In 2008, a wealthy, soccer-loving gentleman by the name of Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan — better known now as simply Sheikh Mansour — invested a small portion of his vast fortune to purchase a mediocre English soccer club known as Manchester City.
Man City cost Sheikh Mansour about $293 million, which might seem like a lot, but given that his family is worth an estimated $1 trillion and his portion of that is estimated at $17 billion, it was a little more than tip money. Let’s put it this way: Sheik Mansour owns a boat worth roughly twice what he paid for City.
With the Sheik’s wealth at its disposal, Manchester City was transformed from a team that had won two England first division titles since its founding in 1880 and never qualified for the modern version of UEFA Champions League to one that claimed the Premier League title four times from 2012 to 2019 and qualified for Champions League 10 consecutive times.
So complaining about money’s influence on European soccer is about as late as declaring that rock ‘n roll will corrupt our youth.
The announcement Sunday of the Super League’s formation — an annual competition that effectively would supersede the UEFA Champions League — certainly promised a revolutionary change in the dynamics of European soccer. Those fretting it as an abdication of the “sporting merit” principle, however, missed the whole movie. Sporting merit has not been the guiding principle in the European game for more than two decades. Perhaps it once mattered; if so, it was before any of it was regularly televised in America.
“Sporting merit” now represents merely the annual rearranging of deck chairs that involves — in England’s Premier League, for instance — the promotion of three teams from its Championship competition to the EPL and the demotion of three others to the Championship.
Many fans of the European game long have fetishized the concept of promotion and relegation. Some Americans even have refused to accept Major League Soccer as this nation’s domestic league because it does not involve itself in such a process. Everyone gets their entertainment a little differently, but watching teams celebrating a 17th-place finish in the Premier League because it means “staying up” always has seemed absurd.
With the exception of Leicester City’s astonishing run from promotion in 2014 to longshot Premier League champions in 2016, the promotion/relegation concept has had little impact on the competition for the league title. Since 1996, every Premier League champion save that one was claimed by one of the six English clubs that chose to become founding members of the Super League. In Spain, every La Liga title going back to 2005 has been won by either FC Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid, the three Spanish clubs that jumped on to the Super League train. Super Leaguers AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus have won every Serie A title in Italy going back to 2001.
Where’s all the “sporting merit” in that?
Money has dictated everything that’s transpired in the modern era of world soccer. Every sport avoiding the implementation of a salary cap chooses to be foremost a competition of who can spend the most money wisely. That’s what the U.S. has in baseball, where teams in cities that do not generate abundant local broadcast revenue have far less involvement in championship competition. And it’s what has ruled all the top European soccer leagues for the past 20-plus years.
Real Madrid’s original collection of Galacticos — Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldo, Claude Makelele — was assembled through the club’s combination of wealth and brand appeal. Luis Figo, one of the most prominent members of that group, joined Real for a world-record $72 million transfer fee. He left Real’s fiercest rival, Barcelona. And yet there he was on Monday, bitterly complaining about the “greedy and callous” maneuver to start the Super League.
Sheikh Mansour was neither the only nor the first new Premier League owner to completely alter the chemistry of the club he purchased. Roman Abramovich, who primarily made his billions in the oil business, purchased Chelsea FC in 2003 and invested immediately in the acquisition of such players as Makelele, Joe Cole and Hernan Crespo. Chelsea finished second that season, won the league a year later and has added another four EPL titles and one Champons League trophy.
Although Bayern Munich stood firm against the Super League concept at its formation, let’s not pretend that it hasn’t benefited almost obscenely from its stature and wealth. Although its front office has exhibited some keen soccer sense when locating Alphonso Davies with the Vancouver Whitecaps and reimagining him into a ferocious left back, Bayern has won eight consecutive Bundesliga titles in part by convincing the best players on other German teams to join the heavyweights. Goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, forward Robert Lewandowski and midfielders Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka all began their careers with less glamorous German clubs.
The best soccer players in the world are both rewarded and punished by the system. As Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos said in November, when the Super League was mentioned as a possibility, “We are just puppets of FIFA and UEFA. If there was a players’ union, we would not be playing the Nations League, or Supercopa de Espana in Saudi Arabia. … They don’t think about the players. The Nations League and the Club World Cup are competitions to make as much money as possible at the expense of the players.”
The Super League will expand the demands on the game’s best performers. The top domestic leagues in Europe generally play 38 games. Champions League, for those that reach the final, is a 13-game commitment. And then there are the various domestic cup competitions. Then there are the quadrennial month-long World Cup and Euro tournaments, and the lengthy qualifying procedures for each. Super League will take that Champions League demand and nearly double it.
Everyone will get paid, though. If Super League proves to be as profitable as its founders expect, the best players will continue to strive for positions with the clubs involved. And it is possible that holdouts such as Bayern and Borussia Dortmund will find the allure impossible to disregard.
It is not easy to invent prestige, but the involvement of the established best clubs and best players in the world indicates that the process will not be prolonged. The examples of college football’s BCS championship game and College Football Playoff demonstrate that a championship that even hints at legitimacy will be embraced by those who revere the sport involved.
Hey, if Manchester City can spend its way to the top of the European game, there’s every reason to believe that City and the other Super League founders can buy the affection of the world’s soccer fans.