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Analysis: How our populist moment explains the Super League's rapid implosion

The league would have taken the six wealthiest (and most successful) clubs in the English Premier League and paired them with three giants from Spain (Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid) and three from Italy (Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan). And it would guarantee them spots in the European competition every single year no matter how the clubs performed in their domestic leagues.
It was, in short, a cash grab.
“The clubs believe that selling the broadcast rights for the Super League, as well as the commercial income, will be worth billions. And it will all go to them, rather than being redistributed to smaller clubs and lesser leagues through European soccer’s governing body, UEFA. At the same time, the value of domestic leagues and their clubs will diminish drastically as they are effectively rendered also-rans every year.”
And it wasn’t just a cash grab. It was a cash grab by some of the richest soccer clubs in the world — owned by some of the richest people in the world. Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the principal owner of Manchester City, and Roman Abramovich, who owns Chelsea, are billionaires, as are the owners of Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal — among others.
To make matters even worse, this was all done without ANY consultation with the people who actually make these clubs go — fans, players and managers. Jurgen Klopp, the mercurial manager of Liverpool, made clear that neither he nor any of his players knew anything about the Super League before it was announced on Sunday. Pep Guardiola, perhaps the most famous and most successful manager in world soccer, who has called Manchester City home for the last several years, publicly denounced the idea. “It is not fair when one team fight, fight, fight at the top and cannot be qualified because it is just for a few teams,” he said.

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No, it’s not. Which, of course, should have been obvious from the jump. An invite-only league in which the richest clubs ensure they get ever richer and never face the possibility of not getting richer based on their on-field performance? And which, by its very nature, broadens the already massive gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in European soccer, essentially relegating medium-sized and smaller clubs to utter non-relevance?
It speaks to how tone-deaf and out-of-touch the owners of these large clubs are that they were surprised at the protests among fans (of their clubs!) that broke out almost immediately upon hearing the news of the Super League. (At a match Monday night between Liverpool and Leeds United, a saxophonist played ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” continuously outside the stadium.) And it showed how little they had actually thought through the impacts of the Super League’s creation (beyond lining their own pockets) that within hours teams started to drop out amid the furor.
What the formation — and subsequent collapse — of the Super League speaks to is the ongoing populist strain across the world — and the continued inability of elites to understand its power.
Brexit, the 2016 vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, was driven by that same notion — that the average Joe and Jane were being ignored by global elites far more interested in making money for themselves (at any cost) than looking out for the little guy. As the Times wrote shortly after the Brexit vote:
“Despite opinion polls before the referendum that showed either side in a position to win, the outcome stunned much of Britain, Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance, highlighting the power of anti-elite, populist and nationalist sentiment at a time of economic and cultural dislocation.”
Later that same year, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States — thanks in large part to his sneering contempt for the so-called “elites” that were actively seeking to screw the average American. As Politico wrote of his 2016 campaign rhetoric:
“In interviews and speeches at rallies, as his campaign gathered momentum, the steady target of his ire was the establishment and its even more suspect inner circle: ‘media elites,’ ‘the political elites,’ ‘the elites who only want to raise more money for global corporations,’ ‘the elites who led us from one financial and foreign policy disaster to another.'”
And the passion for populism — and populist leaders — has only accelerated since then. According to a 2018 study from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, “between 1990 and 2018, the number of populists in power around the world has increased a remarkable fivefold, from four to 20.”
Add the collapse of the Super League to the mounting number of failures by the most powerful among us to recognize the power of the populism coursing through the world community. And while the implosion of the Super League is the freshest example of what happens when the very wealthy and very powerful underestimate the power of the people, it assuredly won’t be the last.
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