The floodgates of European football’s magic are on the verge of bursting open again next week as the Champions League and Europa League enter their mouthwatering knock-out stages. A plethora of eye catching fixtures stretch across headlines world wide with eager football fans counting down the days to see the clash of titans. It’s the time of year when folktales are written and legends are established. Amongst the showdowns include London’s Arsenal take on German power house, Bayern Munich. Balotelli’s new club comes head to head with Messi and co. when Milan square off against the Barca boys, and nine-time winners Real Madrid face a club of equal aplomb and conviction, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. The excitement surrounding the build up for fixtures of monumental attraction is incomparable, but what if you could enjoy Champions League knock-out stage quality football week in and week out? The idea of a “European Super League” compiled of Europe’s greatest heavy hitters honors the pipe dreams of many, but would it be practical? When I was first introduced to top level football, I spent countless hours as a youth attempting to decode the European format and familiarizing myself with an endless list of tournament and league structures. Today, I feel like Slash from Guns and Roses, in the sense that he taught himself how to play the guitar. Though it would be arrogant to seriously compare my knowledge of the world’s game to the talent of one of the greatest guitarists to ever live, I still consider myself a credible source to unleash some of the daunting questions concerning the European Super League proposal.
How would it be formatted?
This is perhaps the most crucial question of all and probably the most difficult to answer. Let me rattle some off some of the subquestions. How many teams? How would they be selected? Is there a relegation/promotion system? If so, how would it work? Would there be a league table system where the number 1 wins it? Or would there possibly be a seeding system to determine an end of the season playoff schedule? Would an excess amount of teams mean that the league is split into conferences like the professional sports in the United States? Would each team play each other home and away? Puzzling enough, for each answer, raises more questions. However, the most important question in my mind is how do you format a league that redesigns the face of popular football and adheres to football’s roots and traditions?
The promotion and relegation system, though unlikely, gives even Europe’s smallest minnows, the slightest chance to one day lift the European Cup. Subsequently it allows European champions to free fall from glory to the domestic lower divisions. Ask Nottingham Forrest. But to impose a relegation/promotion system accurately is a tricky obligation. Say for example, two French teams and one English team is relegated from the Super League in the first season. Does the domestic French champion and runner-up fill their positions in the Super League with the domestic English Premier League champion following suit? Or is there a more deserving team in one of the other domestic leagues in Europe that didn’t have a Super League team from their country relegated that should move into that spot? Perhaps you could have an end of the year playoff between the domestic league champions for the vacant spots in the Super League following relegation.
To not have a relegation system in my own opinion would be a travesty against the sport. Not only would the smaller teams in Europe never be able to achieve Super League status, but they would be forever cemented in their place, stuck feeding their best players to the Super League as a farm system; they would essentially be minor league teams. All the clubs in Europe are proud of their traditions and histories. To demote the English Premier League (for example) to a league full of teams that will never be the best teams would be an insult to ambitious clubs who haven’t reached their moment in the sun. I think that part of the mystery and wonder of football is when Real Madrid goes to Granada like this past weekend and loses 1-0, Granada’s first win over Real in 41 years. What would happen to rivalries that were divided on either side of the split. Say for some reason Liverpool ended up in the Super League and Everton was left in the Premier League? With no relegation, we would be kissing the Merseyside derby goodbye. And without relegation, if a team is having a poor season in the Super League what motivation do they have to do better? There is no punishment for bad play without relegation and the fight to stay up fuels that battle at the bottom of a league table system. Without that, the quality of the football in the league would decrease due to lack of purpose later in the season. That’s my opinion on the promotion/relegation system. What’s yours?
The idea of changing the entire league set up is an intriguing one indeed. Adding conferences and sections like mini-league tables within a greater league, set up for a playoff finale is a system used by MLS and other American sports league franchises. Maybe you could divide Southern Europe, Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe into the conferences with conference tables and then take the top two seeds from each conference and filter them into a bracket for an end of the season championship knockout style tournament to decide the Super League champion.
That could fit a relegation/promotion system too. By narrowing the conferences down to regions would allow the best domestic team from a particular area to be promoted to the Super League while the relegated team from the region’s conference replaces them in their region domestically. But if the best domestic team from a Spain/Portugal area is a club from Portugal and a Spanish team gets relegated from the Super League, then that best Portuguese team would fill into that Super League spot and leave La Liga with 21 teams, including the newly relegated club. That’s not a drastic problem but if the same pattern happens for 5 years in a row, La Liga will have 25 teams and the Portuguese domestic league will be short 5 teams. Then you might have an issue. Relegate more in Spain and promote more in Portugal? That would honor the Portuguese domestic league for producing good teams.
A conference style league without relegation isn’t too farfetched either. If the conferences were made up of 7 or 8 teams, then essentially every team will be fighting for those top two seeds to move onto the Super League championship playoffs. This would probably mean that the Super League clubs would be selected to collaborate with Europe’s major cities for commercial reasons, where the club can establish its business and expand financially. Because with no fear of vanishing from the league, it creates a stable foundation to market a business club persona. But I fear if that happens, the Super League clubs become more of franchises than football clubs and that shakes and disturbs the core of which football was built. I, for one, would like to hold on to the tradition that even the small local clubs that are supported by entire town communities still have a shot at becoming European threats. Villarreal have since been relegated to Spanish football’s second tier but were a constant presence in European club competitions in the last decade. The entire population of Yellow Submarine could fit inside the Santiago Bernabeu, home to Spanish giants, Real Madrid. Those types of success stories make football unique.
