The president of the proposed European Super League (ESL) a project which effectively collapsed two days after it was launched, maintained on Thursday it remains “on standby.” But almost as soon as Florentino Perez, ESL head and president of Real Madrid, made his defiant claim, the fans whose protests put the brakes on his rebel league established they too are very much on standby to keep on resisting.
Groups of protesters gathered at the training ground of Manchester United and banners against the Super League were displayed outside Madrid's Bernabeu stadium, following other demonstrations of disapproval from supporters of several of the other 10 clubs who announced at the weekend they had signed up for ESL.
Nine of those clubs then promptly stepped back – only Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus are left – some making public apologies for ignoring widespread disgust at a competition with protected membership for 15 of the wealthiest clubs in Europe setting itself up as an alternative to the Uefa Champions League.
After being abruptly deserted by the vast majority of his ESL allies – United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Atletico Madrid had all effectively withdrawn within 60 hours of the project’s unveiling – Perez insisted: “Anyone who thinks the Super League is dead is mistaken,” adding that the financial backing for the project, which claimed the support of JP Morgan, the major investment bank, is there to be tapped into.
The so-called Founder Clubs of ESL were promised a share of a €3.5 billon ($4.2bn) grant once the competition was under way, as well as revenue at least two and half times greater than they earn from the Champions League. "The financial backers believe in it," Perez told El Larguero, a Spanish radio show.
But not all the enlisted clubs believed in it enough. Perez identified one of the six English clubs as a weak link. He did not name the club he said had “never seemed that interested,” but hinted it was Manchester City.
“We had seen one of the English clubs might not be so committed, and once the campaign saying ‘this will kill the leagues, and mean the end of football’ started, that club said they were not going to go ahead,” said Perez.
He spoke of an “orchestrated” set of manoeuvres in place to sabotage the ESL, a scheme he said he had been working on for three years.
“Uefa made a big scene about it,” said Perez, and claimed the fan protests against ESL outside the Chelsea stadium, Stamford Bridge on Tuesday evening had been arranged by an unnamed third party.
“There were only 40 or so of them,” he said of the Chelsea protesters. Footage of the demonstration suggests there were many more than that.
Perez’s Real Madrid, meanwhile, are due to play Chelsea in the semi-final of the Champions League on Tuesday – provided Uefa do not apply an immediate sanction against the 12 clubs who put their names to ESL, a rebel competition.
Perez dismissed the idea of punitive sanctions from governing bodies – Uefa, Fifa or the domestic leagues – as a result of the failed breakaway. ESL believe their lawyers could successfully challenge any expulsion from existing competitions.
Following Perez’s comments, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid heard more condemnation from the rest of Spain’s professional clubs. “Global resistance over the past few days shows that a closed, elitist league is unviable and unwanted,” the 39 other clubs of Spain’s top two divisions said in a joint statement after an emergency meeting of La Liga.
Atletico pulled out of ESL on Wednesday. Barcelona, who have not withdrawn, meanwhile defined their position. Joan Laporta, the Barca club president, explained the Super League as “necessary” because of the serious financial difficulties many clubs have encountered, partly because of the Covid-19 crisis, and he echoed Perez, by urging a redistribution of revenue at the top level of European competitions so that they recognise the high cost of salaries at the most successful clubs.
But Laporta opened up the path to dialogue with Uefa. He explained he had not authorised Barcelona to pull out of ESL principally because that decision could only be taken by the club’s members, the season-ticket holders. Laporta – who like Perez, is elected to the club’s presidency by club members – had only enlisted in ESL on the condition that members later approve or reject the Super League in a vote at the club’s general assembly later this year.
Laporta also argues that he only inherited the ESL commitment when he was voted in as president last month; his predecessor, Josep Maria Bartomeu, had already told Perez's ESL organisers last year to count Barcelona in.
Uefa acknowledge that, and have identified the Barcelona president as a potential peace-broker in the ugly fallout from the ESL controversy. Uefa’s president Aleksandr Ceferin, having described the Super League cartel as “snakes” and the Juventus president, Andrea Agnelli – a vice-president of ESL – as a “persistent liar,” excused Laporta from blame.
“I am disappointed in all of them,” said Ceferin, “but maybe less so Barcelona. Laporta has only just been elected [as president]. He’s a good negotiator.”
Perez, who has been Madrid’s president for 18 of the last 21 years, is reputed to be a very fine negotiator, too, and is a hugely successful construction magnate. But this last week has not been his finest session around a negotiating table.
“We had everything ready for everyone to have his turn to talk,” he said of the ESL’s tumultuous crash-landing, “but the next day, we were killed by horrible aggression. But certainly, we got some things wrong.”