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The Confrontation between the Basis and the Capital - the Controversy over the Foundation of the European Super League

 On April 18, an official announcement made headlines not only in football clubs but also in the sports industry worldwide. The announcement was about the founding a new football league called the European Super League with 12 big clubs in Europe, in cooperation with the American bank, J.P Morgan. But right after the announcement, the idea, understood by football fans, players, clubs, and even European governments and football associations, virtually failed. This situation can be understood by understanding the different views of football in Europe and the U.S. and in the confrontation between the capital and the base. We will look at why the Super League existed for only three days.

What is the European Super League?

 The European Super League started with the idea of creating a literal ‘super’ league among existing football leagues. In other words, its origin was a dream of watching matches between the best football clubs. The Super League is an independent competition held by EUROPEAN SUPER LEAGUE COMPANY, S.L., which does not belong to any football associations such as FIFA and UEFA. The SL includes 20 clubs altogether, with 15 founding member clubs participating in it every year and an additional five clubs that can join according to their records.

 The competition would be conducted at Home or Away. At first, the clubs were divided into two groups that played football against group members. Then, in accordance with the league table in group competitions, the top eight clubs would have tournaments. A total of 12 clubs, six in England, three in Spain, and three in Italy officially were said to participate when the Super League announced its start on April 18, 2021. The founding member clubs included big European clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Real Madrid, and Barcelona. On the day of the announcement, these clubs together withdrew from the European Club Association and those involved in them resigned from the UEFA. Therefore, the ESL is right to be called the league of the European big clubs for this fact alone.

 The ESL as a huge project seems a surprise, but in fact it was planned for a long time. Florentino Pérez, the initial chairman of the ESL and the president of Real Madrid CF, has argued for its foundation since 2009. In 2009, he suggested the ESL as a new norm, to a Spanish media outlet, saying a Super League among the Europe’s big clubs was needed.

 However, along with the pretext that he mentioned, the ESL needed to secure the club’s budget. Recently, European football clubs have been suffering deficit finances. For example, FC Bordeaux in the France football league, to which Hwang Ui-Jo belongs, declared bankruptcy because of the Covid-19. Even after the end of the Covid-19,  European football clubs do not predict a rosy future.

 This bleak fact is because the football market has a number of problems including decreases in spectators and ratings and lower profitability, as is true with the sports industry around the world. Under these circumstances, football businesses need to find new fans and new profit schemes. Thus, they came up with the ESL conducted among the European big clubs with ticket powers, which would attract new fans and produce huge profits. The New York Times reported on April 18, 2021 that J.P. Morgan was supposed to invest approximately 6 trillion won in the ESL, predicting that about 13 trillion won would be created in the first season of the ESL. After all, Europe’s big clubs seemed to have opted into the ESL due to worsening profits and an unstable outlook.

Main points of the controversy

 Traditionally, Europe and the U.S. have different views on football. The most popular sport in the world may be football, but Americans don’t enjoy football as much as Europeans. Also, their different viewpoints of fairness are reflected on football. European football deems the pyramid system based on the structure of divisions fair, in which any club can be elevated into the top level or be demoted. Therefore, European football regards competition as fairness, which is shown in the FA cup, an annual football competition of worldwide clubs.

 On the other hand, Americans consider fairness differently in sports. They think it is fair that all clubs spend the same amount of money in the same condition. That’s why the U.S. has the draft system that each club can choose players in the same condition and the salary cap system that each should be run with the same amount of money. In fact, popular sports in the U.S. such as American football, baseball, and basketball employ these systems. In this regard, ESL is based on the US viewpoint. The structure of divisions does not apply to the ESL, so the 15 founding member clubs would never be demoted, which the majority of European clubs consider unfair.

