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Tension, suspicion and plotting – what happened after the collapse of the Super League

https://theathletic.com/2894731/2021/10/18/tension-suspicion-and-plotting-what-happened-after-the-collapse-of-the-super-league/

Tension, suspicion and plotting - what happened after the collapse of the Super  League – The Athletic

Against the backdrop of the mountain-lined views of Lake Geneva, the President Wilson Hotel in Switzerland formed a formidable location for last month’s summit meeting of the European Club Association. This was the setting for European football’s most wealthy and powerful, where they sought to rebuild relations after the sport descended into all-out war earlier this year.

On Sunday, April 18, a dozen of Europe’s most famous football clubs announced a plan to launch a Super League, in which a new midweek competition would be established. Although the league was registered officially as the European Super League company, the trading name was and remains The Super League, suggesting room had been left for participants from outside that continent at a future date.

The 12 founder members were Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur from England, as well as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid from Spain, plus Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan from Italy. A statement, issued after 11pm UK time on that Sunday evening, stated that three further clubs would join as founder members ahead of its inaugural campaign. The Super League 12 — described by critics as the Dirty Dozen — anticipated a public announcement and behind-the-scenes negotiations would force Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to join the group, which would ensure representation from the sport’s five most popular domestic leagues.

As we know, the plot failed, spectacularly blowing up in the faces of its architects, as criticism poured in from politicians, broadcasters, pundits, coaches, players and even Prince William, the future king of the United Kingdom.

This is the story of what happened next; of the mistrust that developed between some of the 12 and the leagues they play in, and the political manoeuvring behind the scenes as clubs jostle for power, money and influence.

We will explain:

  • How leagues are now keeping a closer eye on the Super League 12 than ever before
  • Tensions between Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain
  • Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus’ determination that sceptical fans can be won round
  • Suspicions that the 12 Super League sides are cooking up new plans
  • The continued divide between “legacy clubs” and those with new money

As the Super League clubs conspired, they did not expect their plan to culminate in the resignation of Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. Nor did they foresee public and private complaints from key players, or the postponement of a Premier League fixture between United and Liverpool following sustained supporter protest outside and then inside Old Trafford on the original match day. And absolutely they did not predict how, only five months on, they would be the red-faced recipients of a humiliating lecture in ethics from PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi — a man they have long considered as one of the sources of football’s ills.

Over the past decade, hostility developed among the group of old-school aristocrats of European football — traditional powerhouses such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and AC Milan, as well as the American-owned English clubs. The predominant source of the angst is the new-money or state-backed spending of clubs such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. Newcastle United’s subsequent Saudi takeover, confirmed last week, will only enhance these worries.

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Media reports may cover complaints about alleged human rights violations in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia but in the corridors of European power, different fears grew more acutely. The major worry was that clubs such as Real Madrid, Milan and Liverpool may find themselves unable to compete without taking serious steps to restrict the spending power of the new upstarts. There were UEFA punishments, at times, for City and PSG over alleged breaches of financial fair play, but this rarely constituted enough in the green eyes of their rivals.

When the Super League came along, these “legacy” clubs eyed an opportunity to level the playing field.

City, along with Chelsea, were long-term sceptics of a Super League but as the train left the station, a fear of being left behind overpowered their instincts. They jumped on board. Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez expected the official unveiling of the Super League to put such fear and anxiety into PSG that they would have no choice but to join the party, too.

But PSG did not. Instead, Al-Khelaifi, along with Bayern and Dortmund, read the wider mood and resisted. Not only that, but the French club subsequently sensed opportunity amid football’s financial crisis that originated in reckless spending but was exacerbated by the pandemic.

In the subsequent summer transfer window, PSG prised key players away from Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Inter Milan while refusing to sell their star player Kylian Mbappe to Real Madrid, even when an offer exceeding £160 million landed on their table. And off the field, Al-Khelaifi contrived to become the most powerful executive in club football.

The 12 clubs resigned their positions at both UEFA and the European Club Association (ECA) upon signing up to the Super League and all except for Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona returned to the organisations with their tails between their legs following the collapse. At the European Championship final between England and Italy in July, British prime minister Boris Johnson is even said to have approached Al-Khelaifi in Wembley’s smart seats, eager to recognise the roles the former felt they had both played in preventing the Super League from coming to fruition.

In the ECA meeting suite last month, Al-Khelaifi chastised what he described as the “not-so-Super League”. He mocked “fabulists and failures”. He referred to the plot as a “midnight coup”.

