Whose game is it? A philosophical take on the Super League controversy

To say the ill-conceived and short-lived European Super League was about “money” is to simplify the point. The point is a question that’s relevant from the highest level of the game to the grassroots, from European giants to the thousands of youth clubs in the United States.

Whose game is it?

Let’s be clear: Nothing makes “money” if no one’s interested. You could say the endless Eagles or Beach Boys tours featuring whichever members are getting along at the moment are about “money.” But if people weren’t willing to pay $129 for upper-level Eagles tickets and nearly $1,000 to be close enough to share the floor with Don Henley’s ego, they couldn’t charge that much for them.

When the English clubs immediately folded in the face of supporters’ pressure, they weren’t doing so out of some noble purpose for the good of the game. After all, Real Madrid’s Florentino Pérez seemed to have convinced everyone that this league was for the good of the game. It would help soccer remain a global obsession, even among the enigmatic Generation Z, and they’d kick some solidarity payments into the mix.

They blinked and backtracked for one simple reason. They realized the “money” wasn’t there.

“They had even lost the luxury watchmakers, and without the luxury watchmakers, there was nothing left to lose but themselves,” wrote Rory Smith in The New York Times.

So here’s the follow-up question: Why was there no money in this European Super League? Isn’t it basically the Champions League with a bunch of spots reserved for the clubs who got there first?

Most likely, it was the last stand for supporters who have watched the top 12-15 clubs in Europe race away from everyone else. In domestic leagues, this is a lost cause. Barcelona and Real Madrid toss the La Liga crown back and forth, only occasionally intercepted by Atlético Madrid. The Bundesliga trophy has taken root in Munich. Leicester City is considered the overachieving underdog even though it ranks 19th on Forbes’ list of the most valuable clubs in the world and is owned by multibillionaire Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, who has so far lived up to his promise to keep the club strong after the tragic death of his father, Vichai, in a 2018 helicopter crash.

Clubs have a choice of whether to jump on the train or be run over by it. The Arsenal board apologized for its decision to join the Super League with a “fear of missing out” plea.

In Europe, the days of a champion like Nottingham Forest are long gone, and even once-mighty Ajax finds its forays into the Champions League too often stopped in the group stage. But supporters have drawn a line here against a Super League that would make it more difficult for the dozens of accomplished European clubs, let alone the hundreds of ambitious clubs, to make it into Europe’s marquee league at all.

So this is a last stand of sorts against the notion of reserving sports for the elite few. The European Super League wasn’t going to make money because supporters made it known they weren’t intending to give any more to the clubs that are already swimming in cash. (Granted, some are in debt, but that’s because their owners have so much money that they don’t mind tossing some of it down the drain.) They’ll give their cash to Chelsea after they’ve knocked out Porto, not before.

Next question: When will we see this line against the 0.1% drawn in American sports?

Collegiate “non-revenue” sports are playgrounds for the moneyed class. Parents pay top dollar or even falsify information about their kids’ credentials in rowing, sailing or, yes, soccer to get their kids into elite schools. Colleges who can’t find space for bright students from underserved communities hand equestrian scholarships to families who don’t need them.

That elitism trickles down to youth sports, especially soccer. Playing in elite leagues requires vast expenditures of money, either from the players’ parents or other benefactors.

Changing the influence of money will require massive changes in mindsets. Youth sports will need to become more participatory, and the “elite” leagues will need to be at least partially dismantled. The only way to shift money around in Europe, beyond solidarity payments that may help pay lower-level clubs’ bills but don’t help them reach the top, is to devote more of our attention and money to domestic leagues and lower divisions.

The Super League is dead. For now. But the intrinsic forces that made it an appealing idea are never going away. We simply need to find pragmatic ways to deal with them.

10 comments about "Whose game is it? A philosophical take on the Super League controversy".
  1. James Breslin, April 28, 2021 at 10:48 a.m.

    In our country as far as soccer this is squarly on US Soccer. They need to open the system and make it more inclusive. Gatekeeping rules like the Professional League Standards hinder the growth of the game and leave out all but the richest among us. US Soccer needs to unite the adult and youth pyramids on primarily sporting merit through a system of promotion and relegation as that is the fairest most inclusive system for what is in actuality a sport. In the absence of leadership at US Soccer we have ended up with a fragmented exclusive system.

