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Opinion

Creating a fair and competitive European Super League

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Roar Rookie
2nd July, 2021
19

Has enough time passed to talk about a fair and competitive European Super League model yet?

Reports a few months ago of a proposed closed-shop European Super League was met with almost universal disdain from fans of football worldwide. As a fan of many sports, the thing I admire about football (outside of the sport itself on the pitch) is the pyramid league structure that most countries operate with, where good performance is rewarded by promotion, and poor performance is punished by relegation.

This adds a huge degree of competitive tension to many matches and allows teams to find their natural competitive level against teams of similar ability. Give me a tight match against two mediocre teams any day over a 5-0 thrashing between a giant and a lesser credentialled opponent.

The proposed European model lost this pyramid structure and reward for good performance, as the top teams in Europe were protected from missing out on the Champions League if they perform poorly in the previous season’s domestic league, and likewise a lesser team (such as Leicester City or Sevilla) would no longer be rewarded for unexpectedly good league results in the same season.

However, this does not mean the current model in European football and the domestic leagues that underpin them are at their optimised best currently. Bayern Munich, Paris Saint Germain and Juventus have a near mortgage of the domestic league title each season (although it must be noted only one of these teams did indeed win the title in the past season, which was good to see), which renders those leagues pretty boring and non-competitive for many fans.

Neymar

(Photo by Aurelien Meunier – PSG/PSG via Getty Images)

La Liga only fairs a tiny bit better with its three-horse race. The Premier League is in an okay position when it comes to competitive tension. Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and maybe Leicester can jostle over every second Premier League title, with Manchester City looking likely to win every second year themselves moving forward (or worse).

In Scotland, it is Celtic, Rangers or bust, and in Portugal there are three genuine contenders in Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting Lisbon only. Is this predictability what fans want out of their football leagues? I don’t.

The Champions League in the current format fairs little better on a competitive-tension front. The matches from the round of 16 onwards are of course excellent, but the group stages are mostly forgettable. In any given season, even the round of 16 ties usually features one or two total mismatches. The lack of interest in the Champions League group stages is what led to the 12 big clubs going rogue with their proposal in the first place.

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So hopefully people have calmed down regarding the model proposed a few months ago (I’m going to call it ESL 1.0 henceforth) and are ready to discuss a more fair and equitable way of developing a Super League across Europe (I’m going to call this ESL 2.0 henceforth).

Proposal overview
ESL 1.0 proposed that teams would compete in their domestic league as they had always done, as well as a closed-shop European League. In ESL 2.0, I propose that teams compete in either their domestic league, or a European league, but not both.

To do that, three divisions of European football (with 20 teams each) would sit above the domestic leagues in the pyramid across Europe. Promotion and relegation would exist between all three, with teams relegated from Europe division 3 returning to their domestic league each season. The champions and runners-up of all domestic leagues would then play-off at the start of each season for promotion into Europe division 3.

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Europe division 1 – possible teams at first
Bayern Munich
Real Madrid
Manchester City
FC Barcelona
Juventus
Atletico Madrid
Manchester United
PSG
Liverpool
Arsenal
Chelsea
Sevilla
AS Roma
Borussia Dortmund
Tottenham Hotspur
FC Porto
AFC Ajax
Shakhtar Donetsk
Lyon
Napoli

Jan Vertonghen

(Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

How are champions crowned? The top four playoff after a full home-and-away season. One versus four, two versus three over two legs, then a final at a neutral venue.

How are teams relegated? Three teams are automatically relegated to Europe division 2 each season.

Europe division 2 – possible teams at first 
RB Leipzig
Villareal
FC Salzburg
Benfica
Bayer Leverkusen
Inter Milan
Atalanta
Zenit
Basel
Besiktas
Dynamo Kyiv
Sporting Lisbon
Dinamo Zagreb
Lazio
Slavia Prague
FC Copenhagen
Olympiacos
CSKA Moscow
Valencia
AS Monaco

How are champions crowned? First past the post.

How are teams promoted? The top two teams are promoted automatically to Europe division 1 each season.

Teams finishing third to sixth playoff for the final division 1 promotion slot, in the same format as the English Championship.

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How are teams relegated? Three teams are automatically relegated to Europe division 3 each season.

Europe division 3 – possible teams at first
Club Brugge
BSC Young Boys
SC Braga
Schalke 04
Krasnodar
Celtic
Viktoria Plzen
Borussia Monchengladbach
Eintracht Frankfurt
FK Crvena Zvezda
Leicester City
Rangers
AC Milan
Lokomotiv Moskva
Genk
PSV Eindhoven
Marseille
Ludogorets 1945
APOEL FC
Instanbul Basaksehir

Celtic's Australian midfielder Tom Rogic heads the ball.

(Photo: Paul Ellis/Getty Images)

How are champions crowned? First past the post.

How are teams promoted? The top two teams are promoted automatically to Europe division 2. Teams finishing third to sixth playoff for the final Europe division 2 promotion slot, in the same format as the English Championship.

How are teams relegated? Ten teams get relegated from Europe division 3 automatically each season. They are replaced by ten teams from various domestic leagues that win through a European playoff system.