In Switzerland, attention was paid to those who attended but also those who were missing. Football’s world governing body, FIFA, had senior representation in FIFA council member Hany Abo Rida but its president Gianni Infantino was a notable absentee, particularly as reports have emerged suggesting FIFA may have been more sympathetic to the Super League than suggested by the statement it released on the Monday morning after its unveiling.

Several sources pointed to jokes going around the room at last month’s summit, teasing that Infantino may even have prepared a speech either way on his Super League position, depending on the public response to the plan. FIFA, for its part, insists it is false and misleading to say Infantino was in two minds and points to the speech he gave two days after the announcement, on April 20, in which he insisted FIFA strongly disapproved.

At the ECA summit, the room tuned in to an Infantino video address, described by one critic as a “Kofi Annan-style, ‘I am going to save the world’ speech”. FIFA says he missed the meeting as he had prior engagements elsewhere and that the current world is accepting of video attendance in any case. As we know, Infantino is focusing on a consultation period to introduce a World Cup every two years, rather than the traditional four, an idea that is opposed by the ECA. This is despite a meeting where Infantino attempted to convince Al-Khelaifi of that plan’s merits.

At the ECA, it would previously have been unusual for figures such as Premier League chief executive Richard Masters to attend, yet he was present along with his counterparts from Germany’s Bundesliga, Ligue 1 in France and Italy’s Serie A. Javier Tebas, chairman of La Liga in Spain, missed the actual meeting, but was in Geneva that week to show his support.

The sentiment from all of these domestic-league figures is that they simply must keep a sharp eye on the former Super League club executives to avoid any repeat attempts. The six Premier League clubs were fined a combined £22 million by their rivals in England and will be fined a further £25 million each if they attempt another breakaway.

Representatives from each of the Premier League’s Big Six took their seats in Geneva, listening in as the room united around their perceived treachery. Woodward, on his way out at Manchester United, was not present. Hemen Tseayo, head of corporate finance, represented the Old Trafford club instead. Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck, Arsenal chief executive Vinai Venkatesham, Liverpool chief executive Billy Hogan, Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano and Tottenham executive Rebecca Caplehorn had all flown to Switzerland.

Mistrust lingers, both towards the Big Six and within the group, but Venkatesham is said to have done the most to re-establish positive relations, while Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy earned election as the Premier League’s representative on the ECA board. He beat Soriano despite a two-page pitch by the City CEO. Chelsea were the only English club to support Soriano’s bid, despite frosty relations between certain personnel at those two clubs.

In Spain, the leading clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid are not falling into line so easily, and neither are Juventus in Italy. Those three remain engaged in legal action under the Super League umbrella. It has so far managed to deter UEFA from picking up the €15m goodwill payments it originally “agreed” as punishments for the nine clubs who dropped out of the Super League, while Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus all remain committed to the project but have not been barred from competing in UEFA’s competitions.

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One critic of the three clubs compared it to “Donald Trump after the American 2020 presidential election” — going round and attempting to overturn the inevitable outcome. Critics argue any legal result will ultimately not matter as the plan is doomed anyway in the court of public opinion.

Yet the Super League project is still fighting. Those three rebels believe the same key issues remain; notably, too many disinteresting matches in the existing European competitions and a competitive imbalance, in their view, created by state-supported clubs. There is also a genuine belief among the remaining Super League clubs that supporters are not as opposed to it as the media has portrayed. They cite data from late last year that allegedly showed 80 per cent of Spanish supporters to be advocates of such a plan, while they note that the level of opposition in England was not reflected in Spain and Italy.

“We are simply happy for Madrid’s president Florentino Perez to bang on about it forever,” quipped one sceptic, while the Super League has even become known as “FloreLeague” in some quarters.

As the Premier League clubs scuttled about for relevance, PSG’s Al-Khelaifi took aim at Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Addressing the room, he said: “While the three rebel clubs waste energy, twist narratives and continue to shout at the sky, the rest of us are moving forward and focusing every energy on building a better future for European football.”

He set out new principles for these summit meetings, declaring there would be “no closed sessions” — a bid to avoid future plotting. He spoke of a “united football family”.

Peace on the horizon? Don’t count on it.

As one source says: “There is a lot of double talk, double face; people that say one thing publicly and then privately do differently.”


To understand the future, we must return to the past.

In the week leading up to the Super League’s announcement in April, European football appeared unified. Both UEFA and the ECA appeared to have agreed and signed off on a commitment to support proposals for a reformed Champions League, which would change the model to 36 teams from the current 32. At an ECA meeting early in that week, in which Super League clubs were represented by figures such as Agnelli, Woodward and Real Madrid vice-chairman Pedro Lopez Jimenez, most of those on the video conference appeared relieved and content. These reforms had required almost two years of painstaking work.

