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This was the week that greed finally lost on the scoreboard

John Romano | The war over a proposed European super league for soccer had reverberations around the world.
The European soccer scandal dominated the headlines this week.
The European soccer scandal dominated the headlines this week. [ Screenshots ]
Published Apr. 23, 2021

Like most upsets, you never saw this one coming. One day, greed and arrogance were in complete control and then, somehow, tradition and integrity came out on top. What are the odds?

I’m talking, of course, of the great European soccer war that was launched, fought and surrendered in about 48 hours. And if you’re thinking this faraway story of vaguely familiar teams has no relevance to American sports, then you’ve missed the point.

This was a universal tale of pride and comeuppance. The backdrop may have involved distant locales, but it had familiar characters and some very American themes. And by the time it was all over, Buccaneers co-owner Joel Glazer and Red Sox owner John Henry were forced to nakedly apologize to the fans of their billion-dollar British soccer franchises.

So what happened?

In the broadest terms, the owners of some of the largest teams in Europe decided they were bigger than the sport. They wanted to ditch the much-beloved and romanticized system of relegation that makes every team earn its place annually in the most prestigious leagues and theoretically gives low-level teams a shot at the big time, and instead form a super league that would forever guarantee the big boys a seat at the table and, presumably, a much heftier chunk of the financial pie.

A protest banner against the once proposed Super League is seen outside Liverpool's Anfield Stadium. The aborted plan to create a breakaway league with 12 of the biggest clubs in European soccer was perhaps the most egregious example of a sporting venture that quickly fell flat on its face.
A protest banner against the once proposed Super League is seen outside Liverpool's Anfield Stadium. The aborted plan to create a breakaway league with 12 of the biggest clubs in European soccer was perhaps the most egregious example of a sporting venture that quickly fell flat on its face. [ JON SUPER | Associated Press ]

To be fair, this wasn’t a new idea. Variations of this concept have been around for ages and, in the right configuration, might actually benefit the greater good. The teams would all remain in their domestic leagues, but would replace the current European-wide Champions League with a super group concept that promised more high-profile matches in the middle of the week.

To put it in more familiar terms, it could create a system that would be akin to college football teams such as Florida and Ohio State routinely meeting in the regular season without jeopardizing the Big Ten or SEC schedules.

And if a super league goosed fan interest, increased television revenues and spread the profits around the continent, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, would it?

The problem is there was no sense that this was done for the greater good. It looked secretive, selfish and utterly tone deaf. The rollout wasn’t just botched, it almost looked sabotaged. Instead of getting as many teams and personalities onboard ahead of time, rampant rumors forced them to break the news on a Sunday night as if it were a new bobblehead promotion.

A “hare-brained money-grubbing scheme” the Daily Telegraph in London called it. The president of the Union of European Football Associations called the team owners behind the plan “snakes” and “liars.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested dropping a “legislative bomb” on the offenders.

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The Glazer brothers figured prominently in the Daily Mirror's coverage of the collapse of soccer's proposed Super League.
The Glazer brothers figured prominently in the Daily Mirror's coverage of the collapse of soccer's proposed Super League. [ Screenshot ]

The Glazer family, which purchased Manchester United in 2005 and were among the leaders of the super league plan, were high-profile targets of scorn, particularly from former Manchester United captain and Sky Sports commentator Gary Neville.

“They are scavengers and need booting out of this football club and booting out of this country,” Neville said.

None of the political or media complaints compared, however, to the outrage of everyday soccer fans who literally took to the streets outside of stadiums. Even fans of the big-time teams that stood to benefit from the plan were turned off by the seeming lack of appreciation for the legacies and principles involved.

The players themselves seemed caught off-guard and were immediately faced with a not-too-subtle threat of being banned from their national teams if they went along with the super league plan.

And the most remarkable thing? A dozen billionaire owners apparently did not anticipate the backlash.

Chelsea and Manchester City, two of the six British teams involved, were the first to back out. By the end of the second day, the other four British teams had also retreated. Henry apologized to Liverpool supporters in a video, and Joel Glazer later issued an open letter to fans.

“In seeking to create a more stable foundation for the game, we failed to show enough respect for its deep-rooted traditions — promotion, relegations, the pyramid — and for that we are sorry,” Glazer wrote. “This is the world’s greatest football club and we apologize unreservedly for the unrest caused during these past few days.”

Tottenham fans stage a Super League protest ahead of the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton in London on Wednesday.
Tottenham fans stage a Super League protest ahead of the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton in London on Wednesday. [ CLIVE ROSE | AP ]

Even after the collapse of the plan, the prime minister said the government would continue moving ahead with a review of ownership structures, leaving open the possibility of following the German model that makes teams more of a public institution through fan ownership.

At this point, that just seems like vindictive posturing. The protestors won, and now seem intent on making the renegade owners pay. That may have a whiff of populace appeal, but it ignores the reality of the economics involved.

Instead, this should be a feel-good story for the little guy. Foreign investors have been purchasing European soccer clubs for the past 20 years, and the disconnect between local teams and management has been growing wider.

In this case, the common rabble finally fought back and won.

No, greed certainly did not die this week, but it was reminded that sometimes tradition matters more.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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