While soccer is the biggest business in sports, it remains, at heart, an intensely local affair with teams rooted in neighbourhoods and based in small towns, competing in leagues that have existed for more than a century
By Tariq Panja and Rory Smith
Published: Apr 23, 2021
Football supporters demonstrate against the proposed European Super League outside of Stamford Bridge football stadium in London on April 20, 2021, ahead of the English Premier League match between Chelsea and Brighton and Hove Albion. - The 14 Premier League clubs not involved in the proposed European Super League "unanimously and vigorously rejected" the plans at an emergency meeting on Tuesday. Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are the English clubs involved. Image: Adrian DENNIS / AFP
LONDON — For 48 hours, soccer stood on the brink. Fans took to the streets. Players broke into open revolt. Chaos stalked the game’s corridors of power, unleashing a shock wave that resonated around the world, from Manchester to Manila, Barcelona to Beijing, and Liverpool to Los Angeles.
That internationalism is what has turned European soccer, over the last 30 years, into a global obsession. The elite teams of western Europe are stocked with stars drawn from Africa, South America and all points in between. They draw fans not just from England, Italy and Spain, but China, India and Australia — in numbers large enough to tempt broadcasters across the planet to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights to show their games.
But while soccer is now the biggest business in sports, it remains, at heart, an intensely local affair. Teams rooted in neighborhoods and based in small towns compete in domestic leagues that have existed for more than a century, competitions in which the great and the good share the field — and at least some of the finances — with the minor and the makeweight.
An uneasy truce between the two faces of the world’s game had held for decades. And then, on Sunday night, it cracked as an unlikely alliance of U.S. hedge funds, Russian oligarchs, European industrial tycoons and Gulf royals sought to seize control of the revenues of the world’s most popular sport by creating a closed European superleague.
How that plan came together and then spectacularly collapsed is a story of egos and intrigue, avarice and ambition, secret meetings and private lunches, international finance and internecine strife. It lasted just two frantic, feverish days, but that was more than enough time to shake the world.
Last Thursday, Javier Tebas and Joan Laporta were supposed to be having a cordial, celebratory lunch. A few days earlier, Laporta had been elected to a second term as president of FC Barcelona. Tebas, the outspoken, unashamedly bellicose executive in charge of Spain’s national league, wanted to be among the first to congratulate him on his victory.
It did not turn out that way. Laporta revealed to Tebas that Barcelona was almost certainly joining a dozen or so of Europe’s most famous, most successful teams in a breakaway competition, one that would effectively unmoor its members from the game’s traditional structures and, crucially, its multibillion-dollar economy.
The threat was nothing new. There has long been a perception, at least among soccer’s rich and powerful teams, that since they have the most fans, they generate the bulk of the sport’s revenue. It follows, then, that they should be treated to a greater slice of its income. Like clockwork, every few years they would float a plan to group the best teams together in a single competition. And like clockwork, the grand plan would fail to materialize, the big clubs bought off by promises of more power and more money if only they would agree to stay.
But Tebas felt this new effort was more serious, more real. Laporta told him that a half-dozen teams had already committed. Several more had been told that they had until the end of the weekend to decide.
Tebas raised the alarm. He called officials in leagues across Europe. He called executives of powerful clubs. And he reached out to Aleksander Ceferin, president of European soccer’s governing body, the organization that Tebas knew had the most to lose.
Ceferin, a lean, plain-spoken 53-year-old lawyer from Slovenia, was baffled. Only a few weeks earlier, his close friend and ally Andrea Agnelli, president of the Italian league champion Juventus, the scion of one of Europe’s great industrial families and the leader of the association representing European soccer clubs, had assured him that whispers about a new round of breakaway talks were only “a rumor.”
Just a day earlier, in fact, Agnelli and his organization had recommitted to a suite of reforms to the Champions League, European soccer’s crown jewel and its biggest moneymaker. Everything was set to be approved Monday.
Still, the drumbeat of rumors continued, and Ceferin felt he needed to be sure. So as he slid into the front seat of his Audi Q8 on Saturday to start the eight-hour drive from his home in Ljubljana to his office in Switzerland, he decided to get to the bottom of things. He placed a call to Agnelli. His friend did not pick up.