Perhaps most strangely, when set against what happened next, Europe’s leading clubs appeared to be benefiting from the changes.

UEFA was coming closer to accepting a significant change to how the Champions League is broadcast and marketed. For over 25 years, UEFA had worked exclusively with a Swiss-based marketing firm called TEAM, which performed commercial duties for UEFA’s club competitions. Europe’s elite, however, resented this model as they are accustomed to having a greater say over business matters in their domestic leagues. Since Al-Khelaifi became ECA president, these plans have been accelerated and, in his first meeting with UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, he secured sign-off for this change that the larger clubs believe will earn them more money.

Additionally, the elite clubs had secured an additional two places, outside of usual qualification through a domestic league finish, which would allow clubs to qualify for the Champions League based on their UEFA co-efficient over the previous five seasons.

Following the failure of the Super League, however, it is still to be confirmed whether these positions will remain, as it creates the perception of a closed shop, where access is granted more on the name of a club than recent performance. However, as things stand, no alternatives have been suggested.

Yet the concessions secured in April were deemed insufficient. The Super League clubs craved more.

By the pivotal Thursday and Friday in April, the final two Premier League clubs, Chelsea and Manchester City, fell into line with the Super League plan and across Europe, particularly in the Premier League, the whispers and suspicion began to grow. Executives called one another, each time hearing little clues, but unable to form the full picture.

By the Saturday, the key players had gone to ground. UEFA chief Ceferin would later describe Woodward and Agnelli as “snakes” for their parts in the perceived deceit. Agnelli simply turned his phone off, despite repeated calls from Ceferin, a man he had previously named as the godfather of his daughter. Ceferin later told German magazine Der Spiegel: “It was an honour for me when he asked me back then. Obviously, I made a mistake with him and misjudged him. After all, the Super League thing showed that closeness wasn’t a consideration. Agnelli and I are (now) as far apart as we can be.”

On the Sunday, The Times in the UK and The New York Times reported a Super League plan was in motion and that an announcement was likely to be made the very same day.

At 4pm, the ECA called an emergency board meeting. Those Super League club executives, such as Agnelli, Jimenez and Woodward, did not dial in. It was left to Edwin van der Sar, chief executive of Ajax, to chair the meeting. Perhaps one moment of lightness came when Inter Milan director Steven Zhang momentarily dialled into the video conference, despite his club having signed up to the Super League. He was spotted on the screen and his peers immediately wanted to know what on earth he had signed up to. He swiftly logged off, adding to the confusion.

The ECA, whose job it is to lobby UEFA on behalf of their clubs, was left in a perilous position.

Some clubs even suspected that key non-club executives at the ECA may have been in on the Super League plans but this was not the case. Instead, they made a plan to mobilise.

Bayern Munich executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, a former ECA chairman, stepped up. One ECA source describes the German, as well as Al-Khelaifi, as “absolute rocks” during those fateful few days. Indeed, some in European football circles even suspect that clubs not included in the Super League (many of whom outlined their public opposition) may have made discreet enquiries during that turbulent time to see if they could find a way into the list of invitees.

Behind the scenes, the Super League 12 continued to lobby PSG and Bayern. There were bold warnings, cautions that they would be left in the slipstream of their rivals. Real Madrid president Perez had previously travelled to Paris to try to convince Al-Khelaifi but he had been unsuccessful.

The motivation behind Al-Khelaifi’s refusal is contested.

He did not have a particular individual loyalty to Ceferin — the pair had rarely been close and indeed had sparred over financial fair play (FFP) cases. In addition, PSG’s revenue streams were severely damaged by the collapse of the domestic French television rights deal. As such, Al-Khelaifi’s critics argue that his leadership of BeIN Media may have dictated the stance he took against the Super League. This is because the Qatar-based broadcaster holds contracts worth hundreds of millions to show European domestic leagues and UEFA competitions across the world. These rights would have been severely devalued if a Super League had been formed.

Sources close to Al-Khelaifi, however, counter that while he had no particular loyalty to Ceferin, he did feel he should be faithful to the institutions of UEFA and ECA, where he held senior positions.

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Additionally, he has privately claimed that he still, to this day, considers his first European fixture as PSG chairman as one of the highlights of his tenure. This was a home fixture against Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg in the group stage of the Europa League in 2011. It may seem insignificant to most, yet he apparently reflected on this moment when contemplating the Super League. A source explained: “It brought home to him that PSG’s journey would be almost impossible to repeat, as the 15 founder clubs would have been locked into a 20-team competition.”

