The Rise and Fall of The Super League
It was Dennis Bergkamp. More specifically, this goal:
I was fourteen. The World Cup was in France. England and Argentina had played one of the best matches I think I've ever seen- going at it hammer and tongs for ninety minutes plus the thirty minutes of sudden death overtime. (Which they should absolutely bring back!) Argentina had a man sent off. England had David Beckham sent off and it all came down to penalties and it ended as it inevitably did: England lost on penalties.
At the time, European soccer viewing opportunities in America were few and far between. You could random La Liga matches on ESPN mid-week, and if you had Fox Soccer you could get more matches. (I seem to remember watching a random match between Aston Villa and Middlesborough at some point in high school.) But the ability to actually sit in America and watch a decent majority of one team's games? Pretty much impossible for the casual viewer.
Everyone in high school at the time loved Manchester United, mainly because of David Beckham. (A lot of them developed a newfound love for Real Madrid when he went there, some stayed loyal to ManU.) So I figured, why not be slightly off-beat and be an Arsenal fan?** Dennis Bergkamp played for them. I liked Dennis Bergkamp. I had an Uncle (still do, in fact) who was an Arsenal fan. It made sense to me and even though up until NBC Sports acquired the US Broadcast rights for the Premier League I didn't really get to watch any matches on a regular basis, I would faithfully check the Premier League tables on the BBC to see where they were. I remember the Invincibles run and reading all the articles I could about it. I remember being fascinated that Highbury had been converted into flats and secretly wishing I could afford to rent one.*
I can't say I've invested decades of time and love into Arsenal. There are fans who have spent generations watching the team through thick and thin. There are fans who are members of supporters groups and travel to every game. But I've got Arsenal swag. I've got a jersey. I've spent money on their website and I watch and listen to games when I can- and the past week has been really fucking strange.
So, as all the world knows by now: 12 clubs announced they were breaking away to "form a new competition." They had financial backing from JP Morgan. They were going to be a closed shop, mid-week competition in addition to domestic leagues- fifteen members would not be subject to relegation and five other clubs would be "invited to participate" I'm assuming on a yearly basis. The clubs in question: AC Milan, Inter, Juventus, Liverpool, Man City, Man U, Athletic Madrid, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Tottenham, and Arsenal.
My initial reaction (as an Arsenal fan) was: "Dear Lord, why would anyone want to watch that?" Arsenal- much like Iowa football- and occasionally basketball- can be a deeply frustrating team to watch and they had just come off of a frankly turgid 1-1 draw with relegation bound Fulham. I can't imagine the experience of watching them being vaporized by Barcelona or Juventus on a semi-regular basis for the rest of time.
Right off the bat though, there was a massive backlash- and some curious omissions. Both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund- probably thanks to Germany's ownership rules- declined to participate. PSG also took a pass. So did Benfica. Ajax (which has 5 European titles) didn't get an invite.
The outlines and motivations of this seemed pretty clear. A lot of the big clubs are carrying a lot of debt coming out of COVID-- this was a way out of it for them. For the Premier League with Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal all being owned by Americans-- it seems that the NFL-ization of football was also a perk that must have appealed to the owners even if it went over like a lead balloon with literally everyone else.
The timing on this was despicable. I doubt there are many clubs on any level out there that aren't feeling the pinch due to COVID. It's time to support and help each other out and get fans back into stadiums to get back to normal as quickly as possible.
The lack of promotion/relegation was really what killed this. I know it's an anathema to American professional sports- but there's also not a single sports league in this country that wouldn't be massively improved by introducing promotion/relegation. Financial success should be tied to performance on the field. Lack of investment or shitty ownership that leads to poor results on the field should lead to less money.
So as a fan of one of these breakaway teams I was left in a curious place: could I support this? Would I support this? And I think my initial reaction was, no, I couldn't- because it would be bad football and from an Arsenal point of view, it would be frankly terrible on multiple levels. There was no way short of a massive cash influx by KSE that they would spend enough over the summer to be even remotely competitive in this mess of a Super League by August- and KSE would have even less motivation to invest in the team's success than they do already. KSE would be making money. The results on the pitch wouldn't really matter and turgidity with flashes of brilliance would be the order of the day.
Arsenal has a genuine shot at a Europa League final and a European Trophy. This would have put paid to all of that. While they've still got work to do, there's enough exciting young talent in the squad (Saka, Smith-Rowe, Pepe, Martinelli) and some good signings (Partey) that the future, while not necessarily bright just yet- holds a lot of promise. Clear out some players, bring in some players you need, and a Top Four finish, and that sweet Champions League money isn't out of the question. Competing for a League title? Seems a little more out of reach, but you can at least see a trajectory where they might get there.
This Super League nonsense would have thrown all of that away.
Faced with at least the possibility that Arsenal would be expelled from the Premier League and certainly not planning to watch the Super League, I started shopping around: in terms of Premier League teams, Leeds United floated to the top of the list. I've got family in Leeds, my Mom grew up in Leeds. The Who made a pretty good album Live At Leeds and Michael Sheen was pretty good as Brian Clough in The Damned United. Seemed like a logical choice.
But if the Big Six were really going to go, that would have meant a loss of income for the Premier League itself- which would have had ramifications further down the Pyramid. While I'll cheer for Nottingham Forest (cool logo) and Sheffield Wednesday to get back to the Premier League, I ultimately settled on Cambridge United (town where I was born)- who if they beat Stevenage this weekend will seal promotion to League One.
I'm just a lonely, individual fan-- but I can choose where to spend my money and which clubs I'm going to spend money on. And until Arsenal is under new ownership, I'm done spending money on them. (It's not like I'm flush with cash, anyway- so it won't amount to much, I'll grant you- but it's the principle of the thing.)
I'd much rather snag a Leeds United scarf or a Cambridge United jersey. Hell, I'd much rather spend my weekend watching Bundesliga games and cheer on Bayer Leverkusen. (Whose Twitter account proved to be a good follow while I watched them, unfortunately, lose to Bayern Munich.) I've got ESPN+, so maybe- as I've said for so many years now- I'll sit down this weekend and take in an MLS game or two.
All of this doesn't solve the fundamental problem. There needs to be a new deal for European football. Whether it's adopting Germany's ownership rules (yes, please) or doing something to increase parity in all the leagues the underlying calculus that leads to this hasn't gone away. Hopefully, reforms are coming. Hopefully, there's a path forward. Hopefully, the fan mobilization that erupted for this can keep pressure on for reforms and use its momentum to tackle racism in football all over Europe. (Also a worthwhile, worthy, and long overdue problem to solve.)
**I didn't realize in high school- and it might not have been the case in high school, I don't know- but there are a lot of Arsenal fans on this side of the pond. I just hadn't really met any at the time.
*Alternative to Highbury: Leyton Orient Flats... I think there's an AirBNB you can rent in one of these blocks-- so hashtag goals.