It took less than a week for the European soccer Super League to wither and die on the vine. Organized behind closed doors by a cadre of ultra-wealthy club owners and their obliging executive teams, the breakaway league sought to rattle European soccer’s existing social and economic order through a permanent alliance of the continent’s most moneyed clubs.
If the riches promised by the Super League were tempting to powerhouse clubs weathering the economic impact of the pandemic, the shake-up it proposed was poison to the sport’s 4 billion global fans: Whereas soccer’s most prestigious club competition, the Champions League—which is overseen by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)—grants qualification to champions of domestic leagues in addition to a few runners up every year, teams invited to play in the Super League would qualify every year regardless of their performances at home. In essence, the hastily announced Super League would drain the romance of merit-based qualification and replace it with a predictable and incestuous format where the only thing that matters is money.
Every new detail that emerged last week further solidified the Super League as a terrible idea: The deal was partly bankrolled €3.25 billion investment from JPMorgan, a sign of the overtly corporate and American tenor of the project. The 12 “founding” clubs involved—a group of already exceedingly well-heeled juggernauts including England’s Manchester United and Chelsea, Spain’s Real Madrid and Barcelona, and Italy’s AC Milan and Juventus—stood to share the American bank’s riches with a “welcome bonus” of between 200 and 300 million Euros. The league’s architects, such as Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, claimed the wealth generated by the competition would trickle down to the lower rungs of European soccer, but never quite explained how.
But at least for now, it’s all over: Buoyed by a breathless news cycle, fans poured into the streets across Europe last week to protest—and for the moment, the masses appear to have won. Every club involved except for Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan and Juventus have pulled out and apologized. Even JPMorgan offered crocodile tears over its aborted investment. Order has momentarily prevailed despite a few days of seismic chaos.
Amid last week’s whirlwind dialogue about corporate overlords running away with the soul of the world’s most beloved sport and the fans who openly defied them, an essential piece of the narrative went missing: the actual players. After all, you can’t field a squad without 11 men or women on the pitch. Yet aside from a few statements made on social media last week by Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, or slogans emblazoned onto t-shirts worn by Leeds United, the athletes weren’t really a part of the conversation in any pronounced or meaningful way.
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It’s ironic to think that the athletes who form the lifeblood of these clubs—who make them international powerhouse brands worth billions of dollars—aren’t even considered when it comes to the backroom decisions that seek to alter the existing landscape of soccer.
A lot of that stems from the fact that players are international brands themselves, but don’t have an outlet to collectively band together. They are underrepresented and underserved by their various players’ associations, and the exorbitant wealth and corporate interests now rampant in soccer have deprived players of any meaningful vehicle they can use to push back against the sport being irrevocably tarnished by oligarchs.
It’s possible, however, that this latest episode may become a teachable moment that could galvanize a more cohesive and unified response from footballers across the continent when the Super League, or something else like it, inevitably returns.
Unfortunately, it seems to be the status quo that players speak as individuals and do not use their collective power,” Nick Watanabe, a professor of sports management at the University of South Carolina, tells The Nation.
In many countries, soccer players have unions that seek to represent their interests, but the potency of those groups is often blunted by what Watanabe calls a “complex web of politics between the clubs, players, owners, agents, governing organizations, and even local and national governments.”
FIFPro, which exists as an umbrella organization for players across 65 member nations, didn’t do much to mobilize any kind of collective player action against the Super League, apart from issuing two statements. Likewise England’s Professional Footballers Association voiced concerns, but there wasn’t really a concerted effort to get players together to enforce something as radical as a boycott, which could have represented an even more powerful bulwark against robber barons pillaging the beautiful game.
Such an idea might be a fantasy, however, given the relationships between organizations like FIFPro and the corporate sector: Late last year, FIFPro publicly came clean about how it generates some of its revenue by licensing player likenesses to the video game company Electronic Arts, which produces the wildly popular FIFA soccer series. The admission came after AC Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic claimed he’d never given EA permission to profit from his image, and directly called out the union on Twitter. (FIFPro, a nonprofit headquartered in the Netherlands, didn’t respond to an e-mail request from The Nation for comment.)
The incident demonstrated clearly the inescapable commercialism in modern soccer, with conflicts of interest and scandals regularly plaguing the sport’s top governing bodies, including UEFA. The sport’s top players, too, are multimillionaires who live in mansions and drive Lamborghinis, making the concept of organizing them in the mold of a traditional union difficult. At least, that’s the mainstream perception in Europe. The example of the NBA’s player union, the National Basketball Player’s Association, could give European footballers food for thought: As the oldest professional sports union in the United States, the NBPA has been a steadfast voice for player safety during the pandemic, and ably represented players through four lockouts. It knows how to bargain, and does so with conviction. Given that the average and median NBA player salaries of $7 million and $3 million are considerably more than their counterparts in the Premier League, it shows that both superstar and middling pros can organize, and do it with great effect.
Still, the perception remains that most rich athletes aren’t necessarily all that interested in organizing, especially when it comes to European soccer. Chris Bolsmann, a professor of sociology at California State University–Northridge who writes about the social history of soccer, is convinced that despite the sporadic tweets and Instagram posts from some players decrying the Super League, most elite pros don’t have much of an interest in thwarting plans to manipulate the game for commercial purposes.
“I think the fact that [the Super League] failed is really because of the fan response. I think that the players…that are a part of the 12-club founding group, probably will be reimbursed substantially more than they are already” as a result of Super League participation, he says.
“We possibly look to these players to sort of lead a political or moral campaign which I don’t think a lot of them are necessarily that interested in.”
It’s true most players are typically risk-averse and tend to shy away from making controversial public statements and are often punished when they do. There is an example of a player group in the United States, however, that could be laying a foundation for a more meaningful voice in the future. Black Players for Change was formed by a group of Major League Soccer’s Black players and coaches in the wake of last summer’s wave of protest. It grew from a WhatsApp group into a nonprofit organization with over 170 members that aims to tackle a host of issues related to systemic racism in sports and beyond.
Leon Mann, an anti-racism campaigner and former BBC broadcaster, says of Black Players for Change: “It’s the actual players, there’s no administrator. This is their idea, led by them. And if you look at the tone of voice, it reflects the players…and if you look at the things they’re asking for it reflects the modern player.”
As an example of players forming a united front to create a collective and shared vision, BPC could be a harbinger of things to come in Europe. Mann points to the Premier League’s captains group—another WhatsApp group chat consisting of every club captain in the English top division—as something that’s already “incredibly powerful.”
The Premier League Captains group sprang to action in the early days of the pandemic by raising money for England’s National Health Service. It also mobilized in the wake of the Super League announcement. Ben Mee, captain of Premier League club Burnley, recently wrote about the group’s reaction to the Super League, explaining that the captains recognize their agency as ambassadors of the sport’s richest and most popular league. The group plans, according to Mee, to continue to affect change on “a wide range of topics for the better of the game and society.”
Going forward, the Super League debacle might be the moment that catalyzes a more robust collective impulse for players to express their voice when changes are implemented purely for the sake of greed.
“The kind of culture we want in football,” says Mann, is when “there is a strong sense of collaboration, there’s a strong sense of unity where decisions are not made by a few people at the top who are only interested in money.”
Given that the Super League’s most ardent supporters are intent upon its return, it’s imperative that footballers find a way to resist it, and to express that resistance together.