A lesson from history: the European Super League battle is not over

Jonathan Wilson
·5-min read

Bogotá, Colombia: 9 April 1948. Before the 2pm meeting he had scheduled with a young Cuban lawyer called Fidel Castro, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, leader of the Liberal Party, decided to go for lunch at the Hotel Continental, five minutes’ walk from his office on Carrera Séptima. He never got to the restaurant. An assassin walked up to him, shot him four times and, five minutes before he had been due to meet Castro, Gaitán was pronounced dead in a local hospital.

Violence was inevitable. The Colombian government knew what was coming and desperately sought a way to calm tensions. What could they do to distract the population, to head off civil war? The president, Mariano Ospina Pérez, gave his support to plans to create a professional football league. Four months later the first game was played. “Gaitán’s murder was what triggered professional football in Colombia,” said Alfonso Senior, the president of Millonarios, one of the biggest clubs.

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A players’ strike in Argentina provided a ready source of talent. Directors were sent with briefcases containing thousands of dollars to persuade unhappy players to break their contracts. They were joined by numerous players from Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. Clubs complained and, under pressure from Fifa, the Colombian federation disaffiliated the league. But that turned out to be a liberation: suddenly everyone was fair game. The sums on offer were enormous: Neil Franklin, the England centre-half, quadrupled his salary and was given a signing-on fee it would have taken him three years to earn at Stoke City. Franklin was one of five British players to sign up and there were also 13 Hungarians, two Yugoslavs, an Austrian, an Italian, a Lithuanian and a Romanian. This was El Dorado.

But it couldn’t last. By 1951, the Colombian football authorities had come to an agreement with Fifa: they were welcomed back into the fold, but only in return for respecting contracts. By 1954 the money had run out, a civil war that would kill an estimated 250,000 Colombians was under way and El Dorado was over.

Sunday represented the closest the world had come to a rebel league existing outside the existing framework of Fifa and the continental federations since. The circumstances surrounding the proposed European Super League and its collapse are manifestly very different, but what happened in Colombia is a useful case study of why rebel leagues spring up and how they function.

The trigger may have been a political assassination, but El Dorado would not have ignited as it did had the background conditions not been right. Players in Argentina, in Brazil and across Europe could see packed stadiums and clubs making money, while they themselves were on low wages and had few rights. Transport and communication was difficult and Colombia was so violent that at one point a 6.30pm curfew was imposed, and yet numerous players were still prepared to risk their careers, in some cases established international careers, to sign up.

In that sense, El Dorado was more like Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket than this latest Super League, in that it flared in a world of underappreciated players and underpromoted sport. And it had a profound effect. The realisation that international competition was exciting in part lay behind the drive towards the European Cup and Copa Libertadores, which launched respectively a year and six years after El Dorado, and also brought improved conditions for players: even in conservative England, the maximum wage was lifted in 1961.

Neil Franklin returns from Bogotá
Neil Franklin returns from Bogotá after walking out on Stoke. Photograph: Davis/Getty Images

So what are the underlying conditions here? This is a simplification, but essentially the old elites seem to have felt threatened by the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, clubs owned by oligarchs or sovereign wealth funds who do not depend on the traditional football market. Financial fair play regulations were supposed to check the inflationary spiral but the past couple of years have made clear they have failed. And so, with many of those grandees facing financial crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, there was a perceived need to generate even more, and guaranteed, income.

There’s a reason why PSG were not involved, and why Chelsea and City were the last of the “big six” English clubs to sign up and the first to break ranks: they’re fine as it is; they don’t need to break the structure to prosper (or survive).

And while a lot of players undoubtedly would have gone along with the Super League, even at the potential cost of their international careers, they are not downtrodden and desperate as they were 70 years ago. Their response was to ask questions and to wonder why they hadn’t been consulted (a lack of consultation was characteristic of the general ham-fistedness of the project: an executive at one of the clubs involved admitted he had spent Monday anxiously checking through every sponsorship contract to see whether any would be invalidated by withdrawal from the Champions League).

Those underlying conditions have not gone away just because this plan has collapsed just as farcically as Project Big Picture did six months ago. The economic tensions remain, in an environment in which the value of matchgoing fans is diminishing beside a vast global audience who consume their football remotely and have very different instincts. A number of Europe’s top leagues remain one- or two-club races. The revamped Champions League, which was ratified on Monday as the storm raged overhead, will exacerbate that.

The Uefa president, Aleksandar Ceferin, was admirably furious with the “snakes” and “liars” on Monday. It may be that, for him, the years of appeasing the elites are over. The rebel clubs may have been embarrassed, but they and their concerns remain. The struggle for the future of the game is not over; it may barely have begun.