The case for a merit-based European Football Super League

Miguel Otero Iglesias
10 min readApr 27, 2021

Since a dozen of the top football clubs, led by Real Madrid, proposed the creation of a European Super League the project has received enormous criticism from the world of football. Given that I am a Real Madrid fan and I have defended the idea of having a Super League over the past ten years (full disclosure here), let me explain why I still think it is a good idea, although with the important caveat that this competition should be merit based, with promotion and relegation formats, and not the closed club of permanent members as proposed by the so called “dirty dozen”. Here I agree with Branko Milanovic when he says that this was a quantum leap in a “regrettable (and to some extent shameful) direction”. However, I also do not think football will go back to the “heroic” pre-Bosman 1990s, as suggested by Miguel Delaney. For that we would need to eliminate pay-per-view football and cap the participation of foreign players and that is unlikely to happen.

Football reflects our societies, and as in many other economic sectors the globalisation we have witnessed since the beginning of the 21st Century has concentrated money and power at the top. One needs only to review which teams have won the five top competitions in Europe over the past 20 years. In Italy, only four teams have won the Scudetto: Rome (1), Milan (2), Inter (5) and Juventus (11), which, by the way, has won the last nine championships in a row! In Spain, again only 4 teams have won La Liga: Atlético (1), Valencia (2), Real Madrid (7) and Barcelona (10), and the latter two and Atlético have won it over the past 15 years! In Germany five teams got to lift the Bundesliga trophy: Bremen (1), Stuttgart (1), Wolfsburg (1), Borussia Dortmund (3) and Bayern (14), a bit more diverse, yes, but the latter is about to win its 9th league in a row! In England, glory has been shared by six teams: Leicester (1, a miracle), Liverpool (1), Arsenal (2), Manchester City (4), Chelsea (5) and Manchester United (7). The Premier is more competitive, but from the “dirty dozen”, only Tottenham Spurs is here missing. Finally, the French Ligue has been won by eight teams, so it is the most competitive one with Nantes (1), Lille (1), Bordeaux (1) and Montpellier (1) joining Monaco (1), Marseille (1), Lyon (7) and Paris Saint German (7) in the list, although it needs to be said that PSG has won all the championships since the 2012–13, but one!

No wonder than that, when it comes to money and fans, the bigger teams of this select group are the ones on top of the rankings. According to Deloitte, in the season 2019–20 all “dirty dozen” clubs are in the top 14 positions with more revenues, with the exception of Milan.

If you add Bayern, PSG and Borussia Dortmund you understand now why the idea was to have 15 permanent members in the now failed European Super League and why clubs like Arsenal and Tottenham Spurs were included.

According to UEFA, we are already talking about “extreme disparities” in revenues. As a matter of fact, with total revenue of €5.4bn “England’s 20 top-tier clubs reported more revenue in 2018 than all 617 clubs in the bottom 50 countries combined” and the share of the top five leagues mentioned above has grown from 67% of total revenues in 2010 to 75% in 2018, with Bundesliga and La Liga generating €3.2bn and €3.1bn each.

TV has driven the majority of revenue growth over the past 10 years, and logically those clubs with more fans are those who receive more revenues. It is difficult to know exactly how many fans a club has, but if we take social media followers as a proxy, we find the usual suspects in the top positions, with Real Madrid and Barcelona leading with roughly 250 million fans each, which is 100 million more than third positioned Manchester United and three times as many as Bayern, which has “only” 89 million. No question, these are truly global teams with a global followship.

Given these numbers, is there any surprise that in the past 20 years the eight Champions League winners are among these top 15 clubs, with the exception of Porto in the 2003–4 season?

Top professional football is indeed a pyramid, small teams can make it all the way up, but climbing to the peak is hard (and you need considerable amounts of money) both at the national and European level. Fair competition is therefore undermined both by TV money, but also by rich owners, many from outside Europe, which over the past two decades have poured considerable amounts of cash in teams like Chelsea, PSG and Manchester City. Incidentally these three teams are right now in this year´s Champions League semi-finals with Real Madrid, which is still owned by its members and, like Barcelona, tries to keep up with this increased competition by drawing on its global brand. This explains why Florentino Pérez has been at the forefront of the Super League project and why Barça has clung to it until now. If Real Madrid or Barcelona want to compete with the English teams, they need more revenue. Their fans know that, and this is why I think, if asked, most of them would say yes to a Super League. And I reckon so would most of the fans of the “dirty dozen” based outside Europe.

