A brief history of the league that never was

Posted by Uli Hesse

Pep Guardiola, Juergen Klopp AssociatedBayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have dominated German football in recent seasons.

Almost exactly a year ago, Bayern Munich's Spanish midfielder Javier Martinez said: "Bayern versus Dortmund, that's the German El Clasico."

It sounded, frankly, a tad silly at the time, considering the tradition and the implications, the deep resonance and the sheer frenzy surrounding Real Madrid versus Barcelona.

But times have a habit of changing. In April, Bayern president Uli Hoeness predicted "Spanish conditions in the Bundesliga," meaning his own club and Borussia Dortmund could become a Teutonic version of the Real-Barca duopoly.

And now, seven months later, you have to concede that we are indeed approaching a Clasico-esque state of emergency when the two German rivals meet. The media coverage was certainly intense to the point of absurdity in the build-up to Bayern's 3-0 win at the Westfalenstadion on Saturday.

So massive was the hype that Felix Magath hardly garnered a headline when he said Bayern and Dortmund have become so big they should leave the Bundesliga and join an international league.

"Normally, you would have to exclude them from domestic competitions," the former Bayern coach told the Hamburger Morgenpost newspaper. "A European league would be more honest."

If you are now shaking your head and wondering what that nonsense is all about, you are in all likelihood in your mid-20s or younger. That's because most football fans who are older will be quite familiar with Magath's concept of a European Super League, to give the idea the name it has come to be known by. If you carefully follow the international press, you can still read about it all the time.

In April 2008, for instance, AC Milan president Silvio Berlusconi said that "the big clubs should have their own competition" instead of "playing in the boondocks in front of less than 20,000 people." Fifteen months later, Real's president Florentino Perez said, "We have to agree a new European Super League which guarantees that the best always play the best."

And a few weeks after that, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger told The Guardian that "the national leagues will survive but maybe in ten years, you will have a European league. I feel inside our game there are some voices behind the scenes coming up to do something about that."

Last year, Netherlands legend Clarence Seedorf told the BBC reporter Chris Bevan about the idea for "an NBA of football," adding: "I have heard about a project they have already in some kind of box." Finally, in April, Scotland boss Gordon Strachan said: "I think there will be two European leagues in 10 years' time or so and then Celtic and Rangers will be in it."

Yet none of these many statements of the past few years have led to the hectic and angry reactions that the plan of an elite league used to elicit in the late 1980s and 1990s, a time when it was considered a very serious, real threat to football tradition.

Funnily enough, the genesis of the European Super League can be traced back to what now seems like the most unlikely of places: White Hart Lane.

In late 1982, the Monaco-based entrepreneur Irving Scholar became chairman of Tottenham Hotspur and almost immediately set about improving the club's finances (read: finding ever new ways to earn more money). Only a few months after taking charge, for instance, Scholar announced that Spurs would become the first sports club in the world to float shares on the stock market.

At about the same time, Scholar became interested in the work of a man called Alex Fynn, who was then working for the renowned advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. According to Anthony King's book "End of the Terraces," Scholar was intrigued by how Fynn had helped modernise the Health Education Council and hired him "to develop strategies by which Tottenham Hotspur might promote itself."

King says this marked the beginning of Fynn's "relationship with professional football." It seems the super salesman became an expert rapidly. When Fynn published a book called "Heroes and Villains" only a few years later, in 1991, Penguin Books' author's info could already state that he "has advised both Arsenal and Spurs on advertising, the Football League on television contracts and the Football Association on commercial matters."

According to another King book, "The European Ritual," Fynn became a renowned football thinker so quickly that he was asked to hold a speech when the 1988-89 Rothmans Football Yearbook was launched. Fynn used the occasion to present his own 10-point plan to prepare football for the new millennium. One of the projects he proposed was the formation of a pan-European league reserved for the biggest clubs.

Silvio Berlusconi
GettyImagesSilvio Berlusconi was intrigued by the prospect of a European league.

This concept brought Fynn to the attention of another Saatchi & Saatchi client, a former law student and cruise-ship crooner who recognised the sweet sound of profit when he heard it -- Silvio Berlusconi. Two years earlier, Berlusconi had acquired AC Milan and was spending heavily in the transfer market to return the club to its former glory.

