It is the world’s most popular sport with 3.5 billion fans across the globe, but what is it called? Football or soccer? The roots of what was first known as European football date back to 12th century England, with its current form arising in England in the 19th century. Since then, the sport has been mainly associated with European countries, with eight of the top ten national teams being European in the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) world ranking. The national leagues of European countries are consistently at the top of ranking lists in terms of attendance and television audience. England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and France’s Ligue 1 are the most popular of the European leagues. Despite Europe’s dominance, the popularity of the sport reaches worldwide; in almost all countries, it is the most popular sport domestically. The game is not only strong in its numbers, however. Fan loyalty to teams is a familiar phenomenon across Europe, and matches almost always take place with near full attendance even for teams that are facing relegation. Success is appreciated and celebrated, but not the ultimate priority. Rather, the teams that fans support are a source of local pride, passion, and personal identity. Matchdays are spent in local pubs, fostering a sense of community where the sport is able to lift the spirits of all who observe it. Some even claim that the sport has become a “religion” in the United Kingdom, where there are more than 140 individual leagues with a total of over 480 divisions. This system allows even the poorest, smallest neighborhood teams to be able to rise to the very top through open competition.
American Owners in European Football
Recently, a trend has emerged in the English Premier League and in other European leagues where popular football teams were being bought by American investors. Eight of the 20 English Premier League teams are either fully or partially owned by Americans. These eight teams include Arsenal, Liverpool, and Manchester United, three of the most successful and popular clubs in the league. This trend is also observed in other European Leagues: AC Milan, Parma, Fiorentina, and AS Roma of the Italian Serie A, as well as Bordeaux and Marseille of the French Ligue 1, are also fully or partially owned by Americans. At first glance, this Americanization of European football seems to be a benign by-product of globalization. However, the purposes of the American owners of European football clubs center mainly around financial gain, and fans are reduced to becoming customers of the product, which is the club itself. From the investors’ point of view, fans are “consuming” the product by purchasing tickets to attend matches and buying club merchandise. American owners are often criticized for trying to replicate “American conditions on European soil” as they attempt to follow a financially-motivated agenda to recreate their successes in the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB). However, this understanding of football is strictly contrary to what European fans expect from the sport. To them, supporting their club is about loyalty and passion; it is an aspect of their lifelong identity, a perspective that clashes with their portrayal as the mere consumers of a product. This dissonance between fans and owners remained relatively unnoticed until 12 European clubs decided to break away from their leagues to establish the European Super League in April 2021.
The European Super League contained all possible elements that were against the culture and tradition of European football. The 12 founding clubs—AC Milan, Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Tottenham Hotspur—were brought together by their owners as “Founding Members” of the league, which would follow a closed format, meaning that these clubs would never be able to relegate. This feature is one that is very similar to how sports leagues work in the United States: there is virtually no relegation or promotion. Because no clubs would be able to promote to this league, the addition of new clubs would be strictly at the discretion of the “Founding Members,” similar to how the admittance process of new teams to most sports leagues in the US operates. The main promise of the league was weekly high-profile matches between the 12 teams (and possibly also teams that would be added to the league later on), which were advertised as the best in the world. The Chairman of the league was Spaniard Florentino Pérez, who remains the President of Real Madrid. The executive board included three Americans—Joel Glazer (Co-chairman of Manchester United), John W. Henry (Owner of Liverpool), and Stan Kroenke (Owner of Arsenal). The league’s main promise to the founding members was a substantial cash amount. Each of the 12 clubs was promised a “welcome bonus” of 200 to 300 million Euros funded by JP Morgan Chase, which confirmed that its total commitment to the league stood at 3.25 billion Euros. To compare, the broadcasting firm that secured the rights to air in the United Kingdom for 4 years the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League, the biggest and most intense European football competition, and the UEFA Europa League, the second biggest European football competition, paid 1.2 billion Euros. As such, the European Super League was a financially unprecedented project with high anticipated gains for the participating clubs.
