On April 18, 2021, football was rocked to its very core. Amidst the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, twelve of Europe’s leading football clubs suddenly announced their intention to form a new, breakaway continental competition in a move that would shock the world, giving birth to the deeply controversial and ill-fated European Super League. England’s traditional ‘Big Six,’ comprised Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Chelsea, along with six footballing giants from Spain and Italy.
The twelve teams dramatically renounced their membership of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), and became the founding members of the new, mid-week competition. The ‘founding clubs’ would become permanent members of the league, guaranteeing them qualification for each iteration, with just five spaces for clubs outside of this select group to qualify each year. Such a move not only guaranteed founding clubs a spot each season, but it also constituted a guarantee of revenue for the clubs, removing the perennial jeopardy associated with qualifying for financially incentivised European competition.
In an environment where some of the biggest names in football were beginning to falter on the European stage and finances were becoming increasingly stretched, the founding of the Super League was a strategic move to pull up the drawbridge, and consolidate footballing and financial power in the hands of the established elite, permanently casting twelve clubs as football’s everlasting nobility; never to be challenged, never to be toppled. The European Super League would be a semi-closed shop, devoid of the principles of sporting merit and fair competition; an exercise in commercialism, greed and self-interest. What was there not to love?
As it turns out, a lot. Rumours began to circulate about the impending announcement; vehement repulsion of the entire footballing community was clear, and people swiftly saw that this would be something to benefit the whole of football. The scheme was identified as a blatant cash-grab by a self-defined elite who all wanted a bigger slice of the financial pie at the expense of the rest.
The wider ramifications were soon realised, with grave fears about the potentially catastrophic impact such a venture would have on the footballing pyramid, domestic competition, and local clubs. Condemnation came thick and fast. The Premier League gave a scathing response, claiming the Super League would “destroy the dream that a team may climb to the top and play against the best.” UEFA were equally excoriating, calling out the “cynical project founded on the self-interest of a few clubs,” and warning of significant repercussions for the perpetrators. Most importantly, UEFA’s statement concluded with a rallying call for “all lovers of football to join in fighting against such a project.” Further condemnation came from politicians, broadcasters, and influential TV pundits, with Gary Neville’s impassioned rant live on Sky Sports, in which he labelled the project a “criminal act,” proving to be a catalyst for the remarkable resistance and rebellion which followed.
The decision to execute such a plan against a backdrop of COVID-enforced, empty-stadium football was no coincidence. This calculated move, shrouded in secrecy and disloyalty, attempted to limit any potential backlash, assuming that football supporters would stay confined to their homes without putting up a fight. How wrong they were.
As the official press-release finally dropped late on the Sunday night, fans began to organise, contemplating how they could force the collapse of the fledgling competition before it had even begun. Banners quickly appeared outside stadiums, fans labelled their own clubs ‘traitors,’ and rival supporters banded together to ensure the project’s failure. Angry fans began marching stadiums and demanding their clubs withdraw; voicing their fury in what had rapidly become football’s existential crisis. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Chelsea supporters arrived in their thousands to protest at Stamford Bridge, preventing the club’s coach from entering the stadium complex, mirroring scenes in Leeds. Blindsided managers and players began to voice their concern, joining the growing resistance.
The strength of feeling was clear to see. Whatever the perpetrators thought the reaction might have been, they certainly didn’t expect the outpour of emotion, displays of anger, and outright rebellion that had occurred in the hours and days after the announcement. The house of cards started to fall, quickly. One by one, the sinful English teams each withdrew, leaving the competition in tatters little more than 48 hours after its launch. A gross underestimation of the strength of feeling, combined with a disastrous and ill-conceived launch-strategy, left the founding members alienated in their own country. They were distrusted by fellow clubs, hated by their fans, and without the guaranteed income they had desired. Protests continued following the collapse of the project. Protestors had decided that these owners’ retched display of greed and self-interest should be their last act, with Super League becoming a definitive BC/AD moment in English football.
When confronted with an existential crisis in their own game, football fans were instrumental in standing up for what they believed in: principles of sporting merit, open competition, trust, and collective-interest. What began as an exercise in self-interest and greed, quickly transformed into a demonstration of who truly holds the power in English football. In an era where football is more commercial than ever before, and the significance of the fan is becoming increasingly diminished, the failed Super League project of 2021 serves as a stark reminder of the power of resistance. Despite further threats still looming large, football remains the people’s game – for now.
By Adam Jennings