Short-Lived Super League Shows Power of Fans, But Challenges Still Remain

In his meditation on the beautiful game, Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano wrote that “the history of football [i.e. soccer] is a sad voyage from beauty to duty.” Last week’s announcement of the creation of the European Super League looked to be another step on that teleological journey towards duty. Players and fans alike opposed the move, and yet because wealthy owners supported it, the clubs had to oblige.

Supporters of teams destined for the Super League refused to take this decision silently. Before last Monday’s clash between Leeds and Liverpool, fans of both clubs took to the streets outside Leeds’ Elland Road stadium to show their opposition to the Super League. 

After the game, which ended in a 1-1 draw, Liverpool captain James Milner told the media that his “personal opinion [on the Super League] is that I don’t like it and hopefully it doesn’t happen.” While ex-players like Luís Figo and Ian Wright or non-Super League players like Mesut Özil had expressed their opposition to the league, Milner’s comments were the first clear statement from a supposed-Super League player against the formation of the breakaway league.

Sensing momentum building, fans kept the pressure on. The next day, thousands of Chelsea (a team that was also supposed to join the Super League) supporters blocked the team bus from arriving before their match against Brighton & Hove Albion. Carrying banners reading “Roman Do The Right Thing,” referring to Chelsea’s billionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich, the protestors refused to let the bus in until former Chelsea goalkeeper and current technical advisor Petr Čech begged them to “give everybody time.” Within the hour, news had broken that the Chelsea brass was moving to pull out of the Super League.

 By the end of day, all six Premier League clubs indicated that they had filed paperwork to leave the Super League. Italian clubs Inter Milan and A.C. Milan soon followed suit, as did Spanish giant Atlético Madrid. As of now, only Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus remain committed to the Super League proposal.

The certain defeat of the Super League is a testament to the power of fans of the world’s most popular sport. Opposition to the proposal was immediate, sustained and deafening. Despite restrictions on gatherings due to Covid-19, fans took their frustration from the internet to the streets, and made it abundantly clear that if the clubs wished to join the Super League, the supporters would not go with them.

Supporter frustration did not end with the clubs’ decision to leave the Super League either. In particular, fans of Arsenal and Manchester United saw the move to join the Super League as the last straw after years of mismanagement by their clubs’ owners. Before Arsenal and United’s weekend games, thousands of fans called for the removal of owners Stan Kroenke and the Glazer family, respectively. Fans are feeling emboldened by the defeat of the Super League and want to continue putting pressure on ownership to either better represent their demands or get out of the way.

The unpopularity of the Super League fiasco has also led to increased conversations about changing how Premier League teams are owned. Many fans are calling for a transition to the “50+1 model” of ownership that is in place in Germany. Under the 50+1 model, the club or its fans must own a majority of the team, and companies, individuals or investment groups can only own up to 49.9 percent of the team. This ensures that decisions over the club are made by the supporters and not by outside groups motivated by profit.

Beyond the fight to restructure ownership, other players and fans are trying to raise awareness about the recent changes made to the Champions League. The new “Swiss Model” for the Champions League requires teams to play up to twice as many games during a season, which creates a physical burden on players so that broadcasters can expand media deals. Manchester City star midfielder Ilkay Gündoğan tweeted that “The new UCL [the champions league of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)] format is just the lesser of the two evils in comparison to the Super League…” and asked fans to speak up in opposition to the changes. 

Defeating the Super League was a major victory for supporters over owners, but the fight for a fairer game continues. In order to both convince the Premier League to enact new ownership rules and prevent UEFA from forcing players into more and more Champions League games, fans will need to continue to flex their collective muscle and remind the sport’s monied elite who’s boss.