European Super League club punishment
Fans turned out in hordes to protest the European Super League. Neil Hall/EPA.

The soccer world awoke with that ick feeling on Monday, April 19. Sleeping on the news that 12 of the sport’s biggest clubs planned to form an exclusive breakaway tournament didn’t help rid any of the sour taste that accompanied it, a sentiment aired almost unanimously among fans.

A sentiment that rang so loudly, in fact, that the mutineers were forced to ‘reconsider’ the European Super League proposal come Tuesday night, barely 48 hours into its lifespan.

It’s easily one of, if not the biggest revolution in sports competition to fall so flat in so short a time. Manchester United, Liverpool and Real Madrid—boasting a combined 22 UEFA Champions League/European Cup trophies—were considered the main cheerleaders of change, first in the door and among the last to exit the building when things came crashing down. American investment titan JP Morgan had even pledged $3.9 billion (€3.25 billion) in ‘welcome funds’—contracted against future broadcasting rights—for founding clubs to help the competition in its launch.

Such mammoth figures aren’t agreed overnight, and despite the sudden announcement, it was clear this was a rebellion that had been some time in the making but was only now coming to light.

The European Super League achieved the very opposite of its intent to divide the continent’s superpowers, and instead soccer was united on an unprecedented level. Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford, dressing-room leaders of Liverpool and Manchester United, respectively, each expressed concerns with the plans despite their clubs playing such prominent roles:

United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward—a former banker at JP Morgan, where he specialised in acquisitions and mergers—was the first major casualty in personnel. Woodward—who helped the Glazer family broker their purchase of United in 2005—will leave his role at Old Trafford at the end of 2021, and it’s rumored Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli could follow.

But the attempted offense calls for more comprehensive correction at every club concerned.

John W. Henry, founder of Fenway Sports Group and the de facto owner of Liverpool, apologised to fans via the club’s social media channels for the role he played in such an ill-received idea:

The plan itself was simple. Seemingly tired of their respective slices of UEFA’s pie and the rigamarole of having to qualify for club football's most prestigious tournament each season, 12 clubs decided they would make their own. A group comprising some of the world’s preeminent household names coveted a larger portion of broadcasting rights deals, and to resolve this greed, they created their own — theoretically guaranteeing more riches for those brave enough to cut ties with soccer’s recognised governing bodies.

Those teams were Liverpool, United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Barcelona and Juventus. Vague plans were mentioned to allow a handful more clubs into the clique via a qualifying tournament, though that was far from the only portion of this plan that ended up looking half-baked.

Each of ‘The Dirty Dozen’ now find themselves in an awkward state of limbo having rescinded their positions with UEFA and the European Club Association (ECA), without which they cannot enroll in future competitions.

And therein lies a possible path to punishment. UEFA may ultimately want the most popular clubs to attract eyes toward its major competitions, now is the time to underline playing in such events is a privilege, and they will endure whether the most successful sides are there or not. Just as no individual should be treated as more valuable than the team, no cabal of conspirators can be made to feel as though they’re above the law.

After all, owners and decision-makers at smaller clubs have in the past seen their outfits punished—both monetarily and through points deductions—as a result of their own miscalculations. The fans are unfortunate to be caught in the crossfire as collateral damage, but this week has taught us even those at the top must bend to supporter voices when they’re loud enough:

There is some precedence to suggest the would-be Super League contenders did enough in their planning to be punished. Premier League Rule L9, for example, states member clubs require written approval by the board to enter a new competition, a law one club official said had “patently been broken,” per Sky Sports.

Everton owner Farhad Moshiri told talkSPORT he wants to see points deducted from those clubs involved in the failed movement, citing ‘lesser’ offenses that led to as much:

“Football belongs to the fans and to their communities. This just takes much of their romance of football away.
“Who wants to see Real Madrid and Liverpool every year? You want Liverpool and Everton to play. It’s just a money game, it’s not football any more.
“I think the Premier League should deduct points from these clubs.
“When clubs get deducted points for minor things – poaching a manager, a player, exceeding Financial Fair Play, these six clubs are attacking the very heart of the Premier League and I think they should be disciplined. That’s what I’d do.”

Re-earning ECA membership over a predetermined period—say, at least a season—could be considered a starting point for those hoping to get back in any good graces.

Murmurs of a European Super League have come and gone in the past, but everything from the timing of the announcement to the scale of JP Morgan’s bankrolling and the gradual dissolution of participants suggests this was very much the real thing. Instead of a scare tactic to bluff their way to a better Champions League agreement, these 12 teams were ready to pack up and change soccer as we know it for their own ill-gotten gains—and they were close.

It would be almost too fitting if incompetence was what saved said owners from copping any real flak. The very harshest critics would suggest this assortment of moguls and tycoons be forced to sell up, but the defense will say no rules had actually been broken. Aside from 48 hours of widespread worry, they would argue there was no harm done, and therefore nothing to punish.

Those dozen organisations won a right to exclusivity, but not the one they hoped for. After being thrust under the magnifying glass, all the world saw where the shame belongs after a coup to remove competition from soccer’s top rung failed in spectacular fashion.

Proper punishment is necessary now to prevent the sport being fooled again. Should we fail to do so, the shame would shift to us.