 One of the reasons why football could be the most popular sport is what leads to its profitability. Football has a completely open market which allows free competition. Football players can be supplied and clubs can increased without limit. This universality led to growing profitability, but endless competition distressed clubs. The cut-throat competition caused an increase in salary of superstars and the expenditure of clubs. Due to Covid-19, the clubs cannot be profitable from tickets and shirts that are sold on match days. The clubs ended up heavily in debt and suffered financial crises, so they were seeking other other sources of profit. Therefore, Europe’s big clubs could not dismiss the chance of earning about 200 billion won every year through participation in the ESL.

 Meanwhile, this controversy over the ESL was a confrontation between nepotism and globalization. Originally, football is the business based on a city as a hometown of the club that targets its citizens. As the size of the market and the club got bigger, Europe’s big clubs could not afford their cost. Thus, clubs based on the famous cities around the world including London, Madrid, and Barcelona began to take a globalization strategy. They advanced into the Asian market and beyond to the US market where football was hardly popular. Nepotism was weakened through globalization, which made local fans furious amid this controversy over the ESL.

The reactions of the football world

 UEFA and its affiliated English Football Association and Premier League, Royal Spanish Football Federation and La Liga, Italian Football Federation and Serie A issued statements of opposition on UEFA's website. FIFA and its affiliated Continental Federation also expressed opposition to the Super League. World footballers also joined the anti-super league procession.

 First, UEFA, FIFA and the Continental Federation announced that if clubs participated in the Super League, they would be banned from participating in the national league and international competitions. They also imposed sanctions banning Super League players from playing for the national team. UEFA issued a statement on 18 April 2021, strongly criticizing the creation of the Super League as an attempt by a small number of big clubs to undermine the value of football for their own benefit.

 In response, UEFA appealed to football fans and politicians for their support, thanking French and German clubs for refusing to participate in the Super League. With this statement, UEFA prepared to file a 50-billion-euro lawsuit against clubs participating in the Super League. Meanwhile, FIFA officially expressed opposition, saying that countries and players who participate in the Super League will not be allowed to participate in the World Cup. FIFA certainly took a clear position, saying in a statement “Some European clubs are looking to create a closed league. FIFA and each Continental Federation cannot recognize this kind of competition.”

 The English Premier League issued a secretariat statement condemning all plans against the free competition and fairness of football. The Premier League said in a statement, “Fans of any club in England and across Europe can currently dream that their team may climb to the top and play against the best. We believe that the concept of a European Super League would destroy this dream.” It added that clubs that want to participate in the Super League must leave the Premier League. Spain's La Liga also issued its own official statement, strongly criticizing the project and participating clubs.

 La Liga condemned the creation of an elitist super league, referring to the value of open competition and sports, which are at the heart of European football. It added, “The new European competition proposal is nothing more than a selfish approach, designed to enrich the richest even more. It will undermine the attractiveness of the entire game and will have a profoundly damaging impact on the immediate future of La Liga, its membership clubs, and the entire football ecosystem.”

 Most people of the football world were also against the creation of the Super League. Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson expressed his opposition, saying “The Super League is a violation of the 70-year history of football in Europe.” David Beckham, one of the legendary football players, argued against the Super League, posting on his social media “Football was my lifelong dream. Football is nothing without fans. Fair competition based on players’ abilities can keep the spirit of football.” Gary Neville, a famous football commentator, was harshly crititical in a broadcast interview with Sky Sports in England.

 He argued that football needed fair competition, saying “The Super League clubs are disgusting. Among them, Manchester United and Liverpool are the worst. It is impossible for the basis of English football which started with local workers to be destroyed by capital.” Former Liverpool footballer Dejan Lovren left a famous saying, “Today is the day when football becomes soccer.” This is a figurative representation of European football being shaken by American capitalism.

The reaction of the fans

 Since ESL is basically a plan aimed at global fans, there are quite a lot of voices in favor of the Super League among overseas football fans. However, local fans who feel they have lost their football clubs to capitalism have a strong antipathy to European clubs’ globalization strategies and the Super League. Manchester United, for example, was a football club founded during the Industrial Revolution in England with workers in Manchester. Local fans of Manchester United think their club was once a Manchester team, but lost its working ethos as it became a global club. Even Manchester local working-class fans will no longer be able to afford expensive tickets for matches (about 100,000 won) and season tickets (about 1.2 million won).

