Soccer’s premier club competition, the UEFA Champions League, kicked off amid record setting coronavirus cases and the rumored creation of a European Super League, in the mold of the NFL and other American leagues. This development threatens to permanently disrupt the vibrant soccer league system that has remained largely unchanged for more than a century.
The Super League has been flirted with as of late, and recent negotiations among the “Big Six” of the Premier League may be setting the stage for these clubs to break away from the English league structure entirely. With the influx of American and foreign billionaires now holding considerable influence in European soccer, investors are seeking to protect their investments from the potential of relegation, which sometimes proves financially disastrous for clubs. With a franchise-based model, relegation would not be of concern of club owners.
Yet the most recent bombshell to be dropped came from Josep Bartomeu, the embattled Barcelona president whose leadership has alienated Lionel Messi and others. Bartomeu announced his resignation alongside that of the entire executive board. In his farewell press conference, Bartomeu surprised many when he reported that he had accepted an invitation to a not-yet-announced super league, the clearest indication that such plans are around the corner.
The hypothetical league would bring Europe’s top clubs, including the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, out of their domestic leagues and into a closed competition that would pit Europe’s best against each other every weekend. Critics are concerned that the competition would exclude the challengers that frequently torment the European giants in the Champions League and elsewhere, as evidenced by Real Madrid’s struggles in their competitions so far this season.
Travelling to Spain without ten players, all sidelined because they are quarantining, Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk was widely regarded as cannon fodder for the expensive armaments that adorn the Real Madrid lineup. Shakhtar, however, is one of the most fascinating teams in European soccer. Surprisingly studded with Brazilian talent but unable to play matches in Donetsk since the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2014, the team has extended their allure in recent times with a daring performance against the heavily favored Blancos. At half, Real retreated to their dressing rooms down 3-0, and their two second half goals were unable to salvage the day.
A week later, Los Blancos traveled to Western Germany to take on Borussia Mönchengladbach. Real Madrid would have hoped to bounce back to their usual dominant form — Madrid has won more Champions League titles than any other club — yet they found themselves down two, courtesy of two Marcus Thuram goals before a stoppage time strike from Carlos Casemiro equalized the match giving Real Madrid just a single point in their season-opening matches ahead of their blockbuster duel against Inter Milan.
Madrid’s struggles have given ammunition to detractors of the proposed Super League, arguing that these results are emblematic of the parity in European competition that would be destroyed should an exclusive and closed league of Europe’s biggest clubs form.
Elsewhere, four of the English teams that would receive invitations to the Super League remain unbeaten, as Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United all sit atop their respective groups. Only Chelsea dropped points in a nil-nil draw against Sevilla.
Placed in the “group of death” alongside last year’s semi-finalists, RB Leipzig, and finalists, Paris Saint Germain and Manchester United have been especially impressive given their lackluster performances in the Premier League thus far. After Marcus Rashford — fresh off a public bout with the conservative government over school lunches for underprivileged youth that brought him wide acclaim — scored late to beat French champions, PSG, the star striker netted a hat trick against Leipzig despite only being on the pitch for the last 27 minutes of the match.
Last year’s champions Bayern Munich began their title defense with a dominant 4-0 win over an uncharacteristically porous Atlético Madrid defense, yet labored to a narrow 2-1 victory at Lokomotiv Moscow. Most of the Eastern European teams have allowed large numbers of fans into their stadiums, placing them in stark contrast against the barren stands of Western Europe, as cities and countries across the continent shut down.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement of a national four-week lockdown does not include a shutdown of the Premier League season or of Champions League fixtures, yet continued coronavirus positives threaten to keep star players out while rumors of a Super League could make this Champions League campaign even stranger than the last.