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EUROPEAN FOOTBALL IS BROKEN, AND A SUPER LEAGUE IS ITS INEVITABLE, IMPERFECT SOLUTION

At this point, a European Super League seems inevitable. This piece looks at the current issues facing European football: analysing flaws, debunking myths and looking to the future.

Amidst the holiday season and end-of-decade reviews, you might have missed the reports: Florentino Pérez is trying to form a European Super League.

At the very least, it feels like the casual fan sees the state of affairs in Europe’s top five leagues as normal. The reality is that a grand restructuring of competitions is the focus of football’s upper brass, and has been for a while. 

Let’s review: the idea of a European Super League has been around for at least two decades. Back in 1998, an Italian sports management company, Media Partners, proposed a breakaway league with select clubs. UEFA intervened and changed the format of the Champions League, convincing Europe’s best to continue their participation.

The desire for change inevitably returned. In 2009, Florentino Pérez told Spanish TV: “We have to agree a new European Super League which guarantees that the best always play the best – something that does not happen in the Champions League,” but “without abandoning national leagues.”

In 2016, the Premier League’s five richest clubs met billionaire Stephen M. Ross to discuss a proposed super league.

Pérez’s last serious attempt to create a breakaway league, in 2018, took place without the support of FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who threatened to ban any player participating from FIFA Competitions.

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Now, Infantino is on board. He wants to drive FIFA into a more influential role in club football worldwide. We’re already seeing the beginning of this with an expanded Club World Cup starting in 2021. Infantino believes that an influential FIFA can increase the investment in football worldwide. 

The current format proposes two 20 team leagues composed of sides from the five largest leagues. Promotion and relegation would only exist between the divisions. Participants – particularly the best ones – stand to receive increased revenue. 

I think Infantino is embracing the inevitable. He sees the endgame – a restructuring of European competitions – and is trying to position FIFA such that they impact the changes. As reported by ESPN’s Gab Marcotti:

“We’ve seen a vast increase in polarization, the gap between rich and poor or, more accurately, the one-percenters and everybody else. It exists both among clubs – the top 30 clubs make nearly as much as the rest of the continent combined and the top one percent of clubs earn 20 percent of the club game’s total revenue — and among leagues, where the Big Five (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France) account for 75 percent of the total.

“The same six clubs have finished in the top six spots in each of the past three years in England. In Spain, the last time someone other than Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atlético finished in the top three was back in 2012. Some leagues have more turnover among the top spots, but not at the very top: In Germany, Bayern have won seven in a row, Juventus have won eight in a row in Italy and Paris Saint-Germain six of the past seven in France. 

“Sure, you can mention Leicester City’s Premier League exploits in 2016 or Ajax reaching the Champions League semi-final all you like, but the evidence is overwhelming. And unless something is done, in the long term we’re only headed one way: the formation of a European Super League.”

This super league is inevitable. UEFA doesn’t have much of a say. They will oppose the change, but they are also at the mercy of the big clubs. The money, and market, dictate everything.

This brings us to the larger point: the ratings decline. The Athletic’s Adam Crafton reported that in 2018-19, the UEFA Champions League live match audience for the last three years dropped by a total of 700 million viewers (35 percent per year) . The Europa League experienced a 17 percent drop per year as well. 

There are two sides to the fall in ratings. One is the change in the global audience’s consumption habits. Streaming services are replacing cable TV subscriptions. Fewer people can watch the games on live television. Perhaps fewer people choose to, thereby devaluing the footballing product as a whole.

On the other hand, a lot more people use illegal streaming services to watch their games. These streams are readily accessible nowadays. They likely account for a sizable portion of the ratings decline. Figuring out exactly how much of the decline is stream-driven is a fool’s errand.

Then there’s the product itself. The problems run deep. The need for change has never been more urgent:

  • ‘Parity’ is an illusion. Domestic leagues are totally lopsided. The lack of a salary cap, or any form of financial parity gives audiences a regular diet of David vs Goliath type matchups. 
  • The method of determining ‘the best’ is heavily flawed at best.
  • The fixture schedule is heavily congested, especially at the top. There’s an injury crisis, coaches are forced to choose between rotation and cohesion, and the overall standard of play suffers.

Let’s consider each issue individually. 

THE ILLUSION OF COMPETITION

A central appeal of football, relative to other team sports, is the idea that anyone can win on any day. The balance of play doesn’t translate as cleanly to results.

