European Super League: A 'nonsense idea' but is it still possible without English clubs?

By Simon StoneBBC Sport
Chelsea fans protest against the European Super League
Chelsea fans protested against their involvement in the European Super League outside Stamford Bridge

Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli avoided the question when asked if he could envisage a Super League without English clubs.

"I haven't heard the words Super League as much as I have done today," he said, speaking at the FT Business of Football Conference in London.

The answer felt like it was part of a strategy. The unravelling of the European Super League (ESL) project last April, barely 48 hours after it was launched, was so quick, amid so much opposition, it felt like it could never come back.

On Wednesday, former England and Manchester United defender Gary Neville warned ESL had "not gone away".

Then on Thursday morning, Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin spoke of "a nonsense idea" launched in the middle of a pandemic being launched again "in a war". "They must live in a parallel world," he added.

An hour later, La Liga president Javier Tebas spoke of a recent meeting between Agnelli, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez and Barcelona counterpart Joan Laporta at the Italian's home. If the trio denied it, said Tebas, they were lying, before adding: "They lie more than Putin."

Agnelli said he wasn't willing to take questions about Tebas' comments when he was the final speaker at the conference on Friday. But his avoidance of the topic merely heightened a feeling that has been obvious to anyone who has covered the two days, Neville is right, ESL is not dead.

All eyes on European Court of Justice

A 12-team European Super league, featuring six Premier League clubs, was announced last year but all of the sides involved, except for Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona, pulled out after widespread protests from fans, politicians and governing bodies.

Those three sides still in favour have taken the matter to the courts and the case is set to go to the European Court of Justice for a ruling on whether Uefa's control of European football constitutes a monopoly, in breach of competition law.

It is clear Angelli and those pushing the ESL concept are relying on a judgement in their favour from the European Court of Justice, which might not come until later this year at the earliest - and more likely sometime in 2023.

The desire is clear. They want to know if one organisation can be, in Agnelli's words, "a regulator, a gatekeeper and a commercial operator". If the answer is yes, even those talking up ESL privately accept they will have nowhere to go.

And if they are right, that will potentially open the door to a European Super League version two.

An ESL without the English

Speaking at the same conference, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters was quite clear.

After all, he lived through the 48 hours of shock, revulsion, protest and climbdown. In sporting politics terms, it was one of the most amazing periods anyone could remember. Everyone had a view, including Prince William. Few opinions were positive.

"I don't worry about it," said Masters. "The ESL was over and done with in 48 hours in this country. I have never known football so united. The idea defeated itself. It was a poorly executed, poor idea."

That strength of opposition is what makes it so difficult to conceive of English clubs joining anything resembling a second creation of Super League.

Yet, across the continent, the opposition was not so fierce. The feeling among some is that the plan can be resurrected, with tweaks.

Get rid of the idea of ring-fencing a certain number of clubs so their status was permanent, push the elements of the project that would improve the game as it currently exists, specifically the grassroots game.

But there is an acceptance that English clubs, at least at inception, cannot be involved, putting them in the same situation the big German clubs were in last year. Once launched, it is felt, the English would find it far easier to make a case for joining.

So, although Agnelli wouldn't say, BBC Sport has been told by one well-placed source that yes, "ESL can be viable without English representation".

This was endorsed by Tebas, in his assessment of what he was told about the recent meeting at Agnelli's house.

Tebas outlined what he felt the direction of travel would be.

"They are trying to design a model where English clubs are not present," he said. "There will be [representatives from] the other four [major European] leagues. There will be some sort of first division and a second division. As far as I know, national leagues will have access through the second division. Those in the first division, they have direct access because they will never get relegated."

'Non-football project'

Clearly, to those who secured such a speedy and comprehensive victory last time round, the idea of an ESL relaunch is fantasy.

Masters is bolstered by the English reaction. Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin comes to the same conclusion from a wider perspective.

"I am sick and tired of speaking of this non-football project," Cerefin said. "Everybody except them knows it is a nonsense. One of them called me to apologise, then they go again.

"Football is about football players and fans. The fans said they didn't want it. They don't care about fans. They can play their own competition. But if they do, they can't play ours."

Those intent on a Super League reject the 'Swiss Style' Champions League revision about to be launched in 2024 because, they say, it contains too many pointless games.

Yet, in one conversation with a senior football figure with knowledge of the whole European scene, came a view the ESL group may be paying for their own impatience.

The new format is also an expansion. Instead of 32 teams in eight groups of four, the opening phase will be one table of 36 teams.

It is possible, it was suggested, that after a couple of cycles, a 36-team 'table' might prove unwieldy. In that situation, is it possible the decision may come just to split the whole thing into two divisions which, by definition, will have the biggest clubs, with the greatest support - most of whom were the architects of ESL - in the higher league.

The very final question of the whole conference was what competition Agnelli thought Juventus would be playing in five years from now.

"The most premier international competition," he said.

But what will that be?

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