Footballing Shock Doctrine: The Covid Crisis and the European Super League

In her 2007 book “Shock Doctrine,” Canadian author Naomi Klein writes about how wealthy nations and corporations exploit the aftermath of natural, political or economic disasters to implement radical, right-wing proposals that generate profit for a select elite. Klein cites events like the overhaul of the Chilean economy in 1973 after the ouster of Salvador Allende and the privatization of the New Orleans school district in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as examples of how the wealthy use moments of “shock” to implement unpopular policies that help the rich get richer.

On Sunday, this “shock doctrine” touched down in the world of European football. Twelve of Europe’s biggest clubs — Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United from England; Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan in Italy; Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid from Spain — announced that they intend to break away from the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the current governing body of European football, to form their own “European Super League.”

Playing in the Super League would mean that member clubs would leave the current inter-European competition — the UEFA Champions League — and only play against the other giants of European football in the new Super League competition. 

Teams currently qualify for the Champions League annually, based on their performance in their domestic league. In England, for example, the top four teams in the league qualify for the next season’s Champions League and thus get to both play in those matches and benefit from the valuable Champions League media deal.

Although most top clubs qualify for the Champions League every year, there are seasons where a poor league performance keeps them out of the competition the following year. This failure to qualify in turn means lower revenue, and it makes it harder to attract talented players who would prefer to play for teams in the Champions League.

The Super League’s structure would completely remove this uncertainty, and lock in the best teams in Europe into the Super League regardless of performance. A team could lose every single Super League game or finish in deadlast in their domestic league and still be in the competition next season.

The teams in the Super League are not even necessarily “Europe’s best” according to their performances either — Arsenal were a founding member despite floundering in ninth in the Premier League. The one thing these teams have in common is that they are immensely wealthy. The Super League would create an untouchable caste of elite clubs who have their own, guaranteed competition.

The incentive for these teams, in addition to perennial participation in this elite league, is that the media deal and other financial incentives for such a league would shatter existing records. Teams have already been offered hundreds of millions, if not billions, of Euros to join the new league with the hope that the enormous sums of money will help ease the transition. American companies like J.P. Morgan have promised billions in start-up funding as well, indicating that this proposal has the support of international financial companies and other big businesses.

Both UEFA and the domestic leagues have vowed to strike back. It is likely that the three teams that are still in this year’s UEFA Champions League and that have also said they intend to join the Super League — Chelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid — will be kicked out of the competition. UEFA has also moved to ban any player who plays in the Super League from playing for their national teams at the European Championships or the World Cup.

Fans are almost entirely united against the move as well. A poll from UK company YouGov found that 79% of fans opposed the proposal, and only 14% indicated that they were in favor of it. The social media pages of teams attempting to join the Super League are full of comments from fans imploring their sides to abandon their efforts and listen to the desires of supporters.

The catalyst, supposedly, for this new league was the “instability” caused by the pandemic. Without the revenue from ticket sales, many clubs faced financial crises that have made this new, more lucrative structure tempting. 

These arguments, however, are spurious. While the hardships of Covid are certainly real, they in no way justify the need to abandon the existing structures of European football to form an oligarchy. 

In this way, Covid is becoming the “shock” for the shock doctrine. The instability caused by the pandemic has become a cover for a total restructuring of European football to the benefit of an elite few. The system has been shocked, and now it can be totally rebuilt.

Covid also has given clubs the cover they need to hide from angry fans. When Chelsea, for example, announced that it would be joining the new Super League, their tweet received 13,000 angry replies — many of which got more likes than the original tweet — opposing the Super League. 

If teams had to go play in front of full stadiums, it is likely that they would be booed off the pitch by supporters and rival fans alike. Monday’s match between Liverpool and Leeds saw hundreds of fans break lockdown rules to protest outside Leeds’ Elland Road stadium.Leeds players also wore shirts before the game calling on Liverpool to “earn it,” — referring to their place in the Champions League, which they are currently in line to miss this season — rather than have everything handed to them by the Super League.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron have both announced that they will do everything in their power to prevent the move. But money talks in ways that other forces cannot, and even in the face of mass opposition from fans, governments, and UEFA, it looks like the shock doctrine will radically change the landscape of the “beautiful” game.

Update: This article was written on Monday, April 19. On Tuesday afternoon, after intense fan pushback and public protests, Chelsea announced that it would initiate the process of leaving the Super League. Soon all six English clubs followed suit, as did Inter Milan. While Real Madrid President Florentino Pérez insists the Super League can still happen, most observers are doubtful that the league can continue.