This article was originally published on May 6, 2016, and republished without changes in February 2018.
Even if Atlético Madrid, in a grueling semifinal match on Tuesday, ended Bayern Munich’s dream of competing in another European Champions League final later this month, the Bavarians clinched a record fourth consecutive domestic league title on Saturday.
Their dominance is striking – so much so that fans, managers and even some players from rival German clubs are often heard saying “the team plays in another league.”
And maybe someday it will.
The idea of creating a “Super League” is winning over more supporters amid the widening gap between Europe’s top clubs and their domestic league rivals. The concept is being fueled in large part by the millions in prize money the big-name teams take home from the Champions League tournament – money they’re using to take their performance to an even higher level.
This year alone, some €1.26 billion ($1.44 billion) will be divvied up among tournament finalists, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid, and the other contestants. In addition to Bayern Munich, they include the German teams VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach, which will receive their game bonuses according to a performance-based model.
When clubs like Bayern Munich and Real Madrid continuously play in the Champions League, they’ll earn so much money that they’ll kill competition in their domestic leagues. , Former Bundesliga player and trainer
In early March, the American billionaire real-estate mogul, Stephen Ross, reportedly met with managers of five top clubs from the English Premier League to discuss a breakaway European Super League. The meeting fired a warning shot to UEFA, Europe’s soccer governing body and the organizer of the Champions League tournament.
Mr. Ross owns the U.S. football team Miami Dolphins and has been a key player behind the International Champions Cup series, a pre-season competition with clubs like Real Madrid and Manchester City playing in countries as far away as Australia and China.
Bayern Munich Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge further stoked the Super League debate a few weeks later at a competition workshop when he said he could imagine a European League, organized either under UEFA or even privately, “in which the big teams from Italy, Germany, England, Spain and France” would compete.
Mr. Rummenigge, who also chairs the European Club Association, which represents the interests of the top European clubs, noted that as the wealthiest teams “in the five strongest European leagues” grow wealthier, they will “continue to dominate their domestic leagues and reap the benefits of European competition,” especially the lucrative knockout phase of the Champions League.
Others agree. “When clubs like Bayern Munich and Real Madrid continuously play in the Champions League, they’ll earn so much money that they’ll kill competition in their domestic leagues,” said Felix Magath, a former professional player who has also coached a number of teams including Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg and FC Schalke 04.
Despite Bayern Munich’s lost bid to reach the final in Milan on May 28, the club will still pocket more than €35 million from participating in the Champions League tournament. That’s twice the total budget of Ingolstadt 98, a minnow, which joined the first division of the German Bundesliga this season.
Increasingly, fans and managers from smaller clubs see themselves barred from a system that continuously awards a favored few. They find themselves watching from the sidelines as many of the same big-name European clubs regularly gravitate to the lucrative knockout phase of the tournament, and grab their share of the prize money.
Most clubs plow a good chunk of that cash back into their squads, cherry-picking the world’s top talent, often from their lesser fortunate rivals. The result is a widening cleft between the perennial, deep-pocketed Champions League participants and wannabes in the domestic leagues.
Arguably, no club exemplifies the growing competitive imbalance in European soccer more than Bayern Munich – Germany’s top club in the country’s top league, the Bundesliga.
The stats speak for themselves. The Bavarians have won the Champions League five times and been runners-up just as many, in addition to making it to the semifinals eight times and the quarterfinals nine. They have also won the German league title in 26 of a total 55 seasons, including Saturday's victory.
“I just don’t see a lot of competition when I look at the German, French and Spanish leagues today,” said Mr. Magath, who envisions a Super League with the same promotion and relegation scheme used in the national leagues.
“The winners are pretty much clear at the start of the season,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition.
He has a point. The French and Italian leagues are also set to have the same champions this season as in the previous year. While the Spanish league winner typically rotates between Barca and Real with Atletico now budging in, the unpredictable English Premier League, awash in cash from the sale of its lucrative broadcasting rights, has already crowned a fourth different champion in as many years – the underdog Leicester City.
Fans want excitement and they get it when they watch evenly matched, wide-open games that can go either way. Top European clubs in their home leagues and in the 32-team group phase of the Champions League play too few games that meet this criterion.
A number of reform proposals are on the table. One of them is to create two groups of eight teams in the Champions League, instead of the current four and four arrangement, with each qualifier playing 14 games before the semifinals. This modus would see more of the better teams playing more often against each other. Another proposal is to automatically place the most popular clubs, giving them wild cards, similar to those awarded in tennis.
But clearly the most controversial idea is to launch a breakaway Super League made up of Europe’s top 20 teams. They would play each other every week, with national leagues competing at the second level.
The idea has been floating around since the late 1990s when an Italian media company first explored it. Club officials at Arsenal, Barcelona, Real Madrid and more recently Bayern Munich have championed the concept.
It has some compelling selling points. A Super League could be marketed globally, in much the same way the Premier League is today. The money from TV rights would be undoubtedly huge, explaining why Mr. Rummenigge is so attracted to the idea. The league would put Bayern Munich on equal footing with English clubs to enjoy the dizzying wealth of the Premier League.
From next season, when a new £5.1 billion (€6.5 billion) television deal kicks in plus £2.4 billion for overseas rights, the English league’s bottom club will still earn £99 million, with the champion taking in as much as £150 million.
Sky, which acquired most of the Premier League and Bundesliga TV rights and which could be impacted by a Super League, prefers not to engage in the current debate. Because the league is “just an idea” at this point “without any concrete plans,” the broadcaster sees no need to comment on it, a Sky Deutschland spokesman said in an e-mail statement to Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Barcelona appears to back the idea, too. The club’s financial vice president, Susann Monjue, in an interview with the Spanish daily newspaper La Vanguardia, said the teams competing at the highest level need to “promote a European League from a position where the clubs are in control.”
But there’s some stiff opposition to the creation of a Super League from a wide range of stakeholders in European soccer. The league, critics argue, would decimate Europe’s Big Five leagues in England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain by stripping them of their best teams. It would deal a severe blow to the attractiveness and thus revenue of national competition.
On the one hand, it would be nice to see more top clubs play in Munich but on the other, a Super League would destroy the derbies and the traditional rivalries. Gerhard Stadler, Bayern Munich Fan Club Floss
Many fans, others argue, would be unable to attend regular away games across Europe. After hearing about Mr. Rummenigge’s support, Bayern Munich fans decided to protest on the big stage, displaying banners at the Champions League match against S.L. Benfica.
“On the one hand, it would be nice to see more top clubs play in Munich,” said Gerhard Stadler, president of the Bayern Munich Fan Club Floss, in an interview with Handelsblatt Global Edition. “But on the other, a Super League would destroy the derbies and the traditional rivalries.”
Club managers in smaller nations also worry that their teams would have little chance of making it into the league. And a confederation made up of the top teams competing against themselves would spell the end of the Champions League, unless it was converted to a European Cup. But even that would compete with the current Europa League, a tournament open to top teams that don’t qualify for the Champions League.
The European Professional Football Leagues, or EPFL, has spoken out against the idea of a European Super League. It “would destroy the basic dream and goal” of the hundreds of clubs competing in European soccer, the group’s chairman, Lars-Christer Olsson, said in a statement. “We must keep the dream alive for clubs.”
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition and an avid soccer fan. To contact the author: [email protected]