News Live Scores
UEFA Champions League

Another all-English Champions League final: The old European elite's worst nightmare come true

3:00 AM EDT 5/25/21
Pep Guardiola Manchester City Thomas Tuchel Chelsea GFX
The continent's traditional superpowers have long feared Premier League supremacy and explains why they're clinging to their doomed Super League dream

Pep Guardiola has grown increasingly irritated by the suggestion that Manchester City's success owes everything to the nearly £2 billion ($2.8bn) the Abu Dhabi United Group has invested in the club over the past 13 years.

"It's not just about money," the Catalan insisted again this season. "If you want to think that, then you are wrong."

And yet, in Saturday's Champions League final in Porto, City will take on the only side that spent more than them in last season's summer transfer window – Chelsea, who are bankrolled by Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich.

Had Villarreal not beaten Arsenal to set up a Europa League showdown with Manchester United in Gdansk on Wednesday night, the two major European tournament finals would have been all-English affairs for the second time in three seasons.

This is what Europe's old elite have long feared: the Premier League flexing its financial muscle off the field, and reaping the rewards on it.

"The likes of Real Madrid and Juventus realise what's happening," Josh Robinson of the Wall Street Journal, and co-author of The Club: How the Premier League Became the Richest, Most Disruptive Business in Sport, tells Goal. "This is their worst nightmare becoming a reality.

"They know that the top Premier League clubs can generate much more money annually, from TV deals in particular, and then make it count not only in the transfer market, but also in signing coaches. Look at the class of managers in the Premier League now: Guardiola, (Jurgen) Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, Carlo Ancelotti...

"The other European clubs are looking at the English clubs' results and they're thinking it looks a lot like the spell of dominance they had at the end of the 2000s. 

"But now they're also wondering, 'How are we ever going to close that gap this time? We want what they have. We need a vibrant domestic league with a lot of contenders, coupled with European domination.' But they're not able to bridge the financial chasm that's developed in recent years. 

"Serie A can't offer the same income from TV money as the Premier League and nor can La Liga, which is why Juve, Madrid and Barcelona were so keen on the Super League."

Indeed, while the pandemic affected England's elite, it devastated many of their continental rivals, ruthlessly exposing the fragile financial model on which their success has been founded.

Inter won Serie A earlier this month yet their Chinese owners are being forced to cut costs, while Juve have a big decision to make this summer regarding Cristiano Ronaldo, who still has a year to run on a contract that nets him €31 million (£27m/$38m) per annum. 

Real Madrid have not spent a cent in the past two transfer windows, yet their economic concerns are nothing compared to those of Clasico rivals Barca, who are more than €1bn in debt.

So, in a time of great financial uncertainty, it is hardly surprising that Europe's traditional superpowers sought cast-iron guarantees.

On Friday, April 16, UEFA and the European Club Association (ECA) agreed a new format for a revamped Champions League from 2024 onwards, guaranteeing the elite teams more games against their greatest rivals in an expanded group stage.

But that seemingly was not good enough as far as Juve president Andrea Agnelli and his Madrid counterpart Florentino Perez were concerned. 

So, in their desperation, they turned their backs on UEFA and hastily launched the European Super League (ESL) just before midnight on Sunday, April 18, with the support of 10 other European clubs. The tournament collapsed just 48 hours later amid a bitter backlash from supporters, primarily in England.

"My understanding from having spoken to people who were involved in the ESL is that they were expecting some resistance from fans but thought they'd weather the storm," Robinson reveals.

"What they hadn't expected, though, was the political support. Once people like (United Kingdom Prime Minister) Boris Johnson got involved, the ESL was doomed."

The underwhelming nature of the launch had not helped either.

"Nobody was surprised that the Super League finally came into being," Ronan Evain of Football Supporters Europe tells Goal. "But what was surprising was how badly they executed it.

"Some of these clubs, like Juve and Real, have been working on this for years. And what they presented was a pretty bad press release, a lame logo and a cheap website. The level of amateurism was striking given the amount of money involved.

"Either they had to speed up the process or they thought the idea was so great that they didn't need to market it well at all. I think that shows many football clubs are not run by particularly smart people.