What we do know, however, is that both PSG and Bayern were privy to Super League conversations at some point in the years leading up to the announcement. Indeed, leaked paperwork revealed that some versions of the plan even included proposed joining dates for both clubs.

And it would be unusual, given the stakes, for either club not to even consider the approach. In the case of Bayern, some rival clubs mischievously speculate that their hierarchy were more tempted than is publicly known. But Bayern’s leaders were bound by a 2016 commitment of the advisory board not to join any Super League. Dortmund, meanwhile, were never likely to jump onto the train unless Bayern did so first.


On the Monday in Switzerland, Al-Khelaifi and Ceferin embraced. A source recalls: “Their first hug was for Nasser to say, ‘I am standing by you’.” The second hug, on the following day, came once it became clear the plot had fallen apart.

Al-Khelaifi’s new golden-child status was inconceivable only six months ago. Indeed, for some conspiracy theorists, it almost appears to be a master plan to undo the Super League, expose the financial precarity of his rivals and pick off their best players.

The reality is less polished, much as allies of Al-Khelaifi would love to claim he had conceived a Machiavellian plot to rule European football. Instead, they say, he made a sound judgement and then maximised the opportunities that ensued.

At the ECA, a replacement for Agnelli became required. Rummenigge was a former chairman of the body and was due to retire from his role at Bayern at the end of the 2020-21 season (he turned 66 this month). Ajax’s Van der Sar is highly-rated but lacks the clout of a club, such as PSG, who regularly compete at the very highest level of the Champions League. Al-Khelaifi first turned down the role, citing his multiple other jobs, not only at PSG but also at BeIN Media Group and with the Qatar Tennis Federation. Dr Michael Gerlinger has represented Bayern on the ECA executive board since 2017 but his role as director of legal affairs at his club made it unlikely he would be a contender for ECA chairmanship.

As PSG and Bayern’s rivals ceded status and influence, the two 2020 Champions League finalists formed a new power axis at the top of both UEFA and the ECA. Bayern received the ECA’s “Chairman’s Award” for their “exceptional leadership and commitment to European football”. Al-Khelaifi and Gerlinger posed together for a photo.

Behind the scenes, however, the truce is uneasy, to put it lightly. Bayern have been long-term critics of PSG’s spending patterns and the two clubs do not share the same view on the future of financial restrictions in European competition. Bayern would, ideally, like a reformed version of FFP that regulates via a salary cap and strong punishments for breaches.

PSG are among the clubs more supportive of a luxury-tax arrangement, whereby those who compete in UEFA competitions are limited to spending a set percentage of revenue on salaries, expected to be around 70 per cent. Those who exceed this cap would then be expected to pay a tax, where any overspend is redistributed to clubs across Europe. This, critics argue, could be open to abuse by extremely wealthy owners who do not mind paying the tax to achieve their broader ambitions.

Critics of the former version of FFP counter that it served to prevent clubs outside the established elite from investing ambitiously in the transfer market.

The hostility between PSG and Bayern was only heightened when Al-Khelaifi became unhappy after Bayern chairman Herbert Hainer said on a podcast that he was trying to understand how PSG’s investment into Lionel Messi, an expensive free agent after Barcelona were unable to re-sign him when his contract expired this summer, would “go along” with FFP.

The likely outcome is that the luxury tax wins the day, while it remains possible that a top cap figure may also be included to ease concerns about how clubs such as PSG, Manchester City, Chelsea and now Newcastle could benefit from spending their owners’ untold riches.

Ceferin, for his part, wants a level of tax that disincentivises extortionate spending.

He told German media’s Der Spiegel: “In future, we should speak of competitive balance rather than FFP. If they exceed a limit, they have to pay a kind of tax that is redistributed to other clubs. This tax should be very, very high. If the rule is that a club can only spend €300 million, but it becomes €500 million, then it might have to pay another €200 million to go to the others. That has to be a robust set of rules. Nothing has been decided yet.”


In the Premier League, the Big Six are struggling to regain the trust of their rivals, employees and supporters. Even within the Big Six, some suspect others may still be plotting, despite public denials.

Over many years, the six clubs grew increasingly close, hunkering down in little groups at meetings. In 2019, the six organised a study by a major consultancy firm to appraise the growth of Premier League broadcasting rights deals. Manchester United, it is said, were the club always most keen to participate in joint research projects, easily securing approval for six-figure funding contributions, while Tottenham and Arsenal could be a little more frugal. The main thrust of the consultancy report was that the growth story of the 2010s “had been exhausted”, according to one well-placed source, “which led some of us to recognise a heightened necessity of a project such as the Super League”.