  2. R2 Dad replied, April 28, 2021 at 3:47 p.m.

    The MLB, NBA and NFL all have the NCAA (and by extension US taxpayers who fund universities) to do most of their youth development for them. This aspect of the youth-to-pro cycle was not considered when creating MLS and now we have a half-arse stopgap solution to plug the hole. USSF and MLS created the professional level of the pyramid without valuing how the culture and the community grow the rest of that pyramid. Pro-rel is the solution no business owner wants as it doesn't offer a secure return nor an annual draft component to level up the league. Essentially MLS has created an unsustainable bubble in the market for franchise valuations the same way the Fed has for government debt, and is hoping no one notices. 

  3. Santiago 1314 replied, May 5, 2021 at 11:53 a.m.

    FLEETWOOD MAC for Me.!!!

  4. Santiago 1314 replied, May 5, 2021 at 12:15 p.m.

    The Game Belongs to whoever has The Balls...Literally... When we were playing, if "Jose" had to go Home for Dinner and took the Ball... Game Over ... So, each Team is "Owned" by "The Owners" ... Some are individuals, Some are Corporations, Some are Fan Owned, Some are League Owned... Obviously, "Butts in the Seats(or Streets)" Aren't going to Sustain the Salaries Needed for Messi, et al... "Golden Rule" will Apply. We are just Kidding ourselves, If we think: "We the Fans" are in Control... If the Owners Bail, who's going to pay those ManU players.???

  5. Alan Goldstein, April 28, 2021 at 10:56 a.m.

    The cultural acceptance of certain processes in sport had a lot to do with the mountain of resistance to the Super League despite the outcry against the league's supposed failure to supply "equitable competition". Soccer fans around the world ( even among a number of American fans) accept the necessary qualification of teams into divisions as part of the gane. The idea of a league in which clubs are always a member runs counter to their concept of sport. Of course, here in the US we accept that idea because it has always been that way - one never hears a call for pro/ rel among NFL or NBA fans. However, if international soccer fans were truly interested in equitable competition they would embrace the American idea of salary caps snd add transfer fee caps to it. Where is the outcry over the increasing gap between the money spenders and everbody else? There is no drama ( by our standards) in the La Liga championship, we know- every year-:who will be in the top few at the end. The fact is that the concept of caps on spending is not part of the acceptable
    cultural setup of the sport among those fans, mention of it...even while they scream about the Super League ending competition. 

  6. James Breslin replied, April 28, 2021 at 1:05 p.m.

    I find a luxury tax interesing. Not a fan of caps though. But taxing the big spenders and distributing down the pyramid might be something I could get behind.

  7. Kent James, April 28, 2021 at 1:20 p.m.

    I think you've hit the nail on the head.  Some European leagues are dominated by a few wealthy clubs at the top, and those clubs are able to attract fans outside their country because of the caliber of their team.  And there is a lot of fan support when those clubs play each other (in the Champions League).  If there was no international competition, it would make no sense to have one or two clubs dominating a domestic league, but since there is, it is good for the fans in that country to have a team or two that can compete at that level.  

    The MLS takes the opposite approach, where it seems like teams are so evenly distributed that most games are quite competitive, and there are multiple league winners.  The downside is that MLS teams struggle in international competitions because the talent is more evenly distributed around the league.  

    I'm not a European, so I don't know how fans of the lesser clubs feel about losing to the bigger clubs most of the time, and if they would prefer that the big boys were elevated to another league so that their club might have a chance to win their league, but it's certainly possible.  The only thing for sure is that the way the current participants attempted to form the Superleague was the wrong approach, so that idea won't be tried again for a while. 

  8. R2 Dad, April 28, 2021 at 4:58 p.m.

    Billy Connelly has a very good take: UEFA Survived Super League Breakaway... with some good detail and suggestions.

  9. Philip Carragher, April 29, 2021 at 10:09 a.m.

    A few years ago Manchester United visited Chicago and played the Fire in a friendly. In the first half, the Fire seemed to be holding its own and even a bit dominant at times. Since I don't enjoy watching MLS games for its skillful soccer, I was puzzled but the answer came shortly thereafter. Entering the game in the second half, Rooney and Nani. Their speed was dazzling compared to the rest of the field and completely changed the game. A similar situation happened when Chicago hosted Argentina versus Panama in the Copa America and played a real game, not a friendly. Messi had been injured and wasn't supposed to play, but he came into the game in the second half and with just his much quicker feet scored two goals, right in front of where I was sitting. Then he hit a beautiful direct kick that scored and he did all of this in just about 20 minutes of play. These very highly payed players are the difference makers, and I saw first hand why they command the big bucks. This is not an opinion on the issue being discussed here, but interesting observations.

  10. Santiago 1314 replied, May 5, 2021 at 12:01 p.m.

    Right On Philip... You could Change the Shirts on 95% of the Players on the Field, and No One would Notice the Difference... So, Do we put a Salary Cap on Messi.???

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