Ceferin — the godfather to Agnelli’s youngest child — texted the Italian’s wife and asked if she might get the Juventus president to call him urgently. He was three hours into his journey when his cellphone rang. Breezily, Agnelli reassured Ceferin, again, that everything was fine.
Ceferin suggested they issue a joint communiqué that would put the issue to rest. Agnelli agreed. Ceferin drafted a statement from the car and sent it to Agnelli. An hour later, Agnelli asked for time to send back an amended version. Hours passed. The men traded more calls. Eventually, the Italian told Ceferin he needed another 30 minutes.
And then Agnelli turned off his phone.
The reason that the threat of a superleague had carried so much menace for so long is that much of soccer’s vast economy rests on a fragile bond.
Both domestic championships — like England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga — and Pan-continental tournaments like the Champions League to some extent rely on the presence of the elite clubs to attract fans and, through them, broadcasters and sponsors. Without them, the revenue streams that filter down to and sustain smaller teams might collapse.
For decades, the system rested on appeasing the rich teams just enough to encourage them to retain their loyalty to the collective. All of a sudden, that trust was fraying.
As he arrived in Switzerland, Ceferin fielded two more calls that made clear how real the threat to European soccer’s future had become. Two teams, one English and one Spanish, informed him that they had been pressed to sign up for the breakaway league. They had decided to accept but wanted to remain on good terms with European soccer’s governing body.
Ceferin’s response was polite but blunt: If they allied with the rebels, they should prepare for an all-out attack.
With his inner circle, Ceferin got to work. They broke the news to some board members of the European Club Association, the umbrella group of about 250 European teams: Agnelli and senior executives like Manchester United’s Ed Woodward had misled them about supporting the Champions League reform plan, they said.
They told the clubs that, even though the breakaway clubs intended to remain in their own domestic leagues, too, the plan would see the value of those competitions’ broadcast deals collapse. Sponsorships would evaporate. It would decimate the rest of soccer’s finances. “They were outraged. They couldn’t believe it,” Ceferin said in an interview Wednesday. “Even mafia organizations have some sort of code.”
By lunchtime Sunday, the roster of the insurgents was known. Ceferin started referring to them as the Dirty Dozen. As well as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid had signed up from Spain. There were six from England: Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. In Italy, Juventus had been joined by A.C. Milan and Inter Milan.
Not all of them were equal partners. Executives at Manchester City and Chelsea, for example, had only learned Friday that the plan was in motion. They had been told that they had no more than a day or so to decide whether they were in or out. Either way, they were warned, the train was leaving the station.
City quickly succumbed, but others proved more resistant. Bayern Munich and Paris St.-Germain, the dominant forces in Germany and France, had both been approached. They had declined the offer, preferring to stay — at least for the moment — aligned with the rest of Europe.
They supplied some of the intelligence that allowed UEFA and national leagues in Spain, Italy and England to plan their counterattack. When the group learned that an official statement revealing the creation of the new competition, called the Super League, would be made late Sunday, they made plans to issue their own — disavowing the project.
But before they could, the news leaked. The public outcry, particularly in Britain, was immediate. Fans hung banners outside their teams’ stadiums, and lawmakers took to the airwaves to denounce the rebels for their greed and disrespect toward soccer’s traditions.
Gary Neville, a former Manchester United captain, unleashed a several-minute tirade against his former team and Liverpool, English soccer’s two most popular teams. The screed went viral, and it was soon being shared by opponents of the project via the messaging application WhatsApp.
This was precisely what some of those involved with the project had feared. There had been doubts that the plan was ready to go live; insiders worried that it might not survive a fierce initial backlash. “This is not the time to do it,” an executive involved in the project warned. The executive suggested holding off until summer.
By then, it was hoped, the clubs might have found a frontman for the breakaway. Florentino Pérez, president of Real Madrid, had been the driving force behind much of it; it was, to some extent, his brainchild. But his peers were aware that he would struggle to convince an English audience in particular.
Manchester United co-chair Joel Glazer, whose family also owns the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Chelsea’s Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich; and Arsenal’s Stan Kroenke, who controls nearly a dozen professional teams, almost never speak publicly. Manchester City’s owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, doesn’t speak to reporters at all. And others considered for the role — like Liverpool’s majority owner, John W. Henry — were unwilling to accept it.
