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tara sullivan

Super League organizers took a massive hit, but they may not be done trying

Arsenal fans protested the attempt by team owner Stan Kroenke, an American businessman, to form a Super League with some of his fellow owners.
Arsenal fans protested the attempt by team owner Stan Kroenke, an American businessman, to form a Super League with some of his fellow owners.Justin Setterfield/Getty

The collapse was swift and spectacular, from proposal to extinction in 48 hours. The European Super League was toppled almost as quickly as it was announced, dragged from its greedy perch by the outstretched arms of an outraged public.

How it happened is a story to be relished and repeated, told in the cascade of voices that rose as one, regardless of parochial loyalty or rooting interest. It was an organic and sincere chorus of fans from across the English Premier League, but mostly from the six clubs that tried to pull away. In the north of England, where giants roam in Liverpool, Manchester United, and Manchester City or in London, where they compete at Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham, the boots on the ground marched together.

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They screamed out loud and they scrawled on signs, they gathered in protest and they blocked local roads, they lobbied politicians and they flooded the Internet. They made themselves heard, even by tone-deaf billionaire owners so accustomed to listening to nothing but their cash registers dinging and their profit margins rising, the very men who tried to take the soul of their game and sell it to the highest bidder they could find.

The Super League brain trust, which also included powerhouse clubs AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid, believed it could drop the news of its money grab late on a Sunday night, bear the brunt of the inevitable backlash, and laugh all the way to the bank. To put it in an American context: maybe a few paper bags over heads in a half-empty stadium or some unflattering banners flown by prop planes overhead. Embarrassing, sure. Impactful? Not a chance.

Not this time.

Not this game.

Soccer may be the world’s most popular sport, but it also might be the most personal. Nowhere is that truer than in England, where club ideals are born of the cities and regions that gave rise to its teams. The game itself is built on a beautiful simplicity, a ball and a field and take it from there. And if you want to climb the ranks, just earn your way up. Promotion and relegation are the rules of play, and without them, the very heart of the game goes too.

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When the Super League tried to take that away, giving free passes and special invites to the playoffs for the brand names among them, leaving the generic riffraff in their wake, the rebuke was immediate, stretching from across the pond.

This fans left do doubt when he stood when it came to the proposed Super League.
This fans left do doubt when he stood when it came to the proposed Super League.Clive Rose/Getty

From Ben Horner, founder of the local Chelsea supporter group Boston Blues: “What they were proposing was just so antithetical to everything we love about sports. Sports are merit-based, and closed-circuit competition is something we’re accustomed to here in the US, but it’s fairly unique in that way to the US and Canada. Almost every other sporting set-up in the world has some sort of pyramid structure.

“This is bad for football, full stop. This is bad for the game, writ large, incredibly cheapening and devaluing to competition.”

And from Jeffrey Werner, chairman of the Boston Gooners Arsenal supporters club: “Nobody whose opinion I take seriously was anything other than repulsed by this. That isn’t to say there isn’t a keen recognition that the current system is broken, that FIFA and UEFA are both corruptand that it plays into this. At the same time, it’s almost sacred, the notion of working your way up the ladder.

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“It’s ingrained in European sport. We know it’s difficult to have true Cinderella stories, not with the money differential, but that romance is basically sacred too. They completely disregarded it. When you’re a group of owners already unpopular, to be that tone deaf to the people that are your club is a tremendous mistake.

“And doing it at 10 o’clock at night Europe time on a Sunday — this does not say, ‘We have faith and confidence in our project.’ It says, ‘We know what we’re doing and we’re going to get pilloried for it.’ ”

That they did, retreating back under cover like children chastised for misbehaving. John Henry, head of the Fenway Sports Group that owns Liverpool (and also owner of the Globe), recorded an apology that was equal parts pleading and awkward, a mea culpa of epic proportions.

He was not alone, and he is feeling the same wrath of fandom that his fellow American owners of Arsenal (the Kroenke family of, among other things, Los Angeles Rams fame) and Manchester United (the Glazer family of, among other things, Tampa Bay Bucs fame) are feeling. ESPN reported Monday on a bid to buy Arsenal, and English fans would like nothing better than to welcome local owners.

But this isn’t about the Americanization of football. It’s about the billionaire-ization. That’s why, even if the names at the top do change, there is a gnawing anxiety that the attitude exposed by the debacle won’t. A new revolt won’t be led by the English clubs, not after the beating they took here, but when you hear debt-ridden Real Madrid president Florentino Perez continue to insist the Super League mutineers signed binding contracts and can’t leave, you have to wonder if this idea is truly dead.

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The trial balloon exploded, but if it was floated as a deliberate worst-case scenario, what’s to say the nefarious pilots haven’t gone back to their bunkers to devise a more palatable plan?

“Yes, I am perpetually worried there are going to be continued machinations of this,” said Horner, a 2012 Northeastern grad. “What I do think is English clubs are not going to be the ones to charge forward out of the vanguard. I do think the immediate, swift, and complete backlash against them mattered. Billionaires don’t like looking foolish, and they don’t like looking foolish more than once.”

Many fans were upset with American owners like Stan Kroenke (who owns Arsenal) and the role they played in the creation of the ill-fated Super League.
Many fans were upset with American owners like Stan Kroenke (who owns Arsenal) and the role they played in the creation of the ill-fated Super League.Kirsty O'Connor/Associated Press

“My worry that this is an opening salvo is yes,” agreed Werner, who moved to Boston as a Boston University freshman in 1998 and never left. “Are most people worried? Yes. Do we know what’s going to happen? No. I think they’re on notice they can’t do what they want. But do they care? No.”

They had no choice but to listen once. But stay tuned. Something tells me they’re not done trying.

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Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.