By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
When the plot for soccer’s European Super League emerged just over a year ago, to be instantly decried as arrogant, imperialistic, ill-thought and clumsy, the reaction felt like a victory for soccer’s pure soul.
The idea, you’ll remember, was for 15 of the biggest (aka richest) teams in Europe to break away from their existing competitions and take part in a closed-shop that would ensure they got bigger and richer forever.
Manchester United, plus five other English teams, would no longer be in the English Premier League. Real Madrid (and Barcelona) would no longer compete in La Liga. Super League all the way. No prospect of falling out of the elite inner circle. No chance for the geyser of profit to stop gushing.
The response sent the idea tumbling faster than a failed cryptocurrency. People power won the day. Fans from the teams involved revolted. Fans of every other team were disgusted. Politicians at the highest level heard the outcry, and vowed to put a spike in the Super League, using whatever legislative means were necessary.
And so the ESL was flattened. No dominance for soccer’s most minted owners, who had long looked with envy at the American pro sports system and its self-contained nature. A fair and open playing field, where everyone would have a chance, would continue to be enshrined.
Or would it? As preparations for Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final wind up, it is worth considering whether a kind of de facto Super League is already here.
The finalists of the Champions League are Liverpool and Real Madrid, two of the primary Super League agitators. Liverpool chairman Tom Werner admitted this week that for his club at least, the Super League is doomed, and forgotten. Real Madrid’s Florentino Perez insists the concept could still have a viable future.
But while a breakaway won’t fly with the public, the big clubs already have the kind of dominance that they want, so much so that you kind of wonder why a Super League was necessary to begin with.
“The protests that surrounded the collapse of the proposed European Super League a year ago hinted at a desire for another world, for a way of doing things that wasn’t just about commerce,” wrote renowned soccer author Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian. “But it was a moment that vanished on the wind.”
The Super League would have guaranteed unassailable advantages for the leading teams, but the Champions League already provides many of them. Real Madrid has won the competition 13 times, more than any other club. Liverpool is bidding for its seventh, which would tie it with AC Milan for second place all time.
Champions League spots are not etched in stone, they must be re-earned each year. Yet the system is skewed, because of money. The payouts from the Champions League are not even, they are weighted to provide additional reward to teams who have appeared in the event most often.
As Wilson pointed out, had English team West Ham reached the Champions League next season by winning the second-tier Europa League (it eventually lost in the semis), the payout would be a mere 4% of what Chelsea will receive.
The huge payouts allow for vast discrepancies in budget. The top teams can simply buy up the best players of any imposter threatening to break into the top circle. Imagine an NFL where a handful of teams had a salary cap 10 times the size of everyone else’s. The principle of “any given Sunday” might suddenly feel quite different.
It is no surprise then, that clubs from the most lucrative leagues dominate time and again in the Champions League. Over the past 20 seasons, here is a breakdown of the Champions League semifinalists.
A total of 26 of them have come from Spain, 24 from England, 11 from Germany, 10 from Italy and six from France. The only break from the clutches of the five biggest leagues came when Portugal’s Porto sprung a huge upset to win the whole thing in 2005, and Dutch teams Ajax and PSV Eindhoven each made a single semi, 14 years apart.
When so much money is collected in the hands of a few, it gives the whole thing an All-Star feel. Liverpool and Real Madrid are both truly outstanding teams, packed with quality at every position.
Liverpool’s Mo Salah is one of the very best players in the world, and certainly among the most exciting to watch. Madrid has forward Karim Benzema operating at the peak of his powers at age 34, and midfield wizard Luka Modrić doing the same at 36. The matchup will be a repeat of the 2018 final in the Ukraine capital of Kyiv, won 3-1 by Real Madrid.
It will be a spectacle once again, a grand show, the best of what club soccer has to offer.
It will indeed be “super” soccer, to be thoroughly enjoyed. But it will also, if we are being honest, be the final of a competition that has become a version of the dreaded Super League, in all but name.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
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