Having already reviewed Fulwell 73’s feature-length film Super Greed (2022), it took me a long time to get around to watching the 4-episode mini-series Super League: The War for Football. After all, how much more does anyone care to learn about a bunch of billionaires for whom football is strictly business. But Oh, what a mistake if I had never watched this Apple TV series. It is a masterpiece.
News stories move on fast, and we forget all the drama that played out just 2 years ago. Writer-Director Jeff Zimbalist puts together an astounding series that tells the story inside out. All the European Super League (ESL) billionaires — who turned down interviews for Fulwell 73’s film — are here to plead their case. They are here for us to evaluate and scrutinize, but they are deftly woven into a story that is Machiavellian to the core.
This is what is so amazing about this series: each little piece of the pie is reassembled so that it feels like the battle for the control of European football is playing out live before your eyes. Who is really trying to save football?
Day One – the business
Day One is Football Business 101; it explains promotion and relegation and the financials that make the UEFA Champions League so important. We learn that UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) is football’s financial engine, with $6.77B revenue that makes it “the most powerful sports organization in the world”. Technically speaking, it’s a little ahead of the EPL’s $6.5B revenue. By comparison, FIFA has only $1.61B average annual revenue, because it only hosts the World Cup every 4 years.
- BTW, I was unable to verify the financial numbers cited in the serie’s graphics, so it is best to take these numbers as relative, rather than exact. According to the 2021/22 UEFA Financial Report, the Champions League earned $3-4B per year, for 50-78% of UEFA revenue.
With such a large pot of money hanging from the tree, a breakaway league is always a threat. In the European Club Association (ECA), the large clubs are always advocating for a larger share of the pie because it is their high-paid players who draw the viewers. The Champions League share can be such a large part of a club’s revenue, that failure to qualify can put a large club in danger, say the Spaniards. (Actually, I think they exaggerate.) So a closed league where membership is never in question means financial security.
In the the first episode, we learn a great deal about UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin, a man who looks pretty skilled on the pitch, and a lawyer who used to defend criminals but now defends European football fans. After the 2015 FIFA corruption scandal, he rose to the UEFA presidency as the anti-corruption candidate. Čeferin grew up in Communist Yugoslavia (now Slovenia), and as such, he is a man of the proletariat with values based in community rather than personal ascendancy. (At least we’d like to hope that’s true.) His biggest fear is that if the Super League succeeds it will replace the Champions League, and he will be to blame for the collapse of UEFA.
We also meet Andrea Agnelli, scion of the family that owns Juventus and FIAT and is recognized as the Kennedys of Italy. As ECA president, he worked 15 months with Ceferin to come up with a Champions League model that satisfied the big clubs, and they became friends. Their joint proposal did not pass in 2019, and afterwards Agnelli began working towards Ceferin’s greatest fear: a breakaway league.
On Saturday Apr-17-2021, while driving to the UEFA Congress, Ceferin hears about the Super League plans. He realizes that Agnelli has personally betrayed him, and that Florentino Perez (Real Madrid) and Agnelli are the main actors.
Day Two – plan of attack
On Day Two, the Super League is exposed before any official announcement. Internal Super League documents are leaked, but it is still unclear if the breakaway league is real. Who is in? How does UEFA stop it? How quickly can they move?
Ceferin forges new alliances with Javier Tebas, head of La Liga, and Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the Chairman of beIN Media Group and President of PSG. The plan is to use the next 48 hours to attack with a press release and get the public on their side. They mobilize everyone to call anyone who can help: clubs, partners, broadcasters, sponsors, everyone they know. The rallying cry is that greed is driving a closed league. Ceferin tells some owners that from tomorrow, if their club joins the Super League, we are enemies. Tebas and Ceferin agree that UEFA will ban the Super League clubs and players from international play.
From the other side, we meet the staffers of the Super League and hear about the jockeying going on as Agnelli and Perez try to get PSG to join the Super League. Agnelli firmly states that the current system is unsustainable, and “Either something changes, or we have do something for ourselves.”
Charlie Marshall of the ECA calls a zoom meeting of the ECA Board. Edwin Van der Sar, CEO of Ajax, shows up along with Bayern and PSG. But no one from Italy, Spain or England attends. At the same time, 25 resignations from the ECA are submitted, all from the 12 Super League clubs. It appears that Florentino Perez’s dream has come true.
