In one of the biggest U-turns in footballing history, the European Super League crumbled barely 48 hours after it was first announced. The controversial breakaway competition would have effectively ended the Champions League as we knew it, with the Premier League and other domestic divisions around Europe also potentially subject to revolutionary change. As statements from the 12 rebel clubs started to trickle out from reluctant club media channels, the backlash was near-instantaneous. 

Social media was blanketed by nothing but ESL news, with the fallout reverberating across oceans. It trended globally on Twitter, became a key talking point on American late-night shows, and instigated responses from governments and royalty alike. Here is the tale of how one of the biggest sporting stories of this decade unfolded – and the immediate backlash that sowed the seeds for its eventual demise. 

Neville’s impassioned rant

The story began on Sunday afternoon when a series of leaks set social media alight. It became clear that a massive story was about to break in the world of football, but what wasn’t yet clear was just which teams were likely to be involved in a proposed European Super League. As Super Sunday commenced on Sky Sports, former Manchester United defender Gary Neville was asked to give his thoughts on the ESL: his response lit the touchpaper. 

Neville was scathing in his condemnation of the proposal, especially after news emerged of Manchester United and Liverpool’s involvement in the project as supposed ringleaders. After describing the ESL as a “disgrace”, the story began to really gain traction, until the inevitable statements were put out by all clubs involved. 

In unison, the official club Twitter accounts of Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal all released a joint statement, signed by United’s Joel Glazer, which announced the formation of the ESL, and the timescale for the introduction of such plans. In sporting terms, it was a declaration of war, one which shook the world of football to its very core. You can keep up with all the breaking football news from around the globe right here.

UEFA hits back 

It didn’t take long for the recriminations to truly begin. The following Monday saw all manner of fans and institutions responding to the news, with UEFA jumping straight into action. The governing body, which presides over the Champions League, released a joint statement with each of the major European Leagues, denouncing plans. UEFA’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, regarded the ESL as a “spit in the face” of all football lovers. “As soon as possible they [the clubs] and the players have to be banned from all our competitions”, he added.

Behind the scenes, Ceferin was blunt in his response to the big 12 clubs, stating that they should prepare themselves for an all-out attack. Within his inner circle, Ceferin got to work. He informed board members of the European Club Association, an umbrella group of UEFA consisting of some 250 European clubs. He notified the group that the ESL’s plans would see the value of broadcast deals – both European and domestic – collapse. “Even mafia organisations have some sort of code,” Ceferin stated in an interview last Wednesday.

Political pressure begins to mount

UEFA’s emphatic response was then assisted by government intervention, as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson entered the fray with a strong statement of his own. He argued that the government would seek to block the project if football authorities could not. “If they can’t act we will, we will put everything on the table to prevent this from happening,” Johnson told the UK parliament. 

In Europe, meanwhile, Ceferin sought the support of FIFA President Gianni Infantino, to condemn the move in unison with UEFA. French President Emmanuel Macron also issued a statement condemning the plan, with PSG unwilling to join the rebel 12. For Ceferin, the chief candidates for his ire were Juventus owner Gianni Agnelli and Manchester United Chief Executive Ed Woodward, whom the UEFA boss believed had misled him most. Ceferin described the pair as “snakes” and “liars”, as they had both tacitly intimated their support for Champions League revisions. 

Fans seize back the power 

While institutions coming out in force against the proposals was powerful, it was the vitriolic response of each club’s respective fan bases that shook the footballing establishment.  The public outcry, particularly in Britain, was immediate. Fans hung banners outside their teams’ stadiums, with governing bodies taking to TV and radio to condemn the proposal.

As the new week broke, the acrimony was spreading across the European football landscape. The Premier League held a meeting without its six rebel teams, as the remaining 14 clubs discussed what measures should be taken against the teams that had signed up for the Super League. The first Premier League game to take place since the statements were released on Sunday night was Monday’s fixture between Leeds United and Liverpool. 

A game 17 years in the making was scarcely even a talking point, as events off the pitch dominated the pre/post-match coverage. Late in the afternoon, hundreds of angry supporters surrounded Liverpool’s team bus as it made its way to Leeds United’s Elland Road stadium for a game. Inside the ground, Leeds players wore T-Shirts expressing solidarity with football’s current system.

But arguably, the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of fan reaction was what took place at Stamford Bridge one night later. Chelsea fans came out in force before their game against Brighton to protest against the club’s entry into the European Super League. The fraught atmosphere even saw Petr Cech come out to face the fans, in an attempt to diffuse the situation. 

In the end, the pressure told, as Chelsea very quickly became the first side to signal their intent to withdraw from the ESL agreement. Manchester City wasn’t too far behind, and as the rest of the clubs followed suit like dominos, Florentino Perez’s dream lay in tatters – barely 48 hours after the release of Sunday’s statement. The reaction was unlike anything we’ve ever seen in football, and probably ever will see again. 

Chris Darwen
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