For some owners, therefore, joining the Super League was about the short-term injection of funds to offset losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic but also around their projected exit strategy. These clubs, remember, are now valued into the billions.

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A well-placed source close to one Big Six club explains: “This would have been the best way out for the American owners at these clubs. They receive their valuation and they get this growth story with the Super League. Think about it. If you have worked for decades to be a billionaire, does it make sense to put your money into an asset where there is no obvious growth? Investors are also increasingly unwilling to buy clubs and put them in debt, as you get shit from fans. The Super League was the opportunity to change that problem and pump the value. Once the American owners sensed stagnation in the television market and the threat to the asset caused by COVID-19, they pulled the trigger.”

The clubs were braced, to an extent, for criticism. After all, United and Liverpool had received a backlash when they unveiled Project Big Picture previously. Those two have had a long-term engagement over reducing the size of the 20-club Premier League to 18 clubs, as has already happened in France’s Ligue 1 and is under consideration in Italy’s Serie A, while the leading clubs share a long-held desire to remove the Carabao Cup from the calendar.

A source explains: “They always presumed a baseline of pushback for any of these plans, but they never foresaw scenes like the ones at Chelsea or the ones at Old Trafford when the game against Liverpool was postponed. They would have been embarrassed that somebody so close to home, like Sir Alex Ferguson, who never criticises the owners, publicly dumped on the plan. Ed Woodward had been hearing from Gary Neville for years, so that would not have bothered him so much, but Sir Alex? (When that happens) You say to yourself, ‘We have done something wrong of the highest order here’.”

All six clubs have made pledges of increased fan representation — although their pledges have been met with cynicism — and perhaps most remarkably, United’s co-owner Joel Glazer attended two fans’ forums after over a decade of silence from the club’s American ownership. United have also pledged to create a fan advisory board and interviews are currently ongoing for places on it.

Tottenham are awaiting the UK government’s fan-led review before pressing on with their plans to reform but the club’s supporters trust has claimed that chairman Levy recently refused a meeting to discuss concerns. Arsenal fans, meanwhile, pin their hopes on reported interest in the club by Spotify owner Daniel Ek, amid ongoing concerns about the approach taken by current owners the Kroenke family. For Chelsea and Manchester City, rebuilding was more straightforward considering the overall popularity of their owners among supporters, while Liverpool are creating a supporters’ board with the promise of fan representation over strategic decisions.

The previous lack of communication and engagement by owners of Premier League clubs is, ironically, one of the reasons the Super League is deemed to have failed in the eyes of its architects. “You can’t win an election without going on a campaign trail,” noted one Super League advocate, before pointing out the lack of contenders to sell the Super League vision to English football supporters.

The vacuum was filled by opponents on the TV screens, airwaves and streets of England.

In a Premier League meeting following the Super League unveiling, which the six breakaway clubs did not attend, Everton chairman Bill Kenwright at one point began quoting William Shakespeare and later said, “We’re all in the Twilight Zone now!” Brighton CEO Paul Barber read out the content of a call with Levy from that morning, where the Tottenham chief executive insisted the six had to act.

The 14 remaining clubs left the main Premier League shareholders WhatsApp group and formed their own one. They remain suspicious. Indeed, one executive present at a Premier League shareholders meeting held since the Super League told The Athletic that “the Big Six do not even look at the little clubs. It remains an ‘us versus them’ mentality.”

As one source close to UEFA concludes: “These directors are subdued rather than defeated. The trick is to find common ground, where everyone is pissed off to the same level.”

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13 minutes ago, ZAPHOD2319 said:

Any reason Zaha is not with the team?

not fit after the international games

Viera said he came back ill (not Covid)

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2021-22 UEFA Champions League, Group Stage

Club Brugge              570.png&h=100&scale=crop&w=100&location=origin
Manchester City        382.png&h=100&scale=crop&w=100&location=origin

http://www.sportnews.to/sports/2021/champions-league-club-brugge-vs-manchester-city-s1/

https://www.totalsportek.com/football/cl/club-brugge-vs-man-city-match/

b420bc1c90980e4c660db1e323faa9eb.pnge18517ac8f296cb5b689219cdb275082.png

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1 hour ago, ZAPHOD2319 said:

Ajax vs Dortmund looks like a fun watch today.

Nah not for me mate.....AM vs Pool will be the one to watch imo. I hope AM wreck these fools.

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7 minutes ago, Warning_Hazard said:

Simone to newcastle anyone!!??

I have read he is interested and they want him. It would be a big step if they were to pull it off. I also read they plan on 50M pounds in January when they can spend up to 140M. I doubt Simeone would appreciate that.

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