In early November, the whistleblowing German newspaper Der Spiegel revealed talks had taken place amongst Europe’s top football clubs, with the topic of discussion the long-mooted formation of a breakaway European Super League. According to leaked documents, seven top teams have held preliminary discussions about “leaving the national leagues and their football associations behind entirely”. It is a worrying development with potentially seismic consequences, something proved by the 25-year existence of the Welsh Premier League.
Back in the early 1990s, several members of FIFA began questioning why Wales were allowed to have an international team when, in their eyes, there was no differentiation from England. Historically Welsh clubs have always participated in the English pyramid, with transport networks making it easier to travel east to play English teams than cross-country.
In 1991, the Football Association of Wales decided to introduce the League of Wales, with the first season kicking off the following year. It goes without saying that this wasn’t intended to be an event on anything near the scale of a European Super League, but rather to safeguard the future of the national side.
Accepting that it would be detrimental to remove Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham, this trio were allowed to remain in the more competitive Football League. The remainder of the teams, however, were ordered to withdraw from their various semi-professional divisions and transfer to the new Welsh league.
This caused a bitter conflict between the FAW and “irate eight” – a group of non-league sides that wanted to continue playing in England. In the end, five of these did relent and entered the League of Wales, but Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Tydfil and Newport County all remained in the English league system. The consequences of this were that six of the largest Welsh teams, heralding from major population centres, were non-existent. This imposed an extremely low glass ceiling, portraying the English system as an effective super league.
It is highly likely the formation of European-wide organisation would have a similar effect on domestic leagues across the continent. Applying the proposed league structuring seen in the Der Spiegel papers, there would be a total of 11 permanent members on an initial 20-year contract. These are listed as AC Milan, Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain, and Real Madrid. Meanwhile, the report also cites five yearly guest clubs, named as Atlético Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Internazionale, Marseille and Roma.
Applying the Welsh Prem model to these choices, it is clear the effects on domestic leagues would be disastrous. The removal of England’s five largest clubs would leave a gaping hole in the domestic game, with no representation in Manchester and far less in London. The removal of Juventus, Roma and the two Milanese sides would account for almost two-thirds of all Italian football fans. Meanwhile, around a quarter of the 46 million population of Spain support Barcelona, with Real Madrid possessing even greater numbers.
Whilst core support groups exist, the general trend in football is that attendances always rise when a club is promoted to the top division or faces a big name. Wolves had around 10,000 empty seats at most matches played at Molineux just two seasons ago, but now sell out every game back in the Premier League. This works the same for elite clubs, for example the 35,000 difference in spectators between AC Milan’s clashes with Benevento and Juventus last season.
Just like in Wales, fans would almost certainly stick with their clubs should a Super League be formed. If anything, considering the commercial potential and television coverage matches would receive, there is potential for these figures to rise even more. With the Premier League currently enjoying a TV deal worth over £4.4bn, the cost of rights to screen European Super League games would be astronomical.
Simply put, if you take away the biggest teams from each domestic league, a large amount of the following would transfer interest to the new league. The majority of fans, particularly international ones, would all but abandon the domestic divisions. So too would sponsors, meaning the gap amongst elite European clubs and everyone else would grow even larger. In Wales, such a lack of commercial interest eventually forced historic clubs such as Barry Town into bankruptcy.
It’s false to suggest that the removal of the juggernauts from domestic leagues would lead to heightened competitiveness on a more level playing field. There will always be a financial disparity between clubs, and, as seen in Wales, new powers simply emerge. In the 25 seasons the Welsh Premier League has taken place, on 19 occasions the title has been won by either The New Saints or the now-defunct Barry Town.
By removing the largest clubs, you are not benefitting the majority, but simply the boundaries of domestic matches. With Everton and Tottenham left in the Premier League, it is highly likely both would emerge the dominant forces. Lyon would likely regain domestic power in France; Lazio and Napoli would seize the initiative in Italy; and Sevilla or Valencia would reign supreme in Spain.
One could argue this is where the yearly changing rotation option comes into play, with domestic leagues perhaps serving as a feeder into the elite Super League. For this to work, however, there has to be an incomprehensible shake-up of football full stop. This would perhaps see the death of the Champions League for starters, certainly the Europa League. Meanwhile, if domestic leagues merely serve as a promotion to the Super League, this leads to a further devaluing of their very existence.
Once again this brings us back to Wales, which exists with a top flight containing clubs hailing from towns of as little as 2,000 people and universities. Until recently, only one side, perennial champions TNS, operated on a full-time basis. In top European leagues such a lack of quality doesn’t exist, but the principle is the same. With the top clubs missing, attendances at Welsh Prem games have always been low, standing at just 300 spectators on average, and meaning small clubs are the only answer to fill spaces.
Another point to raise is if such a high-quality Super League exists, that is where all players will aspire to reach. Domestic clubs wouldn’t stand a chance of competing for signings, only ever getting castoffs and loanees from the Super League. Indeed, the issue of youth development is another major question mark in itself. It is already well-documented how hard it is for young players to break through at the top English sides, as seen in the cases of Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. In a Super League, blooding youngsters would be virtually impossible.
Whilst it may be a simplistic way to summarise matters, perhaps the old adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” rings true. The motivation of the Welsh Premier League was admittedly different, being a necessity not commercial greed, although it is a real-life example of the adverse effects of a super league. It may be a sad indictment of modern football, but the truth is, domestic leagues need big clubs to survive.
By James Kelly @jkell403