Of the many threats made by politicians and soccer power brokers to prevent a breakaway Super League that is now likely to break out amid violent backlash, the most intriguing came from FIFA months ago.
The governing body of global football has been relatively quiet since the bombing on Sunday. But in January, in response to speculation about a Super League, it suspended its nuclear option.
“As a result, a club or player who takes part in such a competition is not allowed to take part in a competition organized by FIFA or its respective association,” said FIFA.
These competitions naturally include the world’s greatest sporting event, the World Cup.
FIFA’s warning is based on a serpentine logic. FIFA doesn’t want this Super League to take place. If playing in it excluded stars from the World Cup, stars would avoid the Super League. The league’s commercial potential would be significantly weakened. Perhaps so much that its founders would think twice about making it.
But within this logic there are provocative questions: Would stars really give priority to FIFA’s flagship? Or could they choose the Super League? How much does the modern player actually value the World Cup?
Super League or World Cup?
Decades ago, in the age of Pele or even Maradona, the answer to these questions would have been exceedingly obvious. For years, Pele was considered the greatest of all time, although he never competed against the greatest clubs in the sport. Legends were born and raised at world championships. Careers in particular were structured around them.
But that’s a different age now. The Champions League, English Premier League and Spanish La Liga are remarkably visible around the world. The salaries their teams can pay based on gigantic commercial and broadcasting contracts are lucrative. The platforms they offer are enormous.
In fact, the three most popular players of this current era, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar, built their legends almost entirely with their clubs. Most of them were underchallenged at world championships. But they have won prestigious trophies, made billions of dollars and amassed hundreds of millions of followers for showing their talents annually and more consistently on the second largest stage in football.
The story goes on
They sweated and bled and wept for their countries. But they gave Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, PSG and Juventus more and more opportunities.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have become global superstars with their clubs. (Photo by Nicolò Campo / LightRocket via Getty Images)
The question is what the next generation would do if they gave the ultimatum: Super League or World Cup? The Super League would likely become the most visible and competitive club competition in the world. His clubs could offer the highest wages. Would players scorn all of this for smaller leagues just so they could play mostly meaningless games for their country a dozen times a year, and then a few meaningful games every four years?
For example, would 20-year-old sensation Erling Haaland turn down Real Madrid and Barcelona and spend the rest of his career at Borussia Dortmund just to lead his native Norway to the World Cup?
Would Christian Pulisic really leave Chelsea for Everton to represent the US?
Some would choose national teams. Many would probably not do it – because clubs, not national teams, pay salaries and enrich everyday life. (The payment of the national team in men’s football is largely limited to the bonuses per game.)
The questions would then be thrown back to FIFA: Really? Are you seriously going to ban the world’s best players from your own World Cup?
Why FIFA would give in
The answer, in all likelihood, would be no. In theory, the FIFA threat could harm the Super League. It would be far more damaging to … FIFA.
The men’s and women’s World Cups account for more than 80% of FIFA’s revenue each four-year cycle. FIFA’s unwavering primary commercial goal is to maximize the attractiveness of these World Cups. If half of the stars of the sport were absent because they were classified as pariahs by tournament organizers, a World Cup would still be a spectacle, but the event’s appeal would dwindle over time.
And so FIFA would certainly give in at some point.
The Super League could, in a way, become a referendum on the World Cup. It would show that the sport’s banner event is no longer as colossal as it used to be – not because it’s less exciting, but because exciting football is now more common and more observable.
The threat would be empty in the end. As always, the World Cup will continue with the sport’s greatest stars. As always, FIFA will benefit from this. It just won’t be able to stop a group of elite clubs from taking control of the professional wealth of football.
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