There were also concerns that the rebels’ communications strategy — marshaled by Katie Perrior, a political operative close to Boris Johnson, the British prime minister — was too focused on winning governmental, rather than popular, support. There had been no effort to consult, involve or win over fans, players or coaches. An outcry might destroy everything before the lobbying effort could begin in earnest.
Those concerns were not heeded. Agnelli, theoretically a voice for all of Europe’s clubs in his governance roles and a close friend of Ceferin, was feeling the strain of being, in effect, a double agent. He had protected the rebels’ secret for weeks, shading the truth — or worse — in talks with friends and allies. On Monday morning, though, he would have to sit on the dais with the rest of the UEFA board as it voted to approve changes to a Champions League that would be under mortal threat from the Super League.
Agnelli knew the league was happening. With the signatures of Chelsea, Manchester City and Atlético Madrid in hand, the founding members were set. The financing, delivered by Spanish advisory firm Key Capital Partners and backed by U.S. bank JPMorgan Chase, would mean billions in new riches. Agnelli simply needed the news out.
Glazer, one of Manchester United’s co-chairs, agreed. He was adamant it was time to press the button.
And so, despite all the doubts, the clubs showed their hand just after 11 on Sunday night in London. An official announcement, published simultaneously on the 12 teams’ websites, revealed that they had all signed up to what they called the Super League. But by then, the narrative that the project was driven by the greed of a few wealthy clubs and their leaders had taken shape.
“It was dead in the water by 11:10,” the executive involved in the plan said. “Everyone had climbed their hill and would not be able to come down.”
By first light the next day, the battle lines had been drawn. And it was quickly clear that the breakaway 12 had next to no support.
But rather than mount a public defense, sending out a phalanx of officials to make a case that the league was good for soccer’s entire pyramid, arguing that it would shower millions on the teams and leagues left behind, the Super League’s first act was to deliver a letter to Europe’s governing body, UEFA, and soccer’s global leadership at FIFA.
The league, the letter informed the governing bodies, had already filed motions in several European countries to prevent anyone from blocking the project.
Ceferin, meanwhile, was back to working the phones to rally opposition. He sought the support of Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, even though the men rarely saw eye to eye. He also had a lengthy call with Oliver Dowden, the lawmaker responsible for sport and culture in Britain. Dowden said the British government would do everything in its power to stop the breakaway clubs from “stealing” the game.
Soon Johnson, the British prime minister, was being interviewed on television, staking out a position against the plan in a savvy play for public support. His French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, issued a statement condemning the plan. Prince William posted a tweet expressing his “concerns” about the Super League.
By the time he appeared in public Monday, Ceferin had led a UEFA executive committee meeting where Agnelli was notable by his absence. Agnelli had resigned his board post — and his role as head of the European clubs group — minutes after the Super League’s late-night announcement. With his seat empty, the remaining members voted through changes to the Champions League and then got back to work in their effort to crush the new league that was threatening it.
Ceferin, stern-faced, then excoriated the breakaway group in his first comments to reporters. He reserved specific vitriol for Manchester United’s Woodward, who he felt had misled him, and for Agnelli. Ceferin called the men “snakes” and “liars” and described how they had led him to believe he had their full support for the Champions League revisions.
“Agnelli is the biggest disappointment of all,” Ceferin said. “I have never seen a person who would lie so many times and so persistently as he did.”
By then, the acrimony was spreading across the European soccer landscape. The Premier League held a meeting without its six rebel teams, and the remaining 14 clubs discussed what punitive measures to take against those who had signed up for the Super League. Daniel Levy, chair of Tottenham, one of the rebel clubs, asked Paul Barber, chief executive of Brighton, to share a message of regret at the meeting. He did, but few seemed interested in Levy’s sentiment.
In Italy, a hastily arranged meeting was even more febrile. Owners and executives of the teams in Serie A, the country’s top league, turned on officials from Juventus, Inter and Milan. Tensions were already soaring; cash-poor teams, their budgets devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, had been arguing with their richer rivals over television contracts and whether to accept investment from a consortium of private equity companies.
Now Agnelli, who had quickly become a lightning rod for the Super League, was called a traitor by the chair of Juventus’ crosstown rival, Torino. Agnelli, in a typically pugnacious manner, was said to have retorted with an expletive, saying he did not care if Juventus remained in Serie A.
