The Loop

Monday Superlatives

Allow me, a casual American idiot, to infuriate you: the Super League seems cool!

April 19, 2021

Rich Linley - CameraSport

If you're reading this, you absolutely know the deal by now, but the tradition dictates that I have to link to this article explaining that 12 of the best teams in Europe—three from Spain, three from Italy, six from England—have stunned the soccer world by signaling their intent to form a breakaway "Super League." The idea here is that, along with eight other teams, the 12 mega-clubs will play in a mostly closed league featuring the best of the best from the continent. It's the American professional sports model—if you're one of the giants, you can't be relegated. It would take place during the week, and, if successful, would absolutely gut Champions League, a similar competition that is theoretically open to all professional teams across Europe.

The response to this has been, uhhhh, just a bit negative. And by "just a bit," I mean wildly vociferous in united opposition. European fans hate it. Hardcore American fans hate it. The domestic leagues like the English Premiership hate it, and have vowed to boot the rebels from those competitions, which would create a strange situation where the Premiership loses Manchester United and Man City, La Liga goes on without Barcelona and Real Madrid, etc. It has been called a naked money grab, and it could absolutely screw the smaller clubs of those three countries who are already reeling during the pandemic and can't afford to lose the revenue they gain from their association with the titans. Fury abounds.

Of course, the largely unspoken truth here is that somebody is going to like it, and I regret to inform you that I, an extremely casual American know-nothing, am that somebody.

Hear me out (or don't): Two seasons ago, just before the pandemic, I attempted to turn a casual relationship with European soccer into something more serious by jumping on the Liverpool bandwagon. I made a serious effort to watch every match, listened to a podcast I really enjoyed called The Anfield Wrap, browsed Reddit, bought a jersey (which I wore like a moron into a Northern Irish pub), etc. I enjoyed the process, but the wall I kept hitting came in the Premiership matches against the "bad" clubs—the ones with a fraction of Liverpool's operating budget, and none of the talent, who would treat a draw as a major triumph. It felt like a lose-lose situation, where Liverpool either won as they were supposed to, or got embarrassed. How do you get excited for something like that? Or, to use a specific example from Liverpool, why should I care about the FA Cup when manager Jurgen Klopp clearly doesn't?

Now, I fully admit that this is because I have no ties to the history of the sport, and don't appreciate it like a serious fan would. Part of what the real supporters love, and which has come up a lot in the last 24 hours, is the theoretical chance that each club has to advance to the highest domestic league, or play in Champions League or Europa League, or win a domestic cup competition. Divorced from that history, I find this idea pretty ridiculous—the competitive and economic imbalance in these leagues is enormous, there are no salary caps to bring the haves back to planet earth, and the results are as predictable as the system dictates. Baseball is the most imbalanced among the major American sports, and even that comes nowhere near what we see in Europe. Without any connection to soccer history, it's tough to care about some abstract notion of democracy when the reality on the ground is very different (and where the few exceptions are temporary, and exist to prove the rule).

So the idea of a super league, where every match Liverpool plays comes against a titan of Europe, is incredibly appealing to someone like me. If all the rich clubs are playing against each other, every match matters, the quality is almost universally high, and I am far, far more likely to tune in on a regular basis for years to come. Why wouldn't I love a system where the best players are constantly doing battle, rather than being kept separate by the outmoded tyranny of domestic leagues? This change, which is obviously done for economic reasons, is designed to appeal to people like me across the world. If one of my favorite sports pulled something like this, I'd be mad too; because it's soccer, I'm excited.

There's also this: the population of England is just shy of 60 million, a little less than the combined population of California and New York. Those two American states have proud sports traditions, but there's nobody in America who believes that there should be 20 Major League Baseball teams, or 20 NFL teams, between them. But that's how many English teams play in the Premiership, and there are 92 total in the top four leagues. Many of them are approaching financial disaster, and that process was underway long before the pandemic hit. Sustaining that many teams in 2021 requires something like actual socialism, not the rampant, unchecked capitalism that is the reality of European soccer today. These clubs are a major part of the fabric of their towns and there's something very sad about losing them, but guess what? When you let your league spiral into outrageous wealth inequality, the idea of a country like England sustaining 92 professional teams becomes ridiculous. And the situation there is true across all of Europe—you've already neutered these teams with a lack of salary caps and sufficient revenue sharing, and by doing so shifted all the power to the giant teams. In that rich-get-richer situation, tradition gets swamped. That bed is already made.

If the reality is that there are only about 20-25 really exceptional teams in Europe, I love the idea of them playing in a closed league where you get to see the top players in the world face off with regularity. Competitively, from a neutral standpoint, it's a far better system, and a natural solution to the lopsided growth of soccer across the continent. Part of the collective rage, I think, is the understanding that deep down, this makes sense. I get the hate, and I'm sure if I grew up on European soccer, I'd be joining the mad chorus. But for the casual idiots of the globe—for idiots like me—the Super League sounds very, very good.