The European Super League was collapsing on Tuesday night after all six English clubs dramatically signalled their intention to withdraw from the competition after being taken aback by the furious backlash from fans and the government.
It left the £4.5bn league dead in the water less than 48 hours after it was launched, with Chelsea the first go to followed by Manchester City and then, shortly before 11pm, by Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham.
The stunning set of U-turns leaves the reputations of the clubs’ owners at an all-time low as they attempt to repair their relationship with supporters. Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, a key architect of the planned breakaway, also resigned after his position became untenable.
While most club statements blandly acknowledged their decision, Arsenal admitted the response from fans in recent days had given them “time for further reflection and deep thought”. In a statement, the club said: “It was never our intention to cause such distress, however when the invitation to join the Super League came, while knowing there were no guarantees, we did not want to be left behind to ensure we protected Arsenal and its future.
“As a result of listening to you and the wider football community over recent days we are withdrawing from the proposed Super League.” The club added: “We made a mistake, and we apologise for it.”
The Tottenham chairman, Daniel Levy, also issued an apology to supporters. “We regret the anxiety and upset caused by the ESL proposal,” he said.
The pullout by English clubs left just half of the original 12 “founder members” of the super league. Italian giants Milan and Internazionale were on Tuesday night reportedly also considering jumping ship, leaving a third Serie A club, Juventus, and Spanish trio Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona as the last standing members of the breakaway group. In the early hours of Wednesday the Super League vowed to “reshape the project”, pausing it but insisting it could still ultimately go ahead.
“Despite the announced departure of the English clubs, forced to take such decisions due to the pressure on them, we are convinced our proposal is fully aligned with European law and regulations,” an ESL statement said.
“Given the current circumstances, we shall reconsider the most appropriate steps to reshape the project, always having in mind our goals of offering fans the best experience possible while enhancing solidarity payments for the entire football community.”
On a seismic day for football, Boris Johnson had earlier warned that the government would “drop a legislative bomb” to stop the Super League.
The Guardian revealed earlier on Tuesday that Chelsea and Manchester City were having severe misgivings about the Super League, which would have seen 15 founding clubs receive a £200-£300m “golden hello” to play in a midweek competition from which they could never be relegated. Hours later it became official - with other English clubs quickly joining them.
Chelsea’s decision emerged amid protests by around 1,000 fans about the Super League and after their players had told the club’s chairman, Bruce Buck, that they would not want to play in the Super League if they were banned from participating in international football.
Shortly afterwards Manchester City also withdrew, as one by one the dominoes began to fall. Earlier in the day the club’s manager, Pep Guardiola, had admitted he was not in favour of the new competition, saying: “It is not a sport where the relation between the effort and the success, the effort and the reward, does not exist.”
As City announced they had “formally enacted the procedures to withdraw from the group developing plans for a European Super League”, the U-turn was welcomed by Aleksander Ceferin, the president of Uefa, European football’s governing body. “I am delighted to welcome City back to the European football family. They have shown great intelligence in listening to the many voices – most notably their fans – that have spelled out the vital benefits that the current system has for the whole of European football; from the world beating Champions League final right down to a young player’s first coaching session at a grassroots club.”
Hours after the other English clubs withdrew, Ceferin issued a new statement. “It is admirable to admit a mistake and these clubs made a big mistake. But they are back in the fold now and I know they have a lot to offer not just to our competitions but to the whole of the European game. The important thing now is that we move on, rebuild the unity that the game enjoyed before this and move forward together.”
Although Chelsea still have issues with Uefa’s governance of European football, they have decided that taking part in the competition is not the right thing to do. Sources said that Roman Abramovich, the club’s owner, did not enter football for personal financial gain.
Chelsea players were also said to be frustrated to receive no warning about the scheme from their clubs or elsewhere, while staff across the clubs are understood to be particularly upset at the lack of notice given.
One source described Chelsea’s players as “shocked and confused” by the news; similarly a figure close to one of their putative Super League rivals said their players were “as shocked as everyone else”.
The U-turn from the clubs came after a widespread public backlash and amid mounting pressure from the government and the football leagues. Johnson described the plans for the Super League as a “cartel” and warned he would use a “legislative bomb” to stop English clubs joining.
Speaking before any clubs signalled their intention to pull out of the ESL, Johnson condemned the proposed league – in which 15 founder members, including six English clubs, could never be relegated – as “against the basic principles of competition” in his strongest comments to date and “propelled by the billions of banks”.
Johnson said he would use legislation to scupper the breakaway competition if the Premier League were unable to stymie the move on their own. The row has seemingly emboldened ministers over wider plans to reform the governance of English football, tilting the power balance more towards fans rather than billionaire owners.
Football was “one of the great glories of this country’s cultural heritage”, Johnson told the Downing Street press conference otherwise devoted to coronavirus, adding: “How can it be right when you have a situation where you create a kind of cartel that stops clubs competing against each other?”
Johnson had told a meeting of the Football Association, Premier League and fans groups: “We should drop a legislative bomb to stop it – and we should do it now.” He gave no details, however, and officials have been similarly vague about specific proposals.
The prime minister gave a strong hint that one long-term solution could be to oblige English clubs to give fans a majority stake, based on the so-called 50%+1 system used in Germany. Asked whether he supported the German model, Johnson said this was ultimately a matter for a review into football governance announced on Monday and led by Tracey Crouch, the Conservative MP and former sports minister, announced on Monday.
“I really wouldn’t want to pre-empt what she’s going to say,” Johnson said. “But I know she’s very interested in those sorts of models, and what that may or may not involve.”The Manchester United Supporters Trust, which attended the meeting, said: “While actions speak louder than words, we were struck by the strength of commitment from the prime minister, who said whilst he is a staunch free marketeer, ‘this proposal itself is anti-competitive and we should drop a legislative bomb to stop it – and we should do it now’.”
One of the inadvertent effects of the Super League plan has been to give new impetus and immediacy for a fan-based review. While the idea was in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto, ministers had decided to wait until the disruption of the Covid pandemic was over. However, the plan prompted them to move immediately.
Johnson and the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, welcomed the English clubs’ U-turn. The prime minister tweeted: “The decision by Chelsea and Manchester City is – if confirmed – absolutely the right one and I commend them for it. I hope the other clubs involved in the European Super League will follow their lead.”
Sir Keir Starmer welcomed the news of Chelsea and Manchester City’s sudden withdrawal. “Fantastic news,” the Labour leader tweeted. “Other clubs should now follow suit. But let’s not lose the energy of the last few days – this must be a watershed moment, where we change our game to put fans first again.”