“It’s a betrayal,” the Torino president, Urbano Cairo, told reporters. “It’s what a Judas does.”
English teams, notably Liverpool and Chelsea, had other reasons to be concerned. Their fans were already gathering outside the stadiums from which they had been barred by the pandemic, hanging banners denouncing the Super League on walls and entry gates.
Late in the afternoon, hundreds of angry supporters surrounded Liverpool’s team bus as it made its way to Leeds United’s Elland Road stadium for a game. Inside the stadium, the Leeds players wore T-shirts expressing solidarity with soccer’s current system during warmups. When Leeds scored a late goal to secure a 1-1 tie, its official Twitter account mocked the visitors.
Players, too, were starting to make their views known. Manchester United’s squad had demanded a meeting with Woodward to express not only their fury at being forced to find out about the plan through the news media but also their disapproval of the idea itself. Several other high-profile stars, playing for teams not involved in the breakaway, had posted messages disavowing the plan on social media.
On Monday evening, after his team’s game with Leeds, Liverpool’s most senior player, James Milner, revealed that he and his teammates had not been consulted about the club’s involvement in the plan. “I don’t like it, and I hope it doesn’t happen,” he said.
Inside the clubs, unease was mounting. The plan had been kept secret even from high-level executives — “It was an ownership thing,” said one executive at one of the teams involved — and there had been little warning of what was to come. At some clubs, an all-staff email flashed around just before the statement was released.
At others, high-profile figures were left to read about it on social media. Paolo Maldini, a legendary former player and now an executive at A.C. Milan, had heard nothing until it was announced. Michael Edwards, Liverpool’s sporting director, was blindsided. Some started to worry about the safety of their families as the outrage spread.
As Ceferin prepared to deliver his keynote address Tuesday morning in Montreux, Switzerland, reports began to emerge that several teams — Chelsea and Manchester City among them — were considering dropping out. Television networks and sponsors had come out against the breakaway plan, and the British government was threatening official action to block it.
Any doubts among the teams hardened as FIFA’s Infantino dispelled growing speculation that he secretly harbored hopes the project would succeed.
“If some elect to go their own way, then they must live with the consequences of their choice. They are responsible for their choice,” Infantino said, raising again the possibility that the renegade clubs and their players could face excommunication. “Concretely, this means either you are in, or you are out.”
Then it was Ceferin’s turn. He talked about greed and selfishness but also about soccer’s importance in the fabric of European culture and in the lives of the millions who follow the game across the Continent. He then made his direct pitch to the English clubs.
“Gentlemen, you made a huge mistake,” he told them, staring directly into the cameras. “Some will say it is greed; others disdain, arrogance, flippancy or complete ignorance of England’s football culture. It does not matter.
“What does matter is that there is still time to change your mind. Everyone makes mistakes.”
Within hours, the project’s demise started to snowball. In a meeting with Premier League chief executive Richard Masters and fan groups from all six English teams, Johnson said he was considering detonating “a legislative bomb” to halt the putsch. More and more players came out against the idea. Marcus Rashford, Manchester United’s homegrown striker, posted an image on Twitter that read, “Football Is Nothing Without Fans.” Liverpool’s entire squad released a simultaneous message disavowing the project.
But it was Manchester City that was the first to break ranks officially, releasing a short statement saying it was pulling out.
The Super League executives were stunned, unsure of what was happening. That night, Arsenal and its North London rival Tottenham announced their departures within minutes of each other. Manchester United confirmed that Woodward — its top executive and one of the main architects of the Super League — would leave the club at the end of the year. Then came a statement from the club that it was withdrawing, too. Almost immediately, Liverpool confirmed it was out.
The Super League, having lost half its members and its entire foothold in England, was finished. Inter Milan dropped out a few hours later, and then, as the clock ticked to the 48-hour mark since its grand announcement, the Super League released an unsigned statement acknowledging that the plan was no longer viable.
By then, Ceferin was back in Slovenia, having completed the eight-hour return trip from Montreux. He stayed up until about 2 a.m. digesting the news. He released a statement welcoming back the English teams into the European fold. He started to respond to the thousands of messages that had swamped his phone over the previous two days.
Then he closed his laptop and helped himself to a double whiskey.