"There were all these theories that it was an elaborate move by the big clubs to gain more control over UEFA competitions but that's not true: they really tried to leave UEFA."

And that move backfired badly. Perez's position at Madrid may be secure, but Agnelli's presidency remains in peril in Turin, given the scale of his humiliation. The Italian has lost face, influence and friends.

Of greater significance, though, is the fact that the rebels played their trump card – the longstanding threat of a breakaway league – and still lost.

Merely floating the idea of a Super League had long proven a useful way of pressurising domestic rivals or governing bodies into giving them more power or a greater share of revenue streams.

Now, though, the likes of the Premier League are planning to make changes to their constitution that will prevent any of its members from committing to such a project ever again.

"It's difficult to know what the likes of Real and Barca will do next because they've played their hand now – and it was terrible," says Spanish football journalist Andy West.

"The ESL project clearly wasn't ready, as underlined by the fact that they went ahead without Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, the two biggest clubs from two of the biggest markets in Europe. 

"That they weren't on board undermined the project right from the off, and subsequently made it much easier for the English clubs to pull out when they came under pressure from politicians and supporters.

"You would have expected the 12 founders to have made a better case, to have presented stronger arguments. But the first representative to say anything publicly was when Perez went on El Chiringuito, the most comically overblown tabloid TV show in Spain.

"Nobody takes it seriously and yet Perez chose that show as the ESL's forum for presenting their plan. It was a joke. 

"If you want to garner support for such a controversial project, you do a sit-down with the Wall Street Journal. You don't have Florentino turning up at midnight on a Monday night to try to defend this idea. It was ridiculous."

For UEFA, though, it was a godsend. 

The revamped Champions League, which was ratified the Friday before the ESL was launched, had not been well received, either by pundits, ex-players, supporters or European Leagues. as the new format will do next-to-nothing to rectify the gross inequality that plagues the European game today.

The increase in European fixtures will only widen the gap between the rich and the poor unless something is also done about the unequal distribution of UEFA Club Competition (UCC) revenue – the single biggest distorting force in football today – and insufficient solidarity payments to those who fail to qualify.

In addition, by expanding the tournament and proposing at least two qualification places based on UEFA coefficients, UEFA is effectively giving the big clubs exactly what they wanted all along. 

Agnelli himself has described the 'Swiss Model', as something very close to his ideal format, which was sold as a way of making the tournament more appealing to fans. Yet most were confused by the group stage set-up and, as Robinson says, "UEFA's solution to the problem of too many group games was to add more group games!"

Evain agrees: "UEFA is right to reform the Champions League but this just isn't the right format.

"The Super League was essentially an attempt by some clubs to prolong a financial model that we already know is unsustainable. UEFA responded well to the threat: you can't negotiate with bullies. 

"But UEFA will be judged on what it does next. You cannot support a system that ends up allowing the Super League founders to consolidate their power anyway. 

"There's a commitment from (UEFA president) Aleksander Ceferin to review the proposed Champions League reform by the end of the year, and when we met him two weeks ago, we made some clear demands. 

"The main one was to get rid of the places based on coefficients but we also don't want more European games, so we are very much opposed to the additional four matchdays."

It remains to be seen whether UEFA will take the fans' views on board. Or whether it will follow through on its promise to punish Madrid, Barca and Juve, who have yet to officially withdraw from the ESL.

Their stubborn refusal to back down certainly appears ludicrous, given the competition cannot go ahead without the Premier League's finest.

"What we're really seeing now is that the most powerful clubs in the world are English," Robinson says. "The Super League needed the Premier League clubs more than the Premier League clubs needed the Super League. 

"The Premier League clubs already have a Super League – it's called the Champions League."

The English sides are certainly in an advantageous position here. They are still playing in the richest domestic championship in the world. The fact that they have six massive clubs competing for four Champions League places is obviously an issue, particularly with the likes of Leicester City emerging as a major force. 

But England's elite remain in possession of a clear financial advantage over their continental rivals. Indeed, it is worth nothing that there were 12 English clubs in the top 30 of the last Deloitte Football Money League. Sheffield United, for example, generated more revenue in 2019-20 than seven-time European Cup winners AC Milan.

