The Super League: The War for Football

This is a story about love and legacy, of friendships made and of loyalties betrayed. In this story, the enemy of an enemy becomes a fragile but necessary friend. But can anyone be trusted? This is a true story about sport focusing in on what makes us human – to share a singular love, we destroy the very thing we cherish the most. Soccer or football, whatever you call it, is one entity shared by the world, adored and utilized, abused and taken for granted. It’s loved by billions and generations. But it’s falling apart.

Super League: The War for Football, a four-part series documenting the battle between UEFA and the breakaway league that shook the world of global soccer, premiers on Friday, January 13, 2023 on Apple TV+. Emmy award-winning filmmaker Jeff Zimbalist (“The Two Escobars,” “Pelé,” “The Line,” “Momentum Generation”), takes the viewer deep diving into shark-infested waters of European football, where multi-pronged battles between oligarchs, nations, leagues, governing bodies, political leaders, community organizations and fans, all thirst for one soul – the soul of the world’s game. The Super League, launched in April 2021 and lasted two days before the 12-member rebel league dissolved in the aftermath of threats from politicians and riots by fans. But the damage has been inflicted, the wounds are all raw, and since the conclusion is still unwritten by history, this story is not over. This war for the the world’s game is far from over. In many ways, it has just begun. Throughout most of the world, especially in the heart of Europe, soccer is not merely sport, it is quasi-religion, and easily just cause for war, both figurative and literal.

You had a coup d’état attempt on the highest offices of power in the biggest sports industry in the world.

-Jeff Zimbalist, Director and Producer of Super League: The War for Football

“It was clear that whether this new Super League succeeded or not, it would turn the sport upside down, and have repercussions that extended into economics and politics.  I think that what was exciting for me was that it was unfolding in real time. Usually these suits, and decision makers and power players usually make their decisions behind closed doors,” Director and Producer Jeff Zimbalist explained in an exclusive interview for The Sporting Tribune. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see under the hood and see how the machinery worked. Not to mention the response was as big as anything. All of these machinations of power were clashing up against each other. You had Middle Eastern sheiks, Russian oligarchs, Asian business magnets, and hedge fund billionaires from the U.S. all entangled in this. And then you had fans taking to the streets in violent protest and raiding stadiums. I like to think of it as a microcosm as a mirror for what are our shifting values at that moment in history.”

The People

The series delves into events leading to and surrounding the Super League launch in April 2021, when a dozen defiant top clubs, comprised of English Premier, La Liga and Serie A clubs, revolted against the status quo of Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA) pyramid structured Champions League, and broke-away to form their own version of a tournament league where every match would pit giant against giant, in order to “save football,” as FC Barcelona’s boss LaPorta extolled. But the most compelling aspects of the 4-part series are in the way in which the characters, no longer just impersonal suits, are brought into the light where we can finally see their multidimensionality. Real Madrid boss Florentino Perez isn’t just fighting for his team or his family legacy, he’s fighting for the symbolic responsibility of the crown that is on every piece of Real Madrid history to keep attractive football alive for future generations. Aleksander Čeferin, the head of UEFA, isn’t just a little-known military-trained lawyer and company man, he is a pillar of decency and rigid honor who represents the undervalued and invisible. Andrea Agnelli isn’t just the fallen star from the great Italian soccer legacy at Juventus, he is a man caught in between two aspects of his life where friendship cannot trump business, trying desperately to keep a dying club alive. Nasser Al-Khelaifi isn’t just an uber-wealthy Qatari spending money with abandon to establish pre-eminence for Paris Saint-Germain, he’s juggling multiple roles across multiple cultures and worlds as an ambassador who is also seeking to prove his sense of belonging in soccer for more than his wealth and connections. The President of La Liga, while being known for his bombastic statements in his interviews, Javier Tebas tells it like it is – “I’ve never trusted anyone” – and bearing the brunt of the current revolt from within his own league’s powerhouses while defending the integrity of national leagues against UEFA’s Champions League and the Super League. A year and half since the initial revolt was squashed by a blitz of fan and media outrage, 3 of the 12 founding teams remain a rebel force, waiting for the European Union courts to decide… by forbidding clubs to be in both the Champions League (and any European competition as well as the FIFA World Cup) and any other breakaway league, is UEFA violating European Union laws and acting as a monopoly?

The Organizations

Zimbalist takes us all into the usually hidden world of European football’s powerful elite and their internal struggles after the 2015 Department of Justice shakedown. UEFA’s newly appointed leader, Aleksander Čeferin, who left his lucrative career as the head of the top firm in Slovenia in 2011 to pursue his passion for football more deeply to be the chief of the Football Association of Slovenia, had led a life pursuing justice for the under-appreciated and had seen Olimpija Ljubljana, the team he was part of the executive committee for, gain promotion to the first tier. Čeferin promised to combat corruption and match fixing, to uphold the pyramid structure he’d seen work so well for in his home of Slovenia. Yet he did not realize the true weight of the office until he found himself at odds with not only the powerful clubs in UEFA, but also FIFA’s new leader, Gianni Infantino. Upon being elected to the office in 2016, Čeferin stressed that the best path forward for UEFA was to respect the role of each of the 55 member nations. Yet throughout his tenure, the tension between the top clubs from within, the struggles to survive ever-growing costs from rising player salaries, and the challenges to stay relevant in the transforming sports landscape, have all made keeping the status quo more and more difficult for Čeferin to navigate.

