David Owen

"Change or be changed" is International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach's favourite mantra.

The European football body UEFA could be forgiven for thinking "change and be changed" a more appropriate dictum, given events of the past few days in European football.

Well may UEFA leaders have stitched together, and yesterday approved, a new format for the Champions League, the showpiece tournament of European club football.

But this has proved insufficient to head off the announcement of a new Super League by 12 big clubs, including Real Madrid and Manchester United, based respectively in England, Italy and Spain.

If it duly materialises - very far from certain as I write this - this hitherto mythical creature would amount to probably the biggest structural change in Europe's biggest sport for at least 60 years.

But it has been long in the gestation - two decades or more.

While the anger in the air this week has seemed real enough and a few bridges may well have been burnt, I do not think many would be completely surprised if the prospective rebels sized up the gathering rumblings of opposition and ultimately pulled back from the brink, while no doubt claiming a tactical victory.

Twelve clubs have proposed breaking away to form the European Super League ©Getty Images
Twelve clubs have proposed breaking away to form the European Super League ©Getty Images

Having said that, I think a number of factors have combined in recent times to make a revival of the Super League concept all but inevitable.

Even before coronavirus, media revenues for the Premier League, which supplies six of the breakaway dozen clubs, had been plateauing, with the heady days of 2016-2017 - when the fruits of an astonishing 70 per cent hike in the valuation of the league's domestic broadcasting rights were first passed on to clubs - but a distant memory.

It rarely takes long for costs to catch up with revenue jumps in professional football at the best of times, and the unexpected one-off hit inflicted as a consequence of efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed clubs heavily into the red, even if some lost revenues have merely been shunted into the next financial year rather than foregone altogether.

With most of the 20 Premier League clubs having posted their figures for 2019-2020, the first COVID-affected season, aggregate pre-tax losses look set to be within shooting distance of £1 billion ($1.4 billion/€1.15 billion).

That works out at around £1 million ($1.4 million/€1.15 million) per club per week.

That is not sustainable - and this is supposed to be the richest and most popular sport on earth.

In such circumstances, it becomes difficult to ratchet up the value of assets, i.e the clubs, without finding some other way of, well, moving the goalposts.

A successful Super League would clearly do this, at least for the chosen few.

With discussions in progress seemingly for some time - remember resigning FC Barcelona President Josep Maria Bartomeu indicating back in October that the club had begun proceedings to join a Super League? - news in March of a mammoth new media rights package, reportedly worth as much as $110 billion (£79 billion/€91 billion) over 11 years, agreed by the National Football League (NFL), may have provided further encouragement.

The Super League has been met with staunch opposition, particularly in England ©Getty Images
The Super League has been met with staunch opposition, particularly in England ©Getty Images

Admittedly this could equally well be viewed as a favorable augury for future Champions League and domestic league rights valuations as streaming starts to take over from traditional broadcasting, but the Super League concept would make for fewer fingers and, its backers hope, a bigger pie.

Viewed dispassionately, the balance of power is fascinatingly poised.

There are very evident holes in the Super League project, as currently outlined.

The most obvious is the absence for now of representatives from France and Germany, traditional engines of the post-war European political project.

Indeed, there is a profound geographical illogicality about a venture whose business model will depend on it being box office from Lagos to Shanghai, yet whose founding clubs are clustered in just seven cities in three west European countries.

The new edifice would have appeared much stronger with a broader geographic span.

The threat of ostracisation can also not just be brushed idly aside, although one imagines it would be battled in court.

Being deprived of the opportunity of representing their country would be a real sacrifice for many players, no matter how opulently-rewarded they might be for their Super League performances.

If participating clubs were restricted to a breakaway competition and a breakaway competition only, meanwhile, that would leave a lot of organisations, whose fans are used to them being serial winners, potentially bereft of silverware for years on end.

On the other hand, the Champions League has long been a flawed competition, even if its knockout stages are the out-and-out highlight of the year for many sports fans.

The success of the Indian Premier League, albeit in a different sport (cricket), suggests to me that fans would not, as some have suggested, be put off by the closed nature of a breakaway league in itself, provided the product is appealing.

Super League participants do not even need to contemplate going to the cost and trouble of building new team brands - and European football fans, especially in England, are famously brand-loyal.

There are holes in the Super League project as it stands - particularly geographical spread ©Getty Images
There are holes in the Super League project as it stands - particularly geographical spread ©Getty Images

Nor do I have any great faith that the Government in Britain - where early opposition to a Super League seems strongest among those nations with participating clubs - would, if push came to shove, take action to block it.

I shall also be watching with interest how world governing body FIFA reacts to developments.

With European club football for the time being split, it seems to me that FIFA President - and IOC member - Gianni Infantino just might be able to use the situation, should he so wish, to get the grounded project for an expanded Club World Cup airborne again.

An increased stake in the European club game would be strategically highly desirable for FIFA, whose business model remains hugely dependent on a single mega-event that comes along only once every four years.

While the prospects of the 2022 World Cup going ahead look good, the pandemic has triple-underlined the potential vulnerability of this one-legged model.