Who and how many get selected?
The answer to this question would have to be determined by the format. If there are conferences, that allows for more teams. You can’t have 32 teams and play a league table system because then each team would have to play 62 times assuming there is a home and away leg. If you play a match every weekend, it would take 62 weeks. A year only has 52 weeks, and a typical European league season has even less considering for the most part the summers are left open and are often occupied by international competitions. You could play midweek games as well but that is with the assumption that the Super League clubs only play one competition per year because there would be little time to break away for Manchester United to play in the FA Cup for instance. With 4 conferences of 8 teams, you would play the same 7 teams over and over in a mini-league table system within that conference. Of course, unless there were crossover games between conferences which would have to be decided upon, but what would be their function other than inter-conference friendlies? If crossover games counted toward your record, you would have to assure that each team in the conference played the same clubs in the crossovers to keep it fair. It’s more of a headache than you realized, isn’t it?
Who gets selected to the first ever Super League? If you are looking at a promotion/relegation system with 32 teams divided into conferences, a simple solution could be same 32 teams who were to qualify for the next season’s Champions League. You would have to promote the appropriate amount of teams in a chain reaction up the footballing ladder of the domestic leagues to compensate for the teams that were lost to the Super League, but that’s not a significant problem.
UEFA could organize a panel to select the teams, but it would need to be under a strict criteria. And no matter how you slice it, someone’s going to be pissed. This stresses the need for a relegation and promotion system politcally because if you are unfortunately not selected, you never will be a member without team personnel changes in the Super League. Without the ability to be promoted to the Super League, you couldn’t base the club selection on current form because teams who have traditionally been European Cup winners or contenders that have since fallen off will feel cheated. How would you feel if you were Red Star Belgrade, who won the European Cup in 1991, and don’t get selected because Arsenal does, a team who on paper is presently much better but has less top level European competition silverware? They’ve never won a European Cup. On the contrary, how would Arsenal feel if they didn’t get selected because Red Star did? That presents the opposite problem. The more well-known and currently popular teams could miss the cut because of history. A formula with a combination of historical European presence and recent performance would have to be configured.
Where I cannot merit entry is on popularity alone because that would just take a said amount of popular teams and deal them all the best players in the world eventually whether they deserve it or not. That really would turn the game as we know it on its head and poison football with the whole franchise image. Club identities and personalities as opposed to corporate franchises is what makes football different from the NBA or NFL and I would be heartbroken to see our sport travel down that road. But with one elite league in which the teams are solidified there forever is dangerously leaning in that direction in my own opinion.
What becomes of Cup football?
Safe bet is that A.C. Milan would be a member of the Super League. But as an Italian team, are they still obligated to play in the Coppa Italia or exempt? Super League teams still playing their part in domestic cup football at least keeps the tradition of those competitions alive. Bradford City’s most notable Arsenal scalp is still a possibility that way. If the Super League clubs don’t play the domestic cups, that makes just another domestic competition where anyone could win… minus the teams most likely to win. Even if West Brom were to finish top of the Premier League in a situation where there was a Super League hovering above them, you’d still get the feeling that they were just the best of the rest in England. One in favor of a Super League would argue that it gives more competition to the domestic leagues and more chances to teams who might not otherwise win a league title, theoretically.
The Champions League would have to become a thing of the past wouldn’t it? After all, determining the best club team in Europe would be the function of the Super League. Or could the Champions League be modified into being the cup competition for the Super League set up? Maybe. That’s not out of the question.
The ethical side of things.
By inventing a Super League, I assume there would be no other inter-European club football unless there was a watered down version of the Super League for teams that might make valid entry into the Europa League. Without European spots to play for in domestic leagues, it stretches out the mid table, leaving less motivation near the peak of the leagues for third through eighth place teams to fight for. The battle for European football would also become a footnote in the sport’s history.
An advantage of watching the Super League could be Super League referees. Europe’s best referees could all officiate in the same league under the same badge, but it would have to be exclusively. Leaving the now lower divisions (now your EPL, La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1, Bundesliga ETC…) with what’s remained of other referees.
The idea of creating a Super League is to improve football for everyone by seeing the best teams play each other all the time, but is that good for everyone in football or only good the top clubs that would be in the Super League? The appeal about this time of the year in the Champions League is that it’s a rare treat to see so many good teams battle it out in an epic tournament. However, if you eat the same favorite meal for dinner every evening, does it lose its special occasion mood? Sure, the Super League would boost viewership and entertainment value for the top teams and neutral supporters in particular but football has never had to vindicate it’s watchability or entertainment before. Does it have to now? The final question I have to present as closing thoughts is as follows: Is European football now heading in such a direction that a Super League is necessary or can it continue just fine the way it is now?
Whether I am for or against a Super League remains undecided and will continue that way until I view an actual proposal. I’m against the franchise image of clubs in a solidified league and obviously I am for a promotion/relegation system always. I think this keeps intact the values and traditions football embraces and builds on the already fascinating history of the sport. Call me old fashioned but until I see something to change my mind, I’m enjoying the sport 100% the way it is. The privilege of Champions League keeps the magic of European club competition astute with the way it is formatted now. So the need for more monster clashes is unnecessary at the moment if it means the sacrifice of the wellbeing of domestic competitions. If there is a way to have both, I’m all ears, but I haven’t seen anything like that proposed to me yet.
Of course, as always, you are entitled to your own opinion on the matter and I hope you share. Perhaps you can sprinkle a bit of your own seasoning on the topic that has been overlooked. New ideas are always welcome at FSF.