All-Out War: The European Super League Receives Heavy Criticism
On April 18, 2021, the 12 founding clubs each announced the creation of the European Super League on their official Twitter accounts. The creation of the Super League was deemed by many as a coup attempt on European football, and the 48 hours that followed the announcement were bombarded with reactions. In a way, the project was born dead, as no German or French club was part of the league. In particular, Pérez was unable to incorporate Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, two of the most popular clubs in Europe. Following the announcement, criticism sparked around questions of how the founding clubs were determined. Fans started questioning why teams like Arsenal, Tottenham, and AC Milan were even part of this “elite” league, since these clubs had not been able to achieve any major accomplishment for quite some time. Criticism by fans online was followed by several statements made by UEFA officials. UEFA acts as the governing body of European football and the organizer of the major European football competitions such as the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League, and the UEFA Europa Conference League. Over the years, European clubs have been ranked based on their success in UEFA competitions, and the club that won the UEFA Champions League in a given year would be deemed the “biggest club in Europe.”
Because the 12 clubs were essentially rebelling against the UEFA competitions by forming a closed “elite” league, UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin stated that the clubs would be banned from participating in any other competition at the domestic, European, or global level and that the players of these clubs would also be “denied the opportunity to represent their national teams.” FIFA and the national leagues with which the founding teams are associated also condemned the formation of the European Super League. Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom vowed to take “whatever action necessary” to prevent the English clubs from moving forward with the project. Fans who were already protesting against the project online took to the streets. In a way, the timing of the announcement of the formation of the European Super League was a poor choice, since the announcement came on Sunday when English Premier League matches were still being played as they are every weekend. Fans are largely mobilized during the weekends since many attend matches in person or otherwise come together to support their teams. Matches being held provided a forum that allowed fans to organize and demonstrate more easily. Liverpool fans hung banners outside Liverpool’s stadium. The players of Leeds United, who were Liverpool’s opponents during that matchday, wore warm-up shirts that read “football is for the fans” to protest Liverpool’s participation in the European Super League. The next day, Chelsea fans gathered outside their stadium to protest the project and forced the Chelsea-Brighton game to be delayed.
Suspended: 0 Games Played, 0 Goals Scored, 0 Fans in Attendance
As anger towards the European Super League grew, online reports surfaced about founding clubs considering pulling out of the project. Manchester City was the first to officially announce it was pulling out of the European Super League. In a few hours, all English clubs pulled out of the project and the remaining clubs followed suit. The protests organized by fans in the United Kingdom, followed by those in Italy and Spain, were the driving force behind the decision of the clubs to reconsider their involvement in the controversial project. Many former and current football players as well as managers also openly criticized the European Super League. After almost all founding clubs pulled out of the project, the European Super League announced that the project was suspended. Even after this announcement, Arsenal and Manchester United fans continued protesting and asking for the removal of Kroenke and the Glazers, American owners of the two teams, respectively. Real Madrid’s President Pérez, on the other hand, made several statements claiming that the founding clubs could not leave the league and that the league would seek legal action against the UEFA. A Spanish court later ruled in favor of the European Super League, but no concrete action was taken and the project remains suspended.
The idea of the European Super League was not suited to the historical culture of European football. Fans were convinced that watching the best teams in Europe compete against each other every week in a closed league would be meaningless. This is exactly the reason why competitions like the UEFA Champions League are popular: they allow smaller clubs with more modest teams to compete against the bigger clubs like those that wanted to form the European Super League. Football is an exciting sport to watch simply because all teams, regardless of wealth or the quality of players, can compete on an equal playing field. This is best demonstrated by a sign that was held up by a Chelsea fan during the protests against the European Super League. The sign read “we want our cold nights in Stoke,” showing how the fun part of football is open competition (Stoke City is a relatively less successful club compared to Chelsea) and not an elite league where elite clubs continuously play against each other without fears of relegation. Additionally, because the European Super League project was spearheaded by American club owners and would be funded by an American investment bank, fans across Europe grew increasingly wary of the Americanization of football. The attempts to create the European Super League also served to unite football fans across Europe and to show that the sport has a greater purpose of bringing people from different backgrounds together. “The beautiful game,” as football is often called, remains a sport which embraces open competition that grants passionate fans and their clubs legitimate, justified successes. If the European Super League project succeeded, the culture of football would have been altered, possibly irreversibly. As of now, the sport is still European football, but the future of the European Super League and the potential for foreign ownership remain as potential alterers of the culture of football. If fans remain united and determined to preserve the centuries-old tradition of European football, the beautiful game will likely remain the world’s most popular and beloved sport.