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Kicking Off: The Rise and Fall of the Super League – what we learn

Fans outside of The Emirates stadium London protest plans for a European Super League, April 2021.
Thousands of fans across England turned out to protest against plans for a European Super League.
Kicking Off: The Rise and Fall of the Super League airs on BBC Two on Wednesday, 4 May at 21:30 BST and will be available afterwards on BBC iPlayer

Plans for a European Super League have been around for more than 30 years, and Neymar’s 2017 move to Paris-St Germain may have helped give them new life.

They are just two things we learn in a new BBC Two documentary – Kicking Off: The Rise and Fall of The Super League – which airs in the UK from 21:30 BST on Wednesday, 4 May.

Just over a year ago, it was announced that 12 of the world’s biggest football clubs had agreed to sign up to a new breakaway elite competition.

The founding members included six Premier League teams – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham – plus AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid. It was news to even the clubs’ players and managers.

Unlike the existing Champions League format, run by European governing body Uefa, the intention was for the ESL to include the same 15 teams each year – regardless of their domestic performance – with five further spaces open for other clubs to qualify annually.

It effectively meant big clubs (historically ‘big’, at least) would be guaranteed entry.

Uefa condemned the plans, the UK government came out against them, and thousands of fans protested. Within 48 hours the plans had spectacularly unravelled, with all six English teams withdrawing.

The BBC documentary goes behind the headlines of the dramatic rise and fall – from the events that came together to inspire it, to the fallout afterwards.

Among those interviewed are La Liga president Javier Tebas, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters, former England footballers Gary Lineker and Eniola Aluko, and a host of football journalists.

Here are just a few takeaways:

Silvio Berlusconi tried to launch a Super League in the late ’80s

Silvio Berlusconi with AC Milan fans, 1993.
Silvio Berlusconi was one of the early proponents of a Super League

The idea of an elite European competition has been kicking around for longer than you may have thought.

As the film explains, Silvio Berlusconi – media mogul, AC Milan owner, and future Italian Prime Minister – proposed something similar in the late 1980s.

Berlusconi could not understand why the European Cup, as it was then called, was not being better exploited for television money.

As the documentary narrator explains: “For Berlusconi, it was ludicrous that the best clubs in Europe were not playing each other every week in lucrative matches, with easier entry to the competition and a little less chance of being knocked out too early.”

The plan was rejected, the idea was not.

Is Neymar the reason the ESL came about?

Neymar's transfer to PSG caused the power-balance to shift in European football.
Neymar’s transfer to PSG caused the power-balance to shift in European football.

In truth, it’s quite a reach to pin the whole thing on the Brazilian forward.

But the documentary puts forward a good case as to why his transfer to Paris St-Germain in 2017 was something of a catalyst.

When PSG triggered Neymar’s buyout clause to sign him from Barcelona for a world record 222m euros (£200m), they upset the whole football landscape.

Historic superpowers such as Barca and Real Madrid had new challengers in the market – the likes of PSG and Manchester City.

“They flooded the game with so much money and that had a chain reaction,” journalist Miguel Delaney says in the documentary.

“It would just raise the market to such a point that they knew only a handful of clubs could compete.”

The ESL would give more clubs even more money.

The official statementexternal-link announcing its inception said: “In exchange for their commitment, founding clubs will receive an amount of 3.5bn euros solely to support their infrastructure investment plans and to offset the impact of the Covid pandemic.”

The pandemic was a factor

Manchester United players celebrate in an empty Old Trafford stadium.
The pandemic forced football to halt, before returning behind-closed-doors.

That extra cash was probably more attractive to clubs that had made some big losses in recent years.

“If you count the amount of money the so-called ‘dirty dozen’ had lost over the 2019-20 season, I think you go to 800m euros (£675m),” says French football journalist Philippe Auclair.

That was compounded by a global pandemic, with sporting events initially cancelled, then held behind closed doors.

Masters estimates Premier League clubs missed out on more than £2bn of revenue during that period.

Some fans are prepared to fight further changes

For all of the furore about the ESL proposals, critics have argued that planned changes to the Champions League format do not honour the principles of fairness.

A final decision is due to be taken over the format of Europe’s elite club competition from 2024 when Uefa’s executive committee meets in Vienna next week.

The governing body is considering whether to ditch a controversial plan to award two Champions League places according to past performance.

Put simply, should the initial plan be formalised, teams would be allowed to qualify based on historic clout alone.

Premier League chief Richard Masters does not think that concept is fair, saying in the documentary: “I think the word is ‘entitlement’.

“I believe in a European football pyramid, where empires rise and fall.”

The changes were announcedexternal-link in May 2021, just a month after the collapse of the ESL, but the proposals had been made earlier.

As some fans in the film suggest, these changes could end up looking like a European Super League in another form. What’s more, Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid did not pull out of the ‘original’ ESL.

“The Super League won’t go away because of the greed at the top of the game and the big clubs wanting to get bigger and richer and not caring too much about the small clubs,” says Lineker.

Will there be more opposition?

“We’ve proved that we can mobilise and make change,” says Football Supporters’ Association chief executive Kevin Miles, who was crucial in helping lead opposition to the ESL.

“It’s not a once-and-forever victory, but if we can do it once, we can do it again.”

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