The main complaint of coaches and managers in this strange, compressed season of the pandemic has been about how little time they have between fixtures. Well, nothing has been quite as breathless as what was billed as the vision of football’s glamorous future: An entire competition launched and finished off within 48 hours.
The dramatic rise and collapse of the mutinous European Super League, ESL, unveiled on Sunday and already shedding signed-up members on Tuesday, leaves few clear winners and a number of red-faced losers.
In the medium-term, it has clearly shifted power at the elite end of football. The so-called rebels, the nine clubs who joined Real Madrid, Manchester United and Juventus in announcing they were forming their own 20-team, mostly ‘closed’ league to effectively supersede Uefa’s Champions League quickly learned a huge mass of supporters are deeply hostile to the idea, and their voices cannot be dismissed.
Uefa meanwhile have come through the drama looking like first-leg winners, fortified by the knowledge that the next rebellion by the superclubs wanting more control, and more money, from elite competitions will need to be much better organised and appealing in the way it is set out.
Supporters will feel victorious, too. The degree of resistance from fans took the six English would-be ESL members - United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs - by surprise. One senior executive from a Premier League club used the word “uprising”. It looked and sounded like one. On Tuesday night, Chelsea were drafting their formal statement to say they would withdraw from the project once fans gathered, chanting against the ESL outside the club’s Stamford Bridge stadium ahead of the fixture against Brighton.
By the end of the night their fellow Premier League clubs had all withdrawn from ESL, alarmed by the vivid rejection of the idea by fans and by a UK government threatening legislation to corral the national sport into line. Backed by government, the English Football Association warned they were ready to throw the six rebels out of the Premier League.
Two of the Italian trio enlisted in ESL, AC Milan and Internazionale then stepped back by lunchtime Wednesday, and Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, a ringleader, acknowledged: "I don't think the project is up and running." Atletico Madrid withdrew, leaving just La Liga's Real Madrid and Barcelona as valid signatures on a prospective Super League that, when it was optimistically unveiled on Sunday evening, was signalling a possible start date of this August.
Significantly, Madrid and Barca are the two clubs involved whose presidents are elected by their season-ticket holders; Madrid’s Florentino Perez, who is chairman of ESL, and Joan Laporta, of Barcelona, can legitimately say they speak for and act for fans, or at least have a clear mandate to do so. Laporta had taken the precaution of saying his club’s engagement with ESL would depend on Barcelona members voting to approve it at a future general assembly.
By contrast, the vociferous line of criticism towards the English clubs who committed to the breakaway league is that their club owners and decision-makers had ignored, or utterly misunderstood, supporters. Under particular fire are the American-based stakeholders at United, Arsenal and Liverpool, for signing up to a proposed competition that removed jeopardy from its structure - no founder member of ESL could ever be relegated.
Some major sports in the US operate with ‘closed’ leagues like that, where clubs or franchises are permanent members, however poorly they perform in a season. But football has developed into the world’s most popular game on the principle of the pyramid, a hierarchy where promotion or relegation are constants. The current Champions League is part of that: Teams reach it by securing a high place in their domestic leagues.
"There are things in football that should not be changed," commented the Barcelona coach, Ronald Koeman on the Super League's flawed structure, echoing Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola's remark that "it is not sport if you can't lose".
But Koeman added: “It’s only natural that club presidents think about the future.” Barcelona’s president Laporta is one of those deeply concerned about falling revenues - because of the pandemic, and because of plateauing income from broadcast rights - and who found the sums that ESL boasted it could bring to clubs extremely attractive. A grant of €3.5 million ($3.9bn) was promised to spread among the 15 ‘Founder Clubs’; Barcelona have an overall debt of over €1bn, around €400m of which needs urgent attention.
Fans, national governments, Uefa and Fifa may have put the brakes on the supposed ESL financial bonanza, but the impulse that drove the idea of a breakaway will not subside. The question now is how and when the impulse resurfaces.
There are already other versions of an elite cross-border league being drawn up, although they are within the sport’s existing governing structures. The Champions League will expand from 2024, and Uefa have tabled a proposal to favour established superclubs by offering two places in its new, 36-club group phase to be awarded, each year, according to past performance, not a club’s position in the previous domestic league season. The mechanism had been designed to appease wealthier clubs’ fears of missing out. Now that most of those clubs have plotted openly against Uefa the idea may be withdrawn.
Meanwhile, Fifa sense their expanded Club World Cup, which was, until the Covid crisis, to have taken place this summer in China, will now have fuller support from big clubs whose efforts at a breakaway have flopped. Fifa is offering a glamorous alternative: a 24-club tournament that would feel like a World Cup, except its glamour fixtures would not be the likes of Brazil against Germany, but Real Madrid against Manchester United, Juventus against Barcelona, or Manchester City against Liverpool.
Eight European clubs will take part in the Club World Cup - qualifying, in principle, via their achievements in the Champions League or Europa League - along with South American clubs, and clubs qualifying from the Asian, African and North American pyramid.
The tournament may come to look very much like a Super League - but with the important distinction that there is no closing off the possibility of, say, a Boca Juniors versus Barcelona semi-final, or, equally, a Manchester United versus Al Jazira.