LONDON - The governing bodies of world football have threatened to ban any club or player taking part in the new European Super League from playing in their competitions, raising the prospect that some of the world's biggest stars could be banned from representing their countries in the FIFA World Cup.
Battle lines are being drawn for the future of football, after a dozen top European clubs signed up to the breakaway competition, which critics say will destroy the traditional structure of the game. On both sides, powerful forces are squaring up for a fight that could decide the future of the global game.
Six clubs from Britain — Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea; three from Spain — Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid; and three from Italy — AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus — originally signed up for the breakaway European Super League, whose formation was announced Monday.
However, just hours after that announcement, Manchester City confirmed Tuesday they would no longer take part in the competition. It was reported that Chelsea also plans to drop out.
The European Super League organizers say the new competition would rival but not replace existing domestic leagues and European tournaments, such as the UEFA Champions League.
The founding members would never face relegation. A further five clubs would be admitted through seasonal qualification.
Sports finance analyst Borja Garcia of Britain's Loughborough University said the primary motivation for the new league is money.
"Football has never been a very good business for club owners until a few years ago. But now, of course, comes the pandemic. Manchester United, Manchester City, Real Madrid — almost every club in Europe and around the world — are in massive debt. But the big clubs are in more debt because they have more salaries to pay. They depend more on audiences," Garcia told VOA.
"So, if I had to pick one (reason), I think it is indeed the level of debt that the pandemic has created in European football. But probably it is fair to say that that is not the cause of everything, but rather, an accelerator," he said.
U.S. investment bank J.P. Morgan will provide the finance, with each founding club gaining a share of $4.2 billion. Florentino Perez, European Super League chairman and current president of Real Madrid, defended the plans on national television Tuesday, warning that the top clubs had lost a total of $6 billion in the past season because of the pandemic.
"At this time, we are doing this to save football, which is at a critical moment," Perez said. "Soccer has to evolve, like life, like companies, people, mentalities, do. Social media has changed behavior, and football has to change and adapt to the times we live in."
Perez claimed that interest in football was declining among young people, although he did not provide evidence.
"Why are they not interested in football? Well, because there are too many matches of poor quality, and they aren't interested. They have other platforms to entertain themselves with. That is the reality.
"Viewership declines. The rights were also declining. So, something had to be done, and the pandemic told us we had to do it with urgency. We are all broke. Soccer is global — it's the only global sport in the world — and these 12 teams and some others have fans all over the world. Therefore, television is what needs to change so that we can adapt to the times," Perez said.
Plans for the European Super League have united a broad coalition of opponents. One poll suggested that almost 80% of British football fans are against the idea.
"I think it is more despicable, it is more of a greedy power grab than we ever expected," said Ronan Evain, executive director of Football Supporters Europe. "And they claim that they do it in the interest of football. They claim that they do it in the interests of everyone. They even claim that this is a response to the challenges of the pandemic. What they only really do is endanger the economic model of football and put every single club in Europe in danger."
Sports historian Philip Barker told VOA the proposals for the European Super League go against centuries of competition.
"The dream of actually coming up through the four divisions, doing what Wimbledon did many, many years ago — they came up from non-league football. We've seen it with (the) Wycombe Wanderers this past season — they got up to the championship. That dream of ascending through the levels of the pyramid was still there. But with this European Super League, there appears to be no promotion and relegations. It's effectively a closed shop for the giants of the game," Barker said.
He added, "There is a school of thought that says that this is not actually for certain, but it's a bargaining chip, because the big clubs were not happy with how UEFA was looking to expand the Champions League."
Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, the managers of Liverpool and Manchester City respectively — both signatories of the European Super League — have voiced their opposition, as well.
Critics have called the European Super League a "closed shop" that will destroy smaller clubs.
"The European model of sport is supposed to be … a model where the whole football pyramid is linked together, so the top of the pyramid has a duty of care for the bottom of the pyramid," Garcia of Loughborough University said.
The European Union and the British government say it's vital to preserve that model. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday at a press conference he would "look at everything that we can do with the football authorities to make sure that this doesn't go ahead."
He said, "Football was invented and codified in this country. It is one of the great glories of this country's cultural heritage. These clubs, these names originate from famous towns and cities in our country. And I don't think (it's) right that they should be somehow dislocated from their hometowns, home cities, taken and turned into national brands and commodities, just circulate the planet propelled by the billions of banks, without any reference to fans and those who've loved them all their lives."
Bans and consequences
UEFA, which governs European football, and FIFA, which oversees world football, have threatened to ban all clubs and players taking part in the European Super League from participating in their competitions, including the World Cup.
Speaking at the FIFA Congress in Montreux, Switzerland, Tuesday, FIFA President Gianni Infantino warned the participating clubs that there would be consequences.
"If some elect to go their own way, then they must live with the consequences of their choice. They are responsible for their choice. Concretely, this means either you're in or you're out. You cannot be half in or half out. Think about it. Everyone has to think about it, and this has to be absolutely, absolutely clear. We can see that there is a lot to throw away for maybe a short-term financial gain of some, and people need to think very carefully," he said.
New fans, markets
The European Super League is designed to appeal to fans outside of Europe and to take advantage of new markets. Some fans in Asia expressed support.
"I'm mostly interested in watching these amazing matches and stiff competition. This could have a lot more appeal," said Kevin Wang, an Inter Milan fan from Beijing.
Dalad Suriyo, a Manchester United fan from Bangkok, shares that view.
"I agree with the breakaway, as the football players can build up their strengths in the league," Suriyo said.
Some fans in Europe also support the changes.
"I think the level of these clubs (involved in the European Super League) would improve, and it would create better matches for the audience. That would not fit very much with UEFA for economic reasons, and that's why they are against it," said Madrid student Andres Cruz.