In some ways, the spirit of the game still exists. Football exhibits the most variance from game to game of all the major team sports. In their book The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong, the authors found that, relative to bookie odds, the bookie ‘favorites’ won a game approximately:

  • 70 percent of the time in basketball.
  • 65 percent of the time in American football.
  • 60 percent of the time in baseball.
  • 55 percent of the time in football (soccer).

They also found that the team with more shots on target only won between 50-58 percent of the time in major European leagues from 2005-2011.

The figures are skewed by the added possibility of a draw in football, but also bolstered by football having the lowest shot total and scoring opportunity of all the sports.

So, in an individual game, the result is pretty unpredictable. Over the course of a full season, football is not nearly as fair as we pretend it to be. Wage bills are still the most correlated to league performance. Finishing variance – the most common way in which we see the ‘equalization’ of results – only papers over the fact that the actual balance of play on the pitch is still lopsided. 

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Consider how excruciatingly different the environment is at a ‘big’ club and a small one. Everything from the strategy of recruitment, to the style of play on the pitch, to the general expectations and scope of what is possible vary. The approach that is default and works so well at the best clubs, typically of high pressing and possession football, would be suicidal for a small team blindly attempting the same against the best. Small clubs also have to plan to lose their best players. Such is the gap in quality. 

The concept of ‘resource-adjusted’ rankings feels foreign in football. For organizations and managers, opportunity is playing as much of a role in success as quality. 

Of course, that brings us to the next issue: 

THE FLAWED STRUCTURE OF COMPETITION

Relative to other sports, the bulk of the football season is played in games for titles that have little meaning. Football doesn’t have a very objective method of determining the ‘best’ team besides looking at a mixture of results and performances and coming to some sort of subjective conclusion.

The domestic leagues themselves are heavily flawed. The historic argument for them being the ‘best’ method of determining the ‘best’ is that they have the largest sample. Statistically speaking, you can have more confidence in the result after 38 full games than after a seven-game Champions League knockout.

But the idea that the ‘best’ team is the one that can most consistently defeat teams with far fewer resources, with a few games sprinkled against teams of similar quality in between, is also a fallacy. Domestic leagues have far too many David vs Goliath matchups to be considered serious competition. 

As we established earlier, the reality of a small club and a big club are polar opposites. This isn’t a fair competition. You win the league by knowing how to beat bad teams. Performance against big teams matters a lot less. The winner of a league title is really a measure of the best flat-track bully. 

What exactly are we doing here? Beating equals, or near equals, is not the same as bullying weaker teams. This is especially apparent tactically. Atlético Madrid under Diego Simeone have been a distinctly better knockout side than Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. You wouldn’t know by looking at their domestic numbers. 

In some leagues, the richest clubs are essentially given participation awards for existing. There is nothing special about Bayern Munich winning so many Bundesligas in the past decade. They had the most money. They had so much money that the Bundesliga ceased to be a competition. This was expected of them. 

This is also why growth for Bayern Munich and the Bundesliga is capped out. Poaching the best domestic talent is in Bayern’s sporting interest, but antithetical to their long term financial interests (which would require rivalries to create a more popular league). The competition is stagnant by design. The same applies to PSG.

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While the French and German leagues are in their own tier of futility, the problems extend throughout the top five leagues. For example, I think Jürgen Klopp’s achievements at Liverpool are historically unique. But I do find it disconcerting that the Premier League’s best can so consistently pummel the rest when they exercise great competency to go with their financial might. 

The Champions League, at the very least, requires you to go through the best to be the best. Matchups – which can be considered qualitative advantages – start mattering as much as the resource gap. Managers play tactical ‘chess’ with their team selections and strategies. The impact of this strategic maneuvering diminishes with a big talent gap. 

The footballing collective do seem to value the Champions League as the ultimate barometer for success. The big clubs and their fans’ expectations can often be traced back to the competition. Coaches spend a lot more time preparing for a Champions League knockout tie than for a run-of-the-mill league game. 

The Champions League is the most exciting competition in the biggest sport in the world, but more time is spent anticipating the competition than actually competing. The biggest fixtures in this sport take place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, not over the weekend. Watching midweek fixtures live is a privilege for few, but unrealistic for many. 

The weekly competition we are subjected to in the domestic leagues is just too watered down to warrant that level of attention. Any step towards fixing football in Europe starts with making a competition between the very best teams the centerpiece of the sport. 

