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Frank Dell'Apa | On soccer

At a crossroads: How European soccer’s ‘Super League’ proposal could change the world’s most popular sport

Italy's Andrea Agnelli is chairman of Juventus, one of 12 European soccer clubs threatening to break away from the Champions League.
Italy's Andrea Agnelli is chairman of Juventus, one of 12 European soccer clubs threatening to break away from the Champions League.Salvatore Di Nolfi/Associated Press

The big clubs have the cold cash on their side. Everyone else has the passion.

That is the impression the proposed Super League has left after 12 European clubs announced the proposal Sunday night. There has long been a threat of such a breakaway project, but it has been kept in check by governing bodies such as FIFA, UEFA, the English FA, and Premier League members themselves — and also by long-standing sentiment that the system is universally fair and reasonable.

During the weekend, though, the equilibrium was upset as a group of six English clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham), three Italian (Inter, Juventus, Milan), and three Spanish (Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid) revealed their plans.

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The clash between the Big 12 and those who oppose them is being portrayed as a struggle for heart and soul of football.

It could well be.

The Daily Mail called it “the end of competition as we know it” in domestic and European soccer.

Here are some aspects of how the game works in most of the world:

Soccer organization is based on Open Leagues and a pyramid structure. The foundation of the setup is several thousand amateur and professional clubs, many with long histories of supporting not only soccer, but other sports, as well. European (and South American) clubs field squads in several sports, which are also administered via open leagues.

Unlike franchised leagues in North America (MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL, NHL), there have historically been no barriers to entry to soccer leagues. Advancement to higher tiers of competition is attained on the playing field via promotion and relegation. Each division is annually revitalized as bottom teams fall down a notch and are replaced by top teams from lower divisions. There are no “expansion” teams, since nearly every community is home to at least one club, and anyone is free to start a new one any time. Disgruntled Manchester United supporters established FC United of Manchester, climbing as high as the fifth division. The establishment of a Super League would likely make the climb unattainable.

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Much of Great Britain is composed of cities that saw their glory during the Industrial Revolution, similar to, say, Pawtucket and Worcester. In England, clubs have experienced varying fortunes. Football League clubs below the Premier League might be considered minor league operations, but they are not subject to the whims of a parent organization and, often, they get to challenge larger clubs. In England, both Pawtucket and Worcester would have teams, and they would get their chance to play against the Red Sox. They might even challenge for a title. Leicester City recently won the Premier League and others, such as Brighton & Hove Albion and Burnley, have established themselves in the league.

Among the advantages to Open Leagues, or the Club System, is the opportunity for participation by all. Clubs are set up so that members can choose to form teams in any sport, as well as individual activities, and find an appropriate level of play. If teams are good enough, they will advance. Should they flounder on the playing field, they will simply be relegated to a lower league. But they will rarely go out of existence.

The Premier League might have started a trend toward a Super League when it broke away from the England Football League in 1991. But the Premier League remains subject to governance by the Football League, which was established in 1888. Some of the big clubs bid for more autonomy via last year’s proposed Project Big Picture, which failed to be implemented. The Super League intends to work with FIFA and UEFA, according to a statement from Juventus, but critics believe the traditional governing bodies will become subservient.

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At its best, the proposal would create an entity something like a pumped-up combination of MLB, the NBA and NFL, run by benign dictators who would direct excessive funds to support lower leagues and even grassroots clubs. Every other soccer league would be considered minor league, but they would be afforded security in a paternal manner: the project will ensure “increased financial support for the wider football pyramid,” Juventus’s Andrea Agnelli said in a statement.

Nothing is certain, yet. A statement from the Super League noted: “… at the moment the Company cannot assure that the project will be eventually successfully launched or predict the exact timing of the project.” But with the promise of a $4.2 billion payout to clubs, it will be difficult to imagine the league would not launch.