Soccer-Politics sank Super League

by Reuters
Wednesday, 21 April 2021 18:55 GMT

* English clubs withdrew after political opposition

* Fans' anger may have emboldened Britain's Johnson

* UEFA president Ceferin thanked European leaders

By Simon Evans

MANCHESTER, England, April 21 (Reuters) - The six English soccer clubs who joined the breakaway European Super League exploded the project just 48 hours after British politicians lined up to oppose the plan, sources on both sides of the battle have told Reuters.

Efforts by the rebel clubs' public relations managers to repair the damage have insisted the U-turn came after they listened to supporters.

But those close to the process say the clubs had been prepared to weather a ferocious fan and media backlash, and that it was the political response, particularly from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that proved decisive.

Aleksander Ceferin, president of European soccer's governing body UEFA, emphasised how important political pressure had been on Monday, when he thanked governments "who respect our fans, who respect our culture, who respect the values that are European values, not only football values".

He singled out Johnson and President Emmanuel Macron of France.

Andrea Agnelli, chairman of Italian club Juventus and a main instigator of the Super League, said the British government was concerned about politically unpopular damage to the stellar English Premier League from a breakaway.

The Premier League and England's Football Association had encouraged politicians to intervene, he said, as had UEFA, which was keen to strangle at birth a rival to its pan-European Champions League tournament.

"Normally you hear sporting managers (administrators) calling for politics not to get involved in sports, but in this case they were most likely even enhanced in their intervention," Agnelli told Reuters.

POLITICAL LEVERAGE

After issuing statements confirming their withdrawal from the Super League, the English clubs - Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur - have all said they will not comment further.

Sources close to the negotiations said the breakaway clubs, which also included three apiece from Italy and Spain, had hoped to let the dust settle before signing up three more members, negotiating with UEFA and world body FIFA over official recognition and launching their competition.

It proved a hopelessly naive approach.

Johnson and Macron swiftly made statements opposing the Super League, which was fronted by Real Madrid boss Florentino Perez, after it was announced on Sunday.

The Spanish and Italian governments also condemned the plan, as did the European Commission and European Parliament in Brussels, where UEFA has long employed lobbyists and political consultants.

On Monday, after a lengthy and angry press conference, UEFA's Ceferin delayed a scheduled television interview by over an hour as he talked on the phone with British sports minister Oliver Dowden.

Fearful for its revenues and status, the Premier League, whose chief executive Richard Masters had developed a strong relationship with Dowden during the COVID-19 crisis, also rushed to leverage every political contact.

The ferocious backlash from English fans appeared to further encourage Johnson to take a hard line.

"We will put everything on the table to prevent this from happening," he told parliament on Monday. "We are examining every option from governance reform to competition law and mechanisms that allow football to take place ... We will do whatever it takes to protect our national game."

'WALL OF OPPOSITION'

On Tuesday, Johnson met with the Premier League and Football Association. Several newspapers reported he had told them he was ready to drop a "legislative bomb" to stop the breakaway.

The prime minister's spokesman told the BBC measures under consideration included preventing foreign players of the clubs involved getting work visas - which they need after Brexit - and the withdrawal of police funding for match days.

Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer also took a tough stance. "There's no excuse for not doing something given the level of support," he said, referring to "a wall of opposition" across society.

Even the Royal family joined in, with Prince William, whose role as president of the Football Association is honorary, tweeting his opposition in a rare venture into public debate.

With players - including the entire Liverpool squad - and prominent managers such as Manchester City's Pep Guardiola coming out in opposition to their own clubs, the situation became unsustainable.

On Tuesday night, after 48 intense hours, reports emerged that Manchester City and Chelsea were set to pull out.

Even before that was officially confirmed, Johnson tweeted his approval and urged the other clubs to follow suit.

They did. And the Super League was dead. (Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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