It is clear, then, that the old guard will have more money worries than their Premier League rivals even in a post-pandemic world. 

"Barca and Madrid are still desperate for cash," West says. "Barcelona president Joan Laporta has secured a €100 million (£86m/$120m) loan from an American bank but that's basically to pay wages, and merely adding to their already enormous debts. 

"As for Madrid, maybe we'll see something like the deal they cooked up with the city council many years ago over the sale of the club's training ground. They're certainly going to have to get creative because neither they nor Barca will accept that they're no longer the biggest clubs in the world.

"They're not going to want to live within their means because doing that would mean accepting that they are no longer part of the very elite, that they would not be able to compete to sign the best players in the world. 

"So, they will still push to try to change things but what they'll probably have to do now, given the lack of a Super League threat, is improve their position from within UEFA."

This is a legitimate concern. There is a growing belief that the struggling super-clubs who joined a breakaway competition could end up benefitting significantly from UEFA's reported interest in agreeing a massive financing package for the Champions League with an external investor.

UEFA, after all, has been unsettled by FIFA's alleged tacit support of the Super League launch, as well as the world governing body's push to introduce an expanded, bi-annual Club World Cup.

Ceferin and FIFA counterpart Gianni Infantino may have united to disown the Super League and cast themselves as the good guys in the fight for football's soul. In reality, though, they have conflicting interests, and remain locked in a behind-the-scenes battle for control of the club game.

But, no matter who wins, the fans look set to lose out.

"If the top clubs are going to be allowed to continue operating in a reckless way, we're going to suffer the consequences," Evain points out. "Who is funding this at the end of the day? Us. And who is going to pay if the model collapses? Us. Because we'll lose our clubs. 

"So, right now, we're talking about what needs to be reformed in the Champions League, but the whole industry needs to be reformed. It's not well run. We're seeing that clearly now because of the pandemic. These rich clubs have so little reserves. Some had to rely on public funding last year! 

"We can't continue forever with sky-high wages and spiralling agent fees."

The good news is that there are mounting calls for the introduction of an independent regulator in England, and Robinson can foresee changes. 

"I don't know exactly what it would look like yet but we could potentially see some sort of reclassification of football clubs, where they're no longer considered a business like any other, where they're not treated like a retail manufacturer for example," he says.

"They could be classed as some sort of cultural institution and rules might be introduced to ensure their survival and protect them from your more exploitative owners."

Of course, there is little chance of equality across the board if only one country embraces change. 

"What's going to happen in the rest of Europe?" West asks. "An independent regulator will only have an effect on the game as a whole if it's an idea agreed upon by all of the major European Leagues. 

"And I think there's always going to be too much self-interest and politics at play. There are already ongoing geopolitical issues with ownership – be that Russia, China or the Middle East. And I think this is where we need to be even more specific about the driving forces behind the Super League.

"Real and Barca do envy the Premier League TV deals but, with all due respect, they don't really care about Arsenal and Spurs. The teams that worry them are the two in the Champions League final, and Paris Saint-Germain.

"And why? Because they're all funded by oil money. City, Chelsea and PSG are what I call 'The Liquid Gold Clubs' and there's no limit to what they can spend.

"It doesn't matter how much debt they get into because their owners have so much money that they could afford to buy every player in the world. So, these are the teams that the old guard can't compete with. 

"Over the last decade, since City and PSG were taken over by Abu Dhabi and Qatar, the likes of Barca and Real have challenged them in the transfer market. But in trying to keep up, they've got themselves into unsustainable levels of debt.

"So, in the context of the Champions League final, it's worth noting that it's between two of the Liquid Gold Clubs, and the third one, PSG, were in the semi-finals.

"Barca, Real and Juve know that it's going to be very difficult for them to stop these super-rich clubs from hogging the semi-final places for years to come."

So, unless there is a sustained and united push from fans, leagues and governments across Europe to make significant changes to the way in which the game is run, finance will remain the decisive factor in football.

Guardiola and others may like to believe that the game is not just about money. But the reality is quite different.