The Money

We are able witness a glimpse the seriousness of depth of the financial power struggles between UEFA’s leadership, their top performing clubs, their national leagues, and fans, throughout the behind-the-scenes insider perspectives of this series.  While the humble roots of the sport in blue-collar and industrial beginnings disappear, soaring ticket prices have priced out many families who for generations supported their local clubs, leading to a globalization of the brand of football clubs. But still, those global revenues of teams when compared to their increasing spending, especially post-pandemic recovery, have caused bottem lines to shrink to unsustainable levels. Even for the English Premier League earning €6.5 billion in media revenues over a three-year period, nearly more than the sum of La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A combined, the writing is on the wall. Despite dominating the European market, the EPL is still outspending its revenue by €1.35 billion. Only four clubs – Leeds, Manchester City, Sheffield United and Wolves – reported a pre-tax profit in the latest tax period.

Yet, as player salaries continue to skyrocket without a commensurate increase in broadcasting revenues, other leagues are finding it increasingly difficult to compete. Financial doping, meaning using money derived from investor resources not related to direct club revenues, is a regular occurrence, and has fostered a system in which UEFA fines and punishes 5-10 teams annually for breaking financial rules. Rumblings for a need to reform UEFA’s Champions League, where a pyramidal structure based on promotion and relegation are rule of law, existed well before the 2015/2016 leadership changes. The usual top tier teams of the Champions League naturally became the originals of the controversial Super League. Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Juventus, A.C. Milan, Inter Milan, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool. Notably absent from the insurrection were PSG and Bayern Munich, but their names were discovered in leaked documents detailing the early months of the Super League as being necessary for the success of the league. It’s likely that under pressure, the two would have been forced to join or perish from lost potential revenues. The reasons for this breakaway league are aptly detailed in the Apple TV+ series. Guaranteed entry meant guaranteed money, far more than they would receive from Champions League participation. It’s important to clarify that unlike original criticisms, the 20-team league would have left 5 open spots yearly, in their own smaller version of a pyramid system.

The Super League is all blockbusters. It would be a global product

Guido Vaciago, Tuttosport journalist.

Čeferin, as the guardian of UEFA’s breadwinning and marquee tournament, immediately leaped to its defense, just as he did when Infantino proposed UEFA clubs participate in the FIFA Club World Cup. His reply is a vehement no to both. “If we would say, ‘You cannot play in any other competitions. We forbid you. And we would have power to stop them,’ that is a monopoly. But we say, ‘If you play any other competitions, you cannot play in our competition.’” He is basically a gatekeeper for the richest clubs and best players in the world. Rather than paint himself as such, he chooses to fall back on the role of protecting the soccer pyramid, one which supports the promotion/relegation system Europe is known for. On the surface it makes perfect sense and seems to be the most compassionate duty. To protect a system in which anyone can be anything. But, if all clubs outside the English Premier League fail due to an inability to spend as heavily, then what is left of the pyramid? Does football lose? Do the fans lose? It’s unsustainable in its current state. While it’s easy to demonize the clubs who joined the short-lived Super League, and hail Čeferin a socialist, to do so would be short-sighted.  

The Law

The series ends with the collapse of the Super League after a mere couple day of full-fledged existence, when one-by-one, first the English Premier teams abandoned ship amidst fan outrage and threats from the Prime Minister, until all that was left of the dirty dozen were Juventus, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona still defiant against UEFA. They sought shelter from anti-monopoly laws of the European Union. And even now, with the recommendation of Advocate General in favor of UEFA, they wait for a ruling from the EU Court of Justice.

“Are UEFA’s threatened sanctions a violation of EU law? Is it a violation of competition law or other right such as freedom of movement. The Advocate General helps inform the court, but it is not a done deal. The Spanish court can then use the ruling as guiding principles. But not all the facts have been settled yet,” explains Steven Bank, Professor of Business Law at UCLA. “The way to think about a competition law case. Something can have a negative effect on competition, but still be permitted. In the U.S., we call this the rule of reason approach. In Europe, they phrase this as refusal to allow third-party access to the market which must be justified by legitimate objectives. And the steps taken by the sport’s governing body (UEFA) must be proportionate to those objectives.”

In other words, are the steps UEFA took to protect their pyramid system proportionate? By threatening to disallow players involved in the Super League from participating in the FIFA World Cup, they have run the risk of limiting freedom of movement among other things. Precedence for this came right before the AG gave their own recommendation when The European Commission decided that International Skating Union (ISU) rules imposing severe penalties on athletes participating in speed skating competitions that are not authorized by the ISU are in breach of EU antitrust law.

UEFA, by embracing the courts too much at this point, as they have done in recent months, is opening itself up to closer scrutiny as well. In many cases, it’s acted as the judge, jury, and executioner (so to speak), has perhaps not imposed enough diligence in dealing with financial doping and is running a risk in relying on European Union law to protect its version of promotion and relegation.

UEFA and FIFA used to fight with the courts. Now they’re saying, ‘we’re not autonomous, it’s a constitutional requirement that you respect specificity of sport.’ Who defines that? Doesn’t have to be UEFA or FIFA. They’re kind of playing with fire.

Professor Steven Bank, UCLA Professor of Law

It was sincerely beautiful to see the fans rise up in April 2021 to protect their sport from being taken hostage by the Super League. But what most don’t want to admit is that it has already been taken over by market forces way beyond anyone’s control. There’s a fissure between the haves and the have-nots within football that grows deeper every Champions League, every World Cup, and every time a new loophole in financial regulations is discovered.

“The thing that the fan wanted to protect which is this symbolic hope that anyone from any station in life can rise to the top and be the best at what they want to be, that there are not glass ceilings, that’s the pyramid system and promotion/relegation and meritocracy. That’s what it represents to the traditions to the multi-generations of emotion. This is a refreshing break from the cynical storylines of capitalism winning at any expense,” Zimbalist concludes.

There’s another crisis coming. Hint: Code name – W01. The foundations of the sport have too many cracks and fissures for the building to stay erect. As the series ends, Kate Abdo reminds us all, the war for football is far from over.

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