The dramatic 48-hour rise and fall of the European soccer Super League

Twelve of Europe’s most elite soccer clubs attempted to form their own exclusive league

Today's expression: Shell out
May 10, 2021:

On April 12, twelve of Europe’s most elite soccer clubs announced they would withdraw from the UEFA Champions League and form their own “Super League.” They promised excitement and drama for fans and more money for club owners. They certainly delivered on their promise for excitement and drama, but not in the way they expected. Plus, learn “shell out.”

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An epic fail for the Super League

Lesson summary

Hi there, welcome to Plain English lesson number 362. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and this full lesson can be found online at PlainEnglish.com/362. If it’s your first time here, welcome! Plain English is the best podcast for learning English with current events. Every Monday and Thursday we pick a trending topic or an item in the news to talk about at a bit of a slower pace—and we add a little extra English learning for good measure. Today we’ll talk about the English expression “shell out.” It’s a phrasal verb. And we have a quote of the week.

Today’s lesson topic is the Super League. The Super League was a European soccer league for about two or three days. But boy was it an exciting couple of days! Today, you’ll learn about the dramatic rise and fall of the new soccer league, and we’ll continue the story on Thursday.

The rise and fall of the European Super League

The announcement shook the world of European soccer: Twelve of the continent’s most elite clubs announced they would withdraw from the UEFA Champions League and form their own league, with their own rules, in a deal that would make the club owners a lot richer—and leave less fortunate clubs with fewer opportunities. Six clubs from the English Premier League; three clubs from La Liga in Spain; and three clubs from Italy’s Serie A were part of the deal. Three more were expected to join soon.

In a joint statement issued Sunday, April 12, the 12 clubs promised to “deliver excitement and drama never before seen in football.” And for a fleeting moment, they delivered on that promise. But the drama was off the field, not on it. What happened next was one of the most spectacular failures in the hundred-plus-year history of the modern sports business.

Fans across Europe openly revolted against the Super League, accusing the billionaire club owners of greed at the expense of their beautiful game. Protests erupted outside stadiums, in the streets, on social media, and on sports talk shows. Fans said that European soccer would never be the same, that the proposal would destroy the essence of sporting competition, that they could never watch another game of their favorite clubs. One fan said he would only go to games wearing black, and he would lay a wreath on his seat: it would be like going to a funeral. “It’s a disgrace, an absolute disgrace,” one Arsenal fan screamed, the suffering and anguish evident in his voice, “You’ve got billions as it is and you just want more. You can’t help yourself, can you?” He was speaking for fans across England and Europe.

French president Emmanuel Macron came out publicly against the idea. Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, also opposed it, going so far as to say that he might propose legislation to outlaw the Super League. Newspapers featured the story on the front and back pages for days. It dominated sports television programs. In the most devastating critique of all, fans and journalists alike accused the Super League of Americanizing European soccer.

What could possibly be so bad?

To understand, it’s helpful to know a little background about how European soccer is organized, and especially how it’s different from the American and Canadian sports leagues. Each country in Europe has a series of national leagues of clubs. The top leagues feature the best teams and get the most money. The English Premier League, La Liga in Spain, Ligue 1 in France. The games are played between teams in the same country, primarily on the weekends.

At the same time, there is a continent-wide competition called the Champions League. A small number of the very best teams from each country are invited each year to compete in the Champions League, and these games are played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. This is where the best competition takes place: the best teams from England face the best teams from Germany; the best from Spain can play the best from Italy, and so on.

Both systems—the country leagues and the Champions League—feature a meritocratic system called promotion and relegation. In country leagues, if teams in the top levels don’t play well, they can be relegated to a lower-quality league, and the best teams from that lower-level league can be promoted to the top league. The lower-level leagues come with less sponsorship and TV revenue, so teams fight to stay in the top league. Likewise in the Champions League, only the top three or four teams from each country are invited to play in the prestigious Europe-wide competitions the next year.

This is great for drama, excitement, and competition. It’s less great for the fortunes of the team owners. The obvious reason is that teams run the risk of being excluded from the Champions League if they don’t play well enough in their country leagues. This happened in 2014, when Manchester United, possibly the most prestigious sports brand in the world, played badly in the English Premier League, and was not invited to compete in the Champions League the next year. This was a major financial loss to Manchester United: tens of millions of dollars.

There’s another reason team owners don’t love this system. If they want to protect their spot in the highest divisions in their countries, and if they want to protect their spot in the Champions League, they have to spend money on their teams. They have to shell out for the high salaries of the best players. And this is where the European system differs from the North American system.

In the American and Canadian football, soccer, baseball, hockey, and basketball leagues, there’s a fixed number of franchises playing at the top level. There’s no possibility that the New England Patriots of football or the Los Angeles Dodgers of baseball would be relegated to a lower league. American sports leagues are also much more closely-knit: the rich teams share revenue with the poor teams, they fairly distribute new talent to all teams, and many of them place a cap on the amount any team can spend on player salaries.

All that adds up to two things: sports team owners in America and Canada make money hand over fist, and team owners don’t necessarily mind fielding a losing team year after year, since they know they’ll make money either way. Contrast that with the more ruthless meritocratic system in Europe: there’s no limit on player salaries, teams can lose their lucrative position any time they don’t play well. And, not surprisingly, the club owners in Europe (as rich as they are) don’t actually make a lot of money from their clubs.

The Super League set out to change that. The owners of 12 clubs wanted to create a new league where there was no possibility they would be relegated. These clubs have some of the biggest brands and fan bases in worldwide soccer. By forming a new league, they would be able to negotiate lucrative TV rights to the best games between the most high-profile teams. The clubs on the outside looking in would be shut out of the opportunity to play Man United or Real Madrid, and all the associated TV and gate revenue.

Let’s just say it didn’t work out as intended. On Thursday’s lesson, we’ll talk about how a public revolt caused the Super League plans to collapse after just two days.

A dramatic own-goal

Talk about an own-goal. An own-goal is when a player accidentally kicks the ball in his team’s own goal, scoring for the other team. And that is exactly what happened here. The teams that wanted to break away wanted to weaken the UEFA Champions League, but they just hurt themselves and, if anything, strengthened the Champions League.

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Expression: Shell out