Football: English Premier League clubs pull out of European Super League plan after outcry

Football fans demonstrate against the proposed European Super League outside of Stamford Bridge football stadium, on April 20, 2021.
Football fans demonstrate against the proposed European Super League outside of Stamford Bridge football stadium, on April 20, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

MANCHESTER (BLOOMBERG) – Europe’s rebel soccer league crumbled just 48 hours after a dozen of the continent’s elite teams triggered an outcry from the sport’s authorities, politicians and fans with their controversial plan.

The six English clubs involved all pulled out of the project late on Tuesday (April 20), with Manchester United saying it had "listened carefully to the reaction from our fans, the UK government and other key stakeholders".

Manchester City had been the first to go, while a person familiar with the matter said Chelsea was withdrawing amid a protest from fans at its London stadium. Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool also followed.

The departure of half the teams has all but sunk the Super League following a barrage of opposition from within the football world and outside it.

Executives behind the plan, backed by US bank JPMorgan Chase with four billion euros (S$6.4 billion), were holding crisis talks in an attempt to salvage their proposed tournament, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

The planned breakaway kicked off a battle with governing body Uefa and national leagues, and prompted interventions from leaders including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

While ostensibly over plans to take the cream from Europe’s most prestigious competition – the Champions League – the fight is also about control of a sport whose finances have been hammered by the pandemic, and the biggest clubs want more money.

Initially, six teams from England, three from Italy and three from Spain were involved in the proposal for a new league starting in August. They all have broad fanbases, but also significant debts and are seeking to juice broadcasting rights and underpin revenue after a year spent playing in empty stadiums.

Uefa called the new league “cynical” and is pushing ahead with plans for a revamped version of the Champions League. On Monday, the organisation was exploring a six billion-euro financing proposal from a British-based asset manager to finance it – and respond to the Super League.

Yet, it may be the wider anger that pushed some clubs to rethink.

Liverpool team captain Jordan Henderson said on Twitter that “we don’t like it and we don’t want it to happen".

There was also a revolt among high-profile players and coaches at other clubs.

At Chelsea, which is owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, hundreds of fans gathered at a game on Tuesday evening to protest, chanting “we want our Chelsea back.”

The match was delayed by 15 minutes when the team bus could not get past the protesters.

Meanwhile at Manchester United, the club announced that its vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, was set to step down. Woodward, a lightning rod for fans’ discontentment with the club in recent years, was a key advocate of the Super League. It was followed by a statement saying the club had withdrawn.

Defecting dozen

The 12 renegade clubs said on Monday they intended to sign up another three permanent members and offer places to five more teams each season. The 20 teams would play each other midweek as an alternative to the Champions League.

What irked opponents was the closed-shop nature of the plan, with the 15 permanent clubs never having to face failure to qualify for the tournament. The Champions League is open to the top clubs in each country, though a bad season can mean a big team can still miss out.

The Super League may also be unravelling outside England. Spanish clubs Atletico Madrid and Barcelona may now also be in favour of withdrawing, the Telegraph reported.

Earlier in the day, French club Paris Saint-Germain made it clear that it would not be joining the new competition. Chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi said that “football is a game for everyone.”

Manchester United’s shares fell more than 7 per cent to their lowest level since March 12 and Juventus Football Club’s US-traded stock dropped 5 per cent in afternoon trading in New York, following reports the Super League was on the verge of collapse.

Chelsea faces some legal obstacles to withdrawal that will have to be overcome, said the person, who declined to be identified because the plans haven’t yet been publicly announced.

Owner Abramovich has been stung by the universally negative reaction, and is concerned that the Super League could overshadow work the club has carried out to combat racism and antisemitism and to help communities hit by the pandemic. Chelsea officials were not immediately available for comment.

“Roman Abramovich has seen the weight of the fans’ opinion,” said Kieran Maguire, a lecturer in soccer finance at Liverpool University.

“He’s always enjoyed being adored by the fans and he must feel that by pulling out he’s showing solidarity with them.”