Remember the Super League? You know, the 12-club power play that was going to revolutionize European football and instead ended within 48 hours amid fan protests, political outrage and public apologies from owners such as Liverpool's John W. Henry?
The three clubs that never officially pulled out -- Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona -- have of course taken their battle to the European Court of Justice (CJEU) and at some point in 2023, we'll have a final verdict to go with the preliminary opinion that was issued in December. While we wait for the decision on whether clubs can organise their own European competitions without prior approval from UEFA or whether the threat of UEFA sanctions violates EU competition law, others have been busy on their behalf. Specifically, a company called A22 Sports Management that, according to its rather spartan website, was formed to assist in the creation of a European Super League.
If last time around the Super League used the stick approach -- you'll recall Real Madrid president Florentino Perez effectively presenting it as a done deal and Andrea Agnelli, at the time president of both Juventus and the European Club Association (ECA) as well as a UEFA executive committee member, ghosting UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin -- this time around, it's all about the carrot.
A22 Sports is all about "dialogue" -- a "European Football Dialogue" as it calls it (its caps, not mine) -- and as such, it has spoken to "nearly 50 European clubs and stakeholders" and the "vast majority" of them agree that the foundation of European football is under threat and it is time for a change. Based off that feedback, it developed 10 principles that should guide a European football league.
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It's worth noting we don't know who those "nearly 50 European clubs and stakeholders" are: heck, they could be akin to George Santos' career at Goldman Sachs. Nor do we know why, if they were so close to 50, they stopped at "nearly 50," but frankly, it doesn't really matter because with two notable exceptions -- club-run competitions and a ton more European games -- there is very little in those 10 principles that anyone would disagree with.
In fact, the 10 principles are so broad and obvious that this reads like one of those political manifestos in which a politician says their plan is to improve education, balance the budget, lower crime, increase the minimum wage, protect the environment, limit unnecessary regulation and cut taxes all at once. Most are going to nod along in agreement with the goals; where you run into problems is how you get to those goals.
Let's take a look, shall we?
1. Broad-based and meritocratic competitions
The company wants an "open, multi-divisional competition" with 60 to 80 teams, which clubs would have to qualify for each year on merit. It's a big departure from the original Super League plan, which had 20 teams, 15 of which were "founding members" and automatically qualified each year, which, I guess, is a good thing. (More teams involved means fewer left behind.)
A22 doesn't explain what "multi-divisional" means, which isn't helpful, but you assume it's some kind of tiered system with promotion/relegation from a Champions League equivalent to a Europa League equivalent, otherwise it's really no different from what we have now, with teams needing to qualifying each year via domestic competitions.
2. Domestic tournaments: the foundation of football
Here the company reassures us that domestic leagues such as the Premier League and LaLiga are really, really important. This is hardly controversial, although as we'll see in a minute, it's possibly contradictory.
3. Improve competitiveness with stable and sustainable resources
This one is all about money. Having "strictly enforced" financial sustainability rules -- the company doesn't say what they are, but presumably they're along the lines of UEFA's rules, only better, whichever way you choose to define it -- and more stable revenues by ... wait for it ... playing a minimum of 14 guaranteed European matches each season.
This, by the way, is one of only two things in the manifesto that deviates significantly from the status quo, with teams in European competitions having a minimum of six guaranteed matches. A22 doesn't get into formats, but a "minimum of 14 matches" sounds an awful lot like groups of eight where you play everybody in your group home and away. And it's the basic, blunt instrument of "if you play more games, you make more money," which is the sort of thing a child might say.
This is problematic on two levels. First, it kind of makes for a long, boring competition and ignores the fact that part of the Champions League appeal, for example, relies on scarcity. Second, if you have 14 guaranteed group games, not to mention the knockout stage later, you're going to need 14 midweek dates in which to do it. And that means gutting your domestic competitions by eliminating domestic cups, or by reducing the number of teams and fixtures in each league.
Fun fact: once you exclude international dates, there are only 13 midweeks available between mid-August and mid-December, so this point kind of directly contradicts the one before, and the one after ...