Berlusconi asked Fynn to expand on the idea of the glamour competition and the latter said that between 18 and 20 top European clubs should create their own two-tiered league, along the lines of the NBA or MLB. This was so revolutionary that it sounded ridiculous, and UEFA dismissed the proposal outright. But there was something about the idea of the clubs being their own masters that appealed mightily to the Milan boss, who began to lobby for Fynn's project, or a variation of it.

In May 1989, Berlusconi met with Real Madrid president Ramon Mendoza to discuss the matter. In Barcelona's Princesa Sofia hotel, the two concocted a reform of the European cup competitions. They wanted to have the top clubs seeded. They wanted to replace the final rounds, from the quarterfinals on, with a league system. And they wanted to sell the television rights to this spectacle, through collective bargaining, to private stations across Europe.

If that sounds like what came to be known as the Champions League, it's because from that day on -- May 24, 1989 -- UEFA was suddenly on the defensive. The threats of a breakaway league, meaning a competition organised by the big clubs themselves, were sometimes thinly veiled, sometimes not even that. They all but forced UEFA to concede ground to the top clubs and to satisfy their wish for more games, more glamour, more revenue.

Whenever UEFA put its foot down to stop the tide of reforms, the idea of a breakaway league miraculously reappeared. In the summer of 1998 -- six years after UEFA had introduced its modified version of Berlusconi's plans, the Champions League -- a Milan-based agency called Media Partners, which had multiple links to Berlusconi, invited the continent's top 16 clubs to its London offices. Media Partners proposed a privately organised European league -- and promised a lot more money for everyone involved. According to the German journalist Pit Gottschalk, the code name for the new league was, bizarrely, "Gandalf."

UEFA reacted by revamping the still young Champions League, largely according to the clubs' wishes, whereupon Media Partners, now left out in the cold, filed a lawsuit against UEFA at the European court of justice, saying the governing body was "abusing its dominant position" to squelch potential competitors.

Another result of this episode was that many of the clubs that had been invited to London met again later that year -- on Oct. 14, 1998 -- at the Principe di Savoia hotel in Milan to form the so-called G-14. (The date cited by Wikipedia is wrong.)

Sandro Rosell
GettyImagesSandro Rosell raised the spectre of the European Super League in 2011 when discussing negotiations with UEFA.

It was an alliance of the biggest clubs that would later become the European Club Association, or ECA. To this day, the threat of a European Super League is periodically voiced by the ECA to give the clubs bargaining leverage when dealing with UEFA. In 2011, Barcelona's president, Sandro Rosell, said: "If UEFA and the ECA reach an agreement, we would like to increase the Champions League under the umbrella of UEFA." He added: "If not, the ECA is entitled to organise its own champions competition."

And so the threat of the great European breakaway league is still there. But somehow the beast has lost its bite, or at least its terror. That's probably because, even after a quarter of a century, the central problem hasn't been solved.

As the sports writer Sam Pilger put it last month in his own piece on the subject: "Another problem with this league is how it would be assembled. It wouldn't be on merit, that's for certain. The big clubs want to guarantee their revenue streams and pull up the drawbridge to the promised land forever." In other words, the league has to be a closed shop, operating under the American franchise system.

But even Fynn, the original Super League architect, has long since realised that what works in the U.S. is unlikely to work in Europe. As early as 1998, he told The Independent: "Berlusconi is a genuine fan in his way, but he's an American fan. Even promotion and relegation is too risky for him. The mistake he makes is that this isn't the NFL or the NHL."

Saturday's game was a good case in point. Imagine a European Super League had been introduced four or five years ago. Borussia Dortmund were hardly the toast of the town back then, so they wouldn't have been asked to join. And we wouldn't have what Martinez calls the "German Clasico."

The idea of changing fortunes, of clubs rising to the top -- be it through smarts or simply money, as in the cases of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City -- is so deeply ingrained in football's collective psyche that a closed-shop league, even one made up of highly attractive teams, would be unattractive to the customer (sorry: fan).

And if the European Super League is not a franchise league but theoretically open to everyone, it's hard to see what it has to offer that the Champions League couldn't.

Although the recent remarks from Wenger and Seedorf imply there's a master plan hidden in some secret drawer, so far nobody has presented an answer to this conundrum. Not even Alex Fynn. Which suggests Bayern and Dortmund will have to make do with the Bundesliga for many more years to come.

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