in the interests of fans. It’s not in the interests of football. … I think it offends against the basic principles of competition.”
During an earlier meeting on Tuesday with fan groups and soccer officials, Johnson went further and vowed: “We should drop a legislative bomb to stop it – and we should do it now.” Government officials were considering a windfall tax on the participating teams, banning their players’ work visas or modifying competition laws.
In a tweet late Tuesday, Johnson welcomed the decision by the English clubs to withdraw from the group. “I hope the other clubs involved in the European Super League will follow their lead,” he added.
The proposed league would have been based on a North American franchise system, with revenue sharing and salary caps, and the 15 founding clubs would have been permanent members. That’s contrary to European leagues where teams move up and down through promotion and relegation. Top teams across Europe also compete for places in the annual Champions League and Europa League tournaments, which are run by the Union of European Football Associations.
On Tuesday, Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, came out firmly against the project, saying he couldn’t support the “closed-shop” model. “There is no doubt whatsoever of FIFA’s disapproval for this,” Infantino told UEFA’s annual meeting in Montreux, Switzerland. “If some elect to go their own way then they must live with the consequences of their choice. This means either you’re in or you’re out. You can’t be half in or half out.”
FIFA’s opposition was critical because the organization had the power to ban players who participated in the startup from competing at the World Cup. Infantino didn’t mention a possible ban on Tuesday but UEFA’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, said players on the participating teams should lose their eligibility for all international events.
The backers of the project had insisted that European soccer needed an overhaul and they cited the mounting losses incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Audiences are decreasing and rights are decreasing and something had to be done. We are all ruined. Television has to change so we can adapt,” said Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, a key proponent of the Super League. Perez told a Spanish television program on Monday: “Young people are no longer interested in football. Why not? Because there are a lot of poor quality games and they are not interested, they have other platforms on which to distract themselves.”
His comments did little to ease the building rage. In a scathing attack on the clubs, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin told the UEFA meeting that the Super League proponents cared more about their finances than fans and he urged the owners to change their minds. In a tweet late Tuesday, he praised Manchester City and Chelsea for their actions. “They have shown great intelligence in listening to the many voices – most notably their fans,” he wrote.
The participating clubs wanted to remain in their domestic leagues and compete in the Super League tournament during the season instead of the Champions League or Europa League. That was met with threats of expulsion.
The Premier League said on Tuesday that it was prepared to punish the six English teams. The league “is considering all actions available to prevent [the Super League] from progressing, as well as holding those shareholders involved to account under its rules,” the league said in a statement.
Players and managers had been largely caught in the crossfire of the dispute. But on Tuesday, many began to speak out.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was among those who threw cold water on the project. “It is not a sport when success is already guaranteed. It is not a sport when it doesn’t matter if you lose,” he said during a news conference. “And it is not fair when one team fights and fights to arrive at the top and cannot qualify because success is already guaranteed for just a few clubs.”