Plans for a European soccer superleague appeared on the brink of collapse on Tuesday, a spectacular implosion for a multibillion-dollar proposal that had prompted howls of outrage from nearly every corner of the sport since it was announced on Sunday.
Chelsea, one of six English teams that had signed up as founding members of the new league, was preparing documentation to officially withdraw from the project, according to a person familiar with the club’s discussions. A spokesman for the club declined to comment.
Manchester City, which leads the Premier League, was also close to pulling out of its agreement, according to people with knowledge of the situation. City’s about face came soon after its celebrated Spanish coach, Pep Guardiola, had slammed the plans for a closed competition, saying, “It is not a sport if it doesn’t matter if you lose.” A Manchester City spokeswoman, citing legal reasons, declined to comment on the club’s plans.
And Manchester United’s executive vice chairman, Ed Woodward, one of the main drivers behind the Super League plan, will leave the club, according to a person familiar with the team’s leadership. Woodward, the person said, will remain with United until Dec. 31. A club spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The loss of two giant Premier League clubs — and one of the Super League’s key architects — would most likely be a death knell for the league, stripping it of both leadership and some of the competitive legitimacy that would have made it attractive to sponsors and broadcasters. It also may force the other clubs — especially the four other Premier League teams that had signed on — to rethink their participation.
Other top clubs in Europe had already rejected the project. The French champions Paris St.-Germain, a deep-pocketed team that had been courted by the Super League, announced Tuesday that it would not take part. Its decision came a day after the German powerhouses Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund had gone public with their opposition. The perennial Dutch champion Ajax, a four-time winner of the Champions League, soon came out against the plan as well.
The Super League, an alliance of a dozen of the world’s best, richest and most popular teams, would have redrawn soccer’s structures and economics, and brought about one of the largest redistributions of wealth in sports history by funneling billions of dollars to a handful of clubs that would be permanent members of the new elite competition. Some of the biggest brands in soccer — including Real Madrid, Manchester United, Liverpool and Juventus — were to be part of the league.
Instead, it appeared set to fall apart amid a growing wave of internal revolt, political threats, fan outrage and, most ominously, humbling U-turns by several of its founding teams.
European soccer officials had erupted in fury over the plans over the weekend, seeing them as a direct challenge to the domestic leagues and continental competitions that have served as the backbone of European soccer for a century.
That outrage soon spread. Players on the prospective Super League clubs came out publicly against the plan. Coaches did little to disguise their opposition. And politicians in England and France pledged to oppose the plan with official action.
In Britain, which is providing half of the breakaway group’s members, Prime Minister Boris Johnson met Tuesday with fan representatives and leaders of the Premier League. Later, his office pledged to do whatever it took to stop the multibillion-dollar competition from proceeding, vowing that nothing was off the table.
“We are exploring a range of options, including legislative ones,” said Max Blain, Johnson’s spokesman.
Later in the day, hundreds of fans protesting the Super League marched on Chelsea’s stadium before its game with Brighton, a day after Liverpool fans had surrounded the team’s bus as it arrived for a Premier League game at Leeds United.
After that game, Liverpool’s coach and his players revealed they had not been consulted about the plans, and at least one said he wanted no part of it. “I don’t like it, and hopefully it doesn’t happen,” the club veteran James Milner said.
Chelsea, like some of the other founding clubs, has been taken aback by the strength of opposition to