Day Three – the court of public opinion
On Sunday night, Apr-19-2021, the Super League press release goes out. The clubs are finally identified. The Super League staff are elated that 12 teams took on this innovative and pioneering project to save football. They see UEFA’s response as promoting a false story that the 12 clubs are trying to destroy football. They insist the Super League is not a closed league, it’s a hybrid: 15 clubs would have permanent seats for 23 years, but 5 seats would be open each year for new clubs to qualify.
Florentino Perez insists they didn’t want a bigger piece of the pie, they just wanted the pie to be bigger. Younger people in Spain and Italy support the Super League, because they want to watch the best players. Only a small percentage of fans protest in those countries.
On Monday morning, Ceferin holds a press conference to respond to the Super League announcement. He is honest, and the series says that his words fire up the fans to go out and take the war to the Super League owners.
“Andrea Agnelli — I’ve never seen a person that would lie so many times, so persistently that he did. We didn’t know that we have some snakes close to us. But now we know and we are working on it and we will have legal action soon. … As soon as possible they have to be banned … from the World Cup and Euros.”Aleksander Ceferin, President of UEFA
The massive fan protests at English clubs get the attention of the British government. UK Sectary of State Oliver Dowden makes a statement in Parliament:
“We are the people’s government. We will not stand by and watch football be cravenly stripped of the things that make millions across the country love it. It starts with fans and it ends with fans.”Oliver Dowden, UK Secretary of State
Day Four – Gianni to the rescue?
Although Tebas and Ceferin have announced that UEFA will ban players from international competitions, they need FIFA to back them up. They need Gianni Infantino to support UEFA’s position at the UEFA Congress. The final episode explores why Infantino was most likely in on the Super League machinations all along, and why he had some big grudges against Ceferin, who had opposed a bi-annual World Cup and had not given the Club World Cup much endorsement.
Boris Johnson has a zoom meeting with fans and threatens to use a “legislative bomb” to allow the EPL to kick out the Super League cartel. Other punishments such as taxes and visa limits are imagined.
In the face of the public response, Gianni Infantino aligns with UEFA, saying that it is FIFA’s task to protect the European Sports Model:
“Either you’re in or you’re out … We can only and strongly disapprove the creation of the Super League. There’s no doubt whatsoever of FIFA’s disapproval.”Gianni Infantino at the UEFA Congress
Ceferin then delivers the most critical speech of his life:
“I would like to address the owners of some English clubs. Gentlemen, you made a huge mistake. Some will say it is greed, others — disdain, arrogance, flippancy or complete ignorance. But actually it doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is still time to change your mind. Everyone makes mistakes. English fans deserve to have you correct your mistake. … In times of crisis, human beings can choose between 2 options: self-interest and solidarity.”Aleksander Ceferin
ManCity and Chelsea are the first to withdraw from the Super League. They didn’t need the money in the first place. The rest quickly follow, to the joy of their fans.
Only the 3 founding rebel clubs are left: Juventus, Real Madrid, and Barcelona. They remain insistent:
- They reject the “insistent coercion” by UEFA
- “The monopoly was acting in front of us”
- “The governing body should not be a monopoly”
- “The monopoly is going to destroy football”
- “We have decided no surrender, we are right”
They take their anti-monopoly stance to court. In the closing credits, we learn the court rules in favor of UEFA. Agnelli and the entire board of Juventus resign. Chelsea is sold. The battle for football has been won for now, but undoubtedly the war will rise again.
While there are many good interviews of the key participants, the series really benefits from the observations and interpretations of journalists Tariq Panja (NY Times), Murad Ahmed (Financial Times), and Roger Bennett (Men in Blazers).
Richard Deitsch in his Sports Media podcast has an excellent Jan-19-2023 interview with Director Jeff Zimbalist. They cover all the bases of how this series got made and how they enhanced the drama to keep it thrilling. In addition, Zimbalist convinced the principals not just to explain the logic of their approaches, but to let the viewers into their lives and put a face on their individual humanity.
I apologize that this review can’t capture the excitement and power of this series. I’ve documented the key facts for those who won’t get the chance to see it. But if you’re subscribing to Apple TV+ just to watch Ted Lasso, watch this series as well. In an age where a few billionaires control the lives of the entire world, we need this inspiration to see how the proletariat fights back. This series deserves an Emmy award as much as any season of Ted Lasso. Don’t miss it.
Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 10