Is football heading for a ‘super league’, its own Kerry Packer-like revolution?

The decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to set aside Manchester City’s European football ban seems to upset some big boys. As Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp mentioned at a virtual press conference on Tuesday (July 14), the ramifications could include a breakaway super league. City’s reprieve hasn’t gone down well with the elite clubs – and in the worst-case scenario, football could witness a Kerry Packer-type revolution.

What was Packer’s revolution?
In 1976, Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer sought the broadcasting rights of the Australian cricket team’s home matches for his Channel Nine network. He approached the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) and offered them A$1.5 million for a three-year deal. The ACB rejected his offer and decided to stay loyal to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). So a furious Packer created his own series in 1977 – World Series Cricket – secretly signing leading players from Australia, England, West Indies, South Africa, and Pakistan, offering them big money. World Series Cricket continued for two seasons and eventually, in 1979, the ACB called a truce and handed over broadcast rights to Packer’s Channel Nine.

So how could football see a Packer moment?
Packer was an individual who took on the establishment, the governing body of Australian cricket. Here in football, it’s a group of 10 elite clubs that could be taking on the governing body of European football, Uefa. If a super league featuring 10 clubs at the top of the pyramid becomes a reality, then like Packer’s World Series Cricket, it will create its own order, making Uefa’s control peripheral.
But what is different in this new situation compared to the Packer situation in Australia?
Packer fought to establish a new order, rolling over the old. He wanted to revolutionise cricket and its coverage, which he did. Here, elite football clubs appear to be united to actually retain the old order so that their aristocracy is maintained, and ‘outsiders’ like Manchester City don’t upset the established order or hierarchy.

And which are the clubs that could form the elite group?
Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Juventus, and two more clubs – Ajax, Chelsea, and Inter Milan are the likely contenders.These clubs form the game’s aristocracy, the ones that sit at the high table of European football. It is alleged that they want to keep a nouveau riche club like City out of the elite circle — and that they fear that state-owned clubs (City are Abu Dhabi-owned), which have immense spending power, can upset their dominance on and off the pitch.

The elite group is said to be behind Uefa’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations that came into force from the 2011-12 season. On the face of it, the very idea of FFP is to ensure that clubs balance their books and don’t overspend. At the same time, it thwarts free competition, and limits investment.

But is there any proof that the elite clubs want to marginalise City?
In March this year, nine Premier League clubs including United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea reportedly wrote to the CAS, urging that City shouldn’t be allowed to play in European competitions until a judgment on their appeal was passed.

Following the CAS order that overturned City’s ban, La Liga (Spanish League) president Javier Tebas told reporters: “We have to reassess whether the CAS is the appropriate body to which to appeal institutional decisions in football. Switzerland is a country with a great history of arbitration, the CAS is not up to standard.”

And Klopp described it as “not a good day for football”, adding: “If you start doing that, nobody has to care anymore and the richest people or countries can do what they want.

“It will make the competition really difficult and I think that would lead automatically to a kind of world super league with like 10 clubs and it would depend on who owns the clubs and not the names of the clubs.”

Spurs manager Jose Mourinho called the decision “disgraceful” during a press conference. It would be interesting to see if the elite group puts pressure on Uefa to appeal against the CAS verdict before a Swiss court.

How could a super league work, if it does come to that?
A plan is already afoot to restructure the Champions League after 2024 to secure permanent participation of the elite clubs in the tournament. They will be in Europe’s elite competition irrespective of how they fare in their respective domestic leagues. A top-four finish will not be mandatory if the restructuring of the Champions League takes place.

Securing a Champions League spot guarantees additional revenue — and although Uefa has legislation to protect domestic top tiers until 2024, the CAS verdict to partly exonerate City might trigger a breakaway big push.

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Will a super league be sustainable?
Since their Abu Dhabi takeover in 2008, City have grown, success-wise, rapidly. Four Premier League titles in the last decade, including a 100-point triumph, attest to their rapid rise.

And yet, City barely have any global fan following. In football, pedigree/history and fan base usually sit cheek-by-jowl. The elite group of clubs arguably covers more than half the game’s fan base. So, marketing the league should not be a problem, and broadcasters and sponsors might queue up to have a slice of the pie.

The super league, if it happens, will have football’s royalty and that might even make it the game’s mainstream.

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