This means that in Europe division 3, only four teams in the middle of the table will neither be up for promotion to Europe division 2 nor relegated to their domestic league. They are safe in mid-table mediocrity for another season. Expect Everton to occupy one of these positions with clockwork regularity in coming years.

Domestic leagues
Below this 60-team Europe league sit all the domestic leagues across Europe. An example of what the English domestic league might look like is as follows:
Wolves
Burnley
Everton
Southampton
West Ham
Leeds United
Aston Villa
Newcastle United
Crystal Palace
Brighton and Hove Albion
Fulham
West Bromwich Albion
Sheffield United
Norwich City
Watford
Brentford
Swansea City
Barnsley
Bournemouth
Reading

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Dominic Calvert-Lewin of Everton

(Photo by Tony McArdle/Everton FC via Getty Images)

I don’t know about you, but that looks like a pretty competitive league to me as compared to what exists now with six contenders and 14 pretenders.

The increase in competitive tension would be more evident in France, Germany and Italy as PSG, Bayern Munich and Juventus vacate their position in their respective domestic leagues for a place in Europe division 1.

Each season would commence with an all-of-Europe playoff series featuring the champions and runners-up of each domestic league fighting it out for one of the ten slots in Europe division 3.

Domestic cup competitions
All teams would continue to compete in their domestic cup competitions regardless of whether their league participation is domestic or European in each season. This would increase the ability for fans to travel to away games against fellow domestic opponents, which would be lost a tad in this proposal.

Europe is however a reasonably small continent with international travel for away matches well established.

European league matches would be played on weekends instead of midweek as per the Champions League currently, so some away fans could indeed make a weekend of it if they so desired.

League cups could change from a straight knockout format to allow for a couple of extra guaranteed domestic match-ups each season.

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Josip Ilicic

(Danilo Di Giovanni/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Easing of fixture congestion
As teams would compete in either a European league or a domestic league, but not both, the fixture calendar would be eased somewhat for teams, which is something that coaches like Jurgen Klopp have been calling for every season.

Teams that regularly compete in Europe would play anywhere from six to 12 less games a season by my calculations.

TV rights payments back to domestic FA organisations
Of course, one stakeholder likely to prevent any such move are the respective governing bodies of each country. Were the big six to vacate the English Premier League, the value of the TV rights of that competition would drop significantly. The possible solution to the likely resistance of ESL 2.0? Money of course.

UEFA should make payments back to all domestic FAs according to players represented in the three European Super League divisions. Across the three divisions, there will be 60 teams.

Each of those 60 teams will need to monitor the match minutes of their squad (which they do for sports science and performance reasons anyway) and provide a list to UEFA of the top 20 players used in each squad each season.

For each of those players, a fee would be paid to each player’s domestic FA according to their nationality (which of course in the case of Lionel Messi would result in a payment back to the Argentinian FA. Likewise Sergio Aguero and other South American players).

Lionel Messi

(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Sixty teams, 20 players per team, 120 payments in total. Make these payments commensurate with a percentage of the TV rights deals attached to ESL 2.0, and all of a sudden you have domestic leagues being adequately rewarded for developing players of sufficient ability to play in one of the top 60 club teams in Europe.

It could of course be 25 or 30 payments per team, or different payment amounts for each European division. I’ll leave it to the accountants to work out the finer details.

An end to the ridiculous wages paid to players
Of course, players would be playing less matches per season, so they would reasonably need to be paid less than the astronomical wages currently floating around Europe. It is high time something is done about this before the bubble bursts.

As much as I love the sport, I resent people getting paid so much money to kick a football around, acknowledging the pressure involved in playing at such a high level.

According to this model, players wages would likely still be significantly higher than most other sports, but lower than they are now. They will play less games, which will allow them to better manage injuries and have a life outside of football, so let’s not let this be a barrier to ESL 2.0.

Conclusion
This model would be a significant step forward in the competitive tension across football in Europe. No more would we have to sit through Manchester City thrashing Burnley 5-0 what seems like every season, with instead every team finding their natural place in the overall pecking order.

Man City would play a 38-game season against the might of Real Madrid and PSG and co, while Burnley would fight it out with the likes of Wolves, Everton and West Ham for the right to enter a European division 3 playoff series, and if successful, start their quest in Europe competition from the foot of the pyramid, to the top if they are good enough.

The big clubs in Europe have in many cases transcended their domestic leagues, and it is time for them to play more regularly against their own kind. The relatively small size of Europe allows for this kind of weekly competition.

Every team in Europe would be rewarded for good performances, and punished for poor performances, which is the cornerstone to the football structure the world over (barring a couple of exceptions of course).

This proposal won’t happen because ESL 1.0 was solely about a money grab from big clubs with no regard for competitive tension and respecting football’s pyramid structure, but don’t let anyone fool you into believing that the current model is the most competitive, interesting and fairest way to structure football in Europe.

Yes, ESL 2.0 throws the tradition of domestic leagues out the window a little bit, but in life, all that is certain is death, taxes and change.

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