 At Old Trafford, Manchester United's home stadium, the proportion of loyal fans decreased, and the number of overseas tourists increased. Local fans think the Super League will eventually ruin not only the club but also the national league. Crucially, the fact that the leaders of the Super League teams decided to participate without discussing it with their fans made their fans most angry. According to an online poll by the BBC on 19 April 2021, only 11% of local football fans were in favor of the Super League and 89% were against it. YouGov's poll also found that 79% of football fans opposed the Super League.

 Fans of the clubs that were to participate in the Super League continued to protest it and criticize it through SNS, emphasizing the view that money is not everything in football. Fierce protests took place, especially in England, where the largest number of clubs expressed their willingness to participate. Fans of Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool gathered around their home stadia to protest with placards and to oppose the creation of the Super League by burning and tearing uniforms. On 20 April 2021, Chelsea fans flocked to Chelsea's home stadium before the Premier League match between Chelsea and Brighton, blocking the team's bus and shouting against the Super League. This resulted in a 15-minute delay in the kick-off time of the game.

 A Chelsea supporter who participated in the demonstration was outraged in an interview with local British media, saying “To join the Super League is a betrayal of supporters around the world.” On May 2, 2021, more than 1,000 Manchester United fans staged a strong protest on and off the pitch. They complained strongly to the members of the board who made the decision to join the Super League by breaking into the ground and demanded the resignation of the Glazer family. Barry, who has supported Manchester United for 45 years, explained why he participated in the protest, saying in an interview with the British media The Athletic: “We are sick of the Glazer family and what they have done to our club.” Finally, the scheduled match between Manchester United and Liverpool was postponed.

Very short-lived Super League, and then

 As public opinion went bad, the situation of the Super League began to change rapidly. On 21 April 2021, Manchester City and Chelsea abruptly announced their withdrawal from the Super League three days after the establishment of the Super League. Soon after Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham all decided to leave the Super League. All Premier League clubs withdrew. Only Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus remain in the Super League of the twelve founding member clubs. Of course, the Super League has expressed its willingness to hold the event in the future, stating that it was not a disbandment but a suspension. However, as public opinion was unfavorable, JP Morgan, a major investor, also announced its withdrawal from the Super League. So it seems that the Super League project ended in three days.

 According to the disciplinary action released by UEFA in May 2021, the nine clubs that once withdrew from the European Super League decided to donate about 15 million euros to reflect that. The donation will be used to fund youth football. Although the Super League ended in three days, some experts and media predict that the Super League could be revived at any time. It was not only this time that the commercialization and globalization of football were called into question, and now big clubs are quite unhappy with FIFA and UEFA's distribution of profit. Also, the fact that Real Madrid and Juventus, who led the Super League, are still in the Super League is expected to revive the Super League.

 In response, Lee Jung-chan, a reporter at SBS Sports, said “As long as capitalism does not collapse, I think the Super League will be established. In the end, football will develop as capital leads.” Meanwhile, there is an active campaign in England to prevent the resurgence of the Super League. On 18 May 2021, BBC reported that more than 100,000 people in one day agreed to a petition led by former British football stars to establish an English football regulator. Former footballers said in a press release, “English football reform is needed. We have to put the fans back at the center of football.” With the Super League leaving probability for revival, moves to prevent the Super League are actively underway.

 The European Super League, which confused world sports fans in April, glittered for three days and then disappeared. The controversy, which was divided into two sides: the base and capital, ended with a victory of the base. However, when the Super League reappears amid the current trend that running a football club is considered foolish, it is questionable whether the base will be able to beat capital again. Then we may not be able to stop big clubs looking for profits. Still, one thing is certain: the owners of football are fans, and the clubs that try to reign over them must collapse.

남동현  ndhyeon125@naver.com

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