Real Madrid's Kaka
Real Madrid's Kaka reacts to a call during the second half of a World Football Challenge soccer match on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012, in Las Vegas. Real Madrid defeated Santos Laguna 2-1. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

It is not often that soccer makes the front page of the New York Times. But on April 18, the sport’s most famous teams kicked off an economic drama so seismic that it received A1 attention the next day. In an arrangement that would have upended the world’s most popular form of entertainment, twelve of the wealthiest soccer clubs in Europe—such as Manchester United and Real Madrid—announced they would begin playing in a breakaway international Super League “as soon as practicable.”

The clubs presented their decision as a way to improve the sport’s quality. But the only thing super about the league was the condemnation, which was immediate and widespread. Sports writers were outraged. Coaches denounced the proposal. Former star players castigated the project, as did current ones. Fans were furious. The proposed league was “driven exclusively by greed,” declared Football Supporters Europe, an umbrella fan organization. “The only ones who stand to gain are hedge funds, oligarchs, and a handful of already wealthy clubs.”

The critics are right. The Super League project would have transferred money away from dozens of European teams to the select, conspiring clubs. It would have done so by greatly diminishing the top domestic soccer associations, like the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga, in which these dozens of teams compete. Right now, the associations are the backbone of soccer, watched by well over one billion people worldwide, and they shower money on soccer clubs from almost every major city in their countries. But the Super League would have stolen away many of these eyeballs and, with them, the high-price advertisements and expensive broadcasting contracts that help sustain all the teams. It would be as if American baseball’s richest and most storied franchises—like the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Cubs, the Giants, and the Red Sox—formed their own association, garnering an increased share of baseball’s profits while turning the MLB into a new minor league.

The result would have been something distressingly familiar to anyone following the global economy: rising geographic and overall inequality. In addition to being already rich themselves, 10 of the Super League’s 12 participants came from big, already wealthy cities. The three Spanish clubs that signed up to join hail from Madrid and Barcelona. Two of Italy’s three teams are in Milan, the metro area with the country’s highest per capita GDP. Of the six English participants, half are based in London. Another two are from Manchester, a middle-class metro by average income, but still the U.K.’s second-largest economy. (The league’s organizers invited three other teams to join as well, one based in Paris and another based in Munich.)

Equally disconcerting: A lot of the money that would flow to the “super” clubs would go to a small group of people from not just outside their team’s city, but from outside their team’s country. Of the 12 teams, four are owned American moguls. One is controlled by a Chinese investor. The owner of Manchester City F.C., Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is a billionaire sheikh from the United Arab Emirates. The owner of Chelsea F.C., Roman Abramovich, is a Russian oligarch and an associate of Vladimir Putin.

In an era of inequality, that these titans and tycoons drew mass backlash is unsurprising. What is surprising is what happened next: the protests succeeded.

When elites conspire to extract money from local communities, they tend to triumph. Over the last two decades, regulators have signed off on a wide range of corporate mergers that have concentrated wealth in the hands of an ever-smaller number of people and places—like when Belgium’s InBev bought St. Louis’s Anheuser-Busch, or when Seattle’s T-Mobile bought the Kansas-headquartered Sprint. Politicians have stood by as unscrupulous investors acquired socially critical assets, such as local newspapers, and stripped them down to make fast cash. Rather than redistribute this ill-gotten wealth in the form of higher personal and corporate taxes, elected officials across the world have steadily lowered both and cut welfare instead.

It’s therefore understandable that many commentators reacted to news of the Super League’s formation with grim resignation. “European soccer has been drifting, inexorably, to this point for years,” wrote The New York Times’s Rory Smith. In explaining why the project was inevitable, he cited factors that could just as easily describe the behavior of some governments: the willingness of leagues to wave in money “from anyone and everyone,” the fact that they decided “the rules did not really apply” to their richest clubs, the way soccer’s governing bodies “gave more and more power away” to these big, wealthy teams. “It’s the reality of modern football,” wrote Vince Rugari in the Sydney Morning Herald. Fans may burn their jerseys, threaten boycotts, and petition for change. The Super League, he wrote, would still come to be.

But then, something strange took place. In near unison, and across the ideological spectrum, heads of state throughout Europe loudly denounced the project. On Monday, Italy’s prime minister came out against the league. So did French President Emmanuel Macron. Spain’s socialist government criticized it, as did British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. These weren’t merely statements of disapproval. In remarks on Tuesday morning, Johnson said his government would drop a “legislative bomb” to stop the project from happening.

Within hours, the league began to crumble. On Tuesday afternoon, Chelsea F.C. and Manchester City F.C., both English participants, announced plans to withdraw. By the end of the day, every club from Britain was out, and most had apologized to fans. Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Atlético Madrid withdrew on Wednesday. With only two teams left, the super league was dead.

To be clear, it wasn’t killed simply by government opposition. The project faced remarkable blowback from soccer authorities (the president of European soccer’s governing body called the organization’s architects “liars” and “snakes”) as well as from some of the super clubs’ own coaches and players. The planners failed to secure participation from three of Europe’s most famous teams—Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, and Borussia Dortmund—leaving their monopoly vulnerable and incomplete. And there would have been no broad political opposition were it not for the fierce, mounting objections of fans. The people, in other words, moved the leaders.

But the league’s would-be founders must have known there would be an outcry from fans, and actors on both sides of the battle have credited the opposition of politicians with the project’s spectacularly swift demise. That opposition, after all, wasn’t delivered in mere abstractions. To try and stop the league from forming, Oliver Dowden, Britain’s sports minister, got specific. The government, he said, was “examining every option from governance reform to competition law, and mechanisms that allow football to take place.”

Dowden and his party are not exactly known for their interest in equality. But that doesn’t mean his threats were off target. As it happens, corporate governance reform and trust busting are some of the exact policies that would help restore fairness to Britain’s highly consolidated, overall economy. His statement should give progressives, whose interest in equality extends beyond soccer, some inspiration.

The collapse of the Super League should give them hope. The project isn’t quite buried; the richest clubs could try again later, but better prepared. They might use the threat of a second attempt to wring more favorable deals from soccer’s existing associations. But it is still unusual for major mergers to fail, and to witness the league’s collapse is inspiring and refreshing in equal measure. It means the pressure and organizing worked. It means that when enough people protest, political systems can still stop wealth from flowing up.

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Daniel Block is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs and a contributing editor at The Washington Monthly. Follow him on Twitter @DBlock94