On Tuesday afternoon, supporters of the London soccer club Chelsea blocked the team coach busses from arriving to the team’s home stadium for a match against Brighton & Hove Albion. “We want our Chelsea back,” they sang as the crowd grew. The sentiment echoed a statement that the Chelsea Supporters Trust had issued earlier this week: “Our members and football supporters across the world have experienced the ultimate betrayal.”
The protest was perhaps the most visible expression of the outcry that’s swept over the highest and most monied rungs of soccer since Sunday, when Chelsea and 11 other ultrarich clubs across the continent announced that they intended to form a breakaway European Super League. The proposal, which had been rumored in one way or another for years, threatened to ensconce the sport’s current ruling class in a separate bubble of competition and profit. European soccer runs on the idea that, theoretically at least, a club in one of the sport’s lower leagues can make its way to the top alongside the likes of Chelsea. A dozen of soccer’s richest clubs were now suggesting that the ladder should only go as high as they liked—that the top tier would forever be invite-only, and all the invitations were already in the mail.
As seismic as the maneuver was, its dissipation was somehow more eye-popping. Within 48 hours, some of the Super League clubs’ leaders seemed to recognize a boundary on their appetites. In addition to club supporters like those at Chelsea, players, managers, and political leaders across Europe voiced their fervent opposition. England’s prime minister Boris Johnson met with English Premier League leaders on Tuesday, and his spokesman later said that his office was exploring legislative options for intervention. No need: The deafening wave of opposition set off a series of rapid withdrawals from the planned league. Hours after the Chelsea protest, all six English clubs were out. The remaining clubs didn’t have much of their intended league left and also departed. Liverpool’s American owner John W. Henry apologized, as did the London club Arsenal in a statement. The Super League, its officials admitted on Tuesday night, was done.
In its short existence, the Super League managed to look both ruthlessly calculated and slapdash. The goal was to create something closer to the American model of professional sports—four of the involved owners or ownership groups are American, and three of those four also own American sports franchises—in which profits are shared among a closed list of teams. The New York Times reported that JPMorgan was lined up for the league’s $4 billion initial financing. But in their effort to further consolidate wealth in the sport, club officials seemed to vastly underestimate the potential blowback. The Times reported on Tuesday that the public strength of opposition led to Chelsea’s reversal.
Over the two feverish days, the Union of European Football Associations, which administers the existing annual tournament among the continent’s top clubs, took aim at the league that proposed to supplant it. “We didn’t know we had snakes working close to us, but now we know,” UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said in a press conference on Monday. He described the Super League as a “disgraceful, self-serving proposal” and “a spit in the face of all football lovers and our society as well.” He reserved more venom for Andrea Agnelli, the president of Juventus—and the father of his goddaughter—who, he said, told him just on Saturday that the Super League was only a rumor. “I don’t want to be too personal,” Ceferin said, “but I have never seen a person who lied so many times as persistently as he did.”
By Tuesday, a reunion was underway. “I am delighted to welcome City back to the European football family,” Ceferin said shortly after Manchester City announced that it was withdrawing from the Super League. “It takes courage to admit a mistake,” he added, “but I have never doubted that they had the ability and common sense to make that decision.” At least one major club official has announced his departure in the wake of the Super League fallout, but for the most part, the European club leaders who designed the ill-fated concept will remain in charge. And for all of Ceferin’s acrimony, UEFA doesn’t have a much better reputation for looking out for the interests of fans and smaller clubs. On Wednesday, complaints about European soccer’s ruling hierarchy, Super League or not, continued. “UEFA is talking a lot, but it is not doing anything or listening to the football people, not the managers or the players, about the number of games,” Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman said in a press conference. “Most important for them is the money.”
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