Proposing a closed league of 15 permanent members and five invitees was a big mistake, though. The Super League has never had a big appeal among the 234 clubs that form the European Club Association and their fans. It was always seen as elitist, and if membership is exclusive, the outrage is more than warranted. The general feeling is that this was driven by the greed of the rich, which want to become even richer and more dominant. But there are a number of reasons why an openly competitive Super League might be a good idea. The current Champions League has run its course. The early group stages have become predictable, and boring, and therefore have lost appeal and audiences. This is a consensus, and the reason behind UEFA’s reform proposal to be introduced in 2024, which has as its main aim precisely for fans to see “the top teams go head-to-head more often earlier in the competition”. However, the new format introduces even more matches and does not convince either the top teams, which are the ones that bring the global audiences and therefore the money, nor the romantics. We are therefore at a breaking point.

It is said that a Super League of 18 or 20 top clubs would kill national leagues. That must not be the case. When the national leagues were created, they did not kill the regional and local leagues. On the contrary, if the top teams concentrate their efforts in the Super League and put increasingly their B teams to play the domestic competition, it is likely that other teams will finally be able to win the national league. This does not have anything to do with elitism, but rather with more open competition. In every country, be it in youth, amateur or professional football, there are different divisions according to the level of every team. What is wrong with having the same evolution at the European level? Here I disagree with Simon Kuper when he glorifies tradition. Football changes all the time. We have now the VAR! If you want to make the national leagues more exciting maybe you need to get rid of the dirty dozen.

The best should play each other more regularly, while the other teams should have more chances to win their national championships. This would make them more, not less exciting than they are today (and draw in more audiences). Everyone that has played football or is a football fan knows that the most thrilling prospect is to win trophies. Still today Deportivo La Coruña fans (now unfortunately in the third division) make fun of their arch-rivals Celta de Vigo because their club does not have a big trophy. When a few years ago my amateur team (yes I still play football in my forties) won a trophy of a small local competetion we were all exhilarated. In Germany most fans are proud that their league is more competitive than that of other countries, but almost everyone is fed up with seeing Bayern win every year. This would change with a Super League.

So, who would play in the super league? Membership would be based fully on merit. UEFA has already a club coefficient ranking, a good starting point to make the first selection. If we take the top 18 from the 20/21 season, we have 13 of the 15 clubs mentioned above. The ones which would not make it are Inter and Milan (mi dispiace). Meanwhile Sevilla, Porto, Roma, Ajax and Shakhtar Donetsk would make the cut.

Eight countries would be represented in this top league. Ideally, every season four teams of the Super League would drop to the Euro League, while the best four from this second tear league would come up. To keep national leagues still relevant for these teams, I would propose also that if you do not finish in the top five positions of your national league over three years (or something on this logic) you lose your Super/Euro League spot. Thus, you can use your B team (if you lose interest in the national league, which is doubtful), but if you underperform you can lose your privileged position, and the money that comes with it. The Super (and Euro) League would have a regular season and then play-offs, which is always the most exciting part (the semifinalists of the Euroleague would promote to the Super League).

Finally, let me address some worries about this type of format. Some believe that if we see the big teams playing more often against each other we will lose interest. Some of this interest is already lost, however. There is too much football on television and in an era of global entertainment platforms like Netflix it is normal that you might not be able to attract big audiences all the time. Younger people already watch much less football than older generations. The same way they have dropped films for shorter series, they say 90 minutes is just too long. The response must therefore be more quality rather than quantity — and having the best teams with the best players playing each other gives you that. A second concern is that the smaller teams will never be able to play against the top teams. True, but one way to overcome this could be to have a European cup competition with no seeding, one-match, knock-out format with the best 128 teams participating. Today´s UEFA ranking shows in position 128: Östersunds FK, from Sweden.

Furthermore, there is the issue of keeping the pyramid alive. If the teams of the Super League will earn more, it is only fair that they would need to pay greater contributions to the lower levels of the pyramid. The same way that globalisation needs to be made more egalitarian to reduce inequality and provide more opportunities for more people by having big multinational corporations pay their fair share of taxes, big clubs should share more of their wealth with the smaller teams. No doubt about that.

Lastly, there is the fear that the Super League would be played on weekends. Even this would not be the end of national football. Playing times could be organised to avoid overlaps and seek reasonable distributions between mid-week and end of the week matches. The positive aspect is that Super League fans could visit other European cities over the weekend. This would help foster European integration. But perhaps this is the reason why English fans (even from the top clubs) are the most hostile to the creation of a Super League. “Methodological nationalism” is there entrenched. What a pity. Because Chelsea fans could have their “cold nights in Stoke”, but also the chance to visit the (new) Bernabéu often, which they have never done before (can you believe it!).

Unfortunately, they will not do it tonight either because of covid-19. I hope Real Madrid wins and revenges the 1971 and 1998 defeats in the Cup Winners Cup and the Super Cup finals (it is rare for Madrid to lose a European final). But above all, I hope it is a great match, y que gane el mejor.

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Miguel Otero Iglesias

Senior Analyst, International Political Economy, Elcano Royal Institute. Also at IE University & ESSCA School of Management