4. Player health must be at the centre of the game
That's right. We don't want to overwork the players, which is why, they write, "the number of European club competition match days should not be increased beyond those in currently planned competition calendars."
Two issues spring to mind here. First, there are currently 15 competition matchdays -- 17 if you want to include the qualifying playoffs. (If you include matchdays from qualifying rounds of European competition, you can add another eight, taking you to 25, but that would mean starting the tournament in June, which isn't great for player welfare. If everybody plays a minimum of 14 games, it leaves you no real space for meaningful knockouts.
Second, it's not the number of matchdays that can be hazardous to a player's health: it's the number of matches without recovery time. You're going from 50% of players in the Champions League playing six games and 75% playing eight games to 100% of the players playing a "minimum of 14 games."
This feels like a massive breakdown in logic, a bit like the Itchy and Scratchy focus group.
5. Club-run competitions with transparent, well-enforced financial stability rules
Yup, everybody says they love transparency and well-enforced rules, which, let's face it, to many is code for UEFA didn't do enough to punish Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain when it had the chance. What's not clear is why a club-run competition would do a better job of this than UEFA, which isn't "club-run" but is an elected body with club representatives on its executive committee.
But this isn't really about the "financial stability rules" and "spending based on resources generated," not on "competition-distorting capital injections" -- it's about being club-run and club-controlled. And it's about having even more say than they do now in how revenue gets distributed, enabling the bigger clubs to keep an even greater slice of the pie.
6. The world's best football competition
This must be the aspiration, A22 Sports says. I bet this one was very hard to agree on ... not.
7. Improved fan experience
The company astutely points out that football is the "people's game" and the "fan experience" is paramount. Again, this is nothing new and not something anybody in their right mind would disagree with, not least because a happy fan is a spending fan.
8. Develop and finance women's football
A22 Sports says the women's game should be "centre stage" alongside the "men's competitions." What this means in practical terms is anyone's guess, but sure, this isn't something anybody will disagree with.
9. Significant increase in solidarity
Basically this is where the company says it will give more money to everybody who misses out on the new tournaments, which sure: anybody can promise. What rankles a bit here is that the company is somewhat sneaky, suggesting that a minimum of €400 million per year would go to "non-participating clubs, social causes and investment in grass roots" and that this is "more than two times the contribution from existing European club competitions." Except, assuming this document from UEFA isn't made up, it's not quite true.
Yes, European competitions set aside €140m in solidarity payments for non-participating clubs, and that's less than half the €400m the company talks about, but another €105m goes to clubs eliminated in the qualifiers (who also don't participate). And 6.5% of the net revenue (€189.8m) is retained by UEFA and "reserved for European football," going towards grassroots schemes and development projects. Plus, there's another €10m to help fund the prize money for the UEFA Women's Champions League.
So that's already some €445m. Oh, and there are 96 clubs who participate in UEFA's three competitions, versus "60 to 80" in the A22 scheme. So that's another 16-36 clubs who actually get prize money and therefore don't need the solidarity payments, which means the A22 pot of €400m needs to be stretched even further to cover more clubs.
10. Respect for European Union law and values
OK, so I guess this means they're not going to break the law? That's good to know. Even though less than half of UEFA's 55 member nations are actually a part of the European Union, it's nice to hear A22 Sports plans on respecting laws and values rather than turning into some kind of rogue Nietzschean anarcho-entity.
If the point of the A22 manifesto was to make it appear non-threatening, cuddly and mainstream, then mission accomplished. For the most part, these are nice, reasonable principles to follow (so nice and reasonable that most are already stated UEFA principles too).
If it was to introduce new ideas, the company might want to figure out how to do so without contradicting itself, because it doesn't take a genius to figure out that a minimum of 14 European games guaranteed for "60-80" clubs is going to wreak havoc with two of the other sacrosanct principles: player welfare and the centrality of domestic leagues.
There's no point getting too worked up about this in any case, because what really will move the needle -- or won't -- will be the European Court of Justice's ruling. And for that, we need to wait.