Financial parity and the structure of competition are where American sports are evidently superior. This has been understood among the footballing brass as well. Real Madrid ambassador Emilio Butragueño once told the BBC: “You need uncertainty at the core of every competition… We may eventually have something similar to the [salary cap] system in the US, to give a chance to all the clubs.”

Simon Kuper’s Soccernomics also had this tidbit from Andy Burnham, Britain’s culture secretary in 2008, warning that though the Premier League was “the world’s most successful domestic sporting competition” it risked becoming “too predictable.” He added: “I keep referring to the NFL, which has equal sharing … In the US, the most free-market country in the world, they understand that equal distribution of money creates genuine competition.”

QUANTITY OVER QUALITY

The last issue is that the best teams play way too many games in football. One game every week is manageable. 50-60 games in a season is inhumane. Typically, the best teams are the ones carrying an excessive load. The very best players are often playing through injuries.

There have been some absurd cases where the difference between teams’ performances has been heavily dictated by the volume of fixtures. For example, the 2016-17 Premier League title race saw:

  • Chelsea finish first without Champions League football.
  • Tottenham Hotspur finish second with little European football (group stage exit in Champions League, punted the Europa League entirely).
  • Liverpool finish third without any European football.
  • Manchester City and Arsenal finish fourth and fifth respectively after taking the Champions League seriously.
  • Manchester United finish sixth and maximize their chances of Champions League football by making a Europa League run.

Playing through pain is part of sporting culture. Durability is as important a skill as any. But if so many games in the schedule are futile, why do we have to see so many unfit teams and rotated lineups? 

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The football calendar is a huge mess, with an alarming number of pointless games. From that point of view, domestic cup competitions and international breaks seem to be competing for the title of ‘worst part of the schedule.’

Somehow, domestic cup competitions find a way to be even more lopsided and futile than their league counterparts. Spain has a domestic cup that takes itself so seriously that audiences are subjected to entire two-legged ties between Real Madrid or Barcelona and lower division teams. Of course, it could be worse. 

Over in England, they found a way to squeeze in an entire pair of these competitions, and many are still convinced it’s a good idea. The exposure for the small teams shouldn’t come at the expense of quality in the best matchups.

The international break is also something that seems to be poorly thought out almost on purpose. Instead of creating a separate international season, where countries can train and develop cohesion through a training camp, we see national teams convene and compete for qualification mid-season at the expense of their players’ well-being. South American players get hit the hardest by the breaks. But the injuries accumulated during these breaks only hurt the club game.

The schedule also hits the successful teams the hardest. Barcelona’s prize for winning the treble in 2015? A brutal schedule with the Club World Cup, Spanish Super Cup and the regular competitions burning them out by spring 2016. Real Madrid’s prize for winning three straight Champions Leagues? A World Cup summer that burns out their superstars and essentially forces them to endure a lost season in 2018-19. Manchester City’s prize for winning back to back league titles? Dangerous long term injuries to Leroy Sané and Aymeric Laporte.

With that said, the current schedule also psychologically incentivized Real Madrid to mail in the league in favor of the Champions League during the 2017-18 season.

The answer is to simply not have an excessively long season. Make every game count. The NBA is another league struggling with making a long season rewarding. The NFL, once again, is the best league from this standpoint with a 16-20 game season. 

THE WAY FORWARD

As currently proposed, the Super League will incorporate the teams with global audiences, and their largely international fanbases will enjoy a superior competition. Not that fans had a choice: international fans follow the best teams because they have the biggest reach. The rich clubs were the only choices before, and they’ll only get richer after this finishes. The domestic leagues will lose a ton of exposure. 

In the short term, the game will be even more lopsided. In reality, though, change is always driven financially. Improving the sport as a whole will always involve appeasing the key brands at the top of the game. The game trending towards increasingly illusory competition means change has to be immediate. 

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There will be some immediate, beneficial changes. The increased competition at the top will see clubs turn to marginal gains more often (think Klopp at Liverpool). A reduction in the total number of fixtures would benefit everybody. We might even see clubs go down rare paths, like broadening their pool of managers to include all races. 

The endgame in the long term is harder to pinpoint. Arsène Wenger has proposed a much more expanded promotion-relegation system, where all teams have a chance to reach the top of the pack. I’d imagine we see that, along with some way of restricting resources (though that may not be a salary cap).

Ultimately, European football seems to be on the verge of great change. The 2010s were likely the last decade with the existing structure of national leagues. Hopefully, the product can improve in the 2020s.

BY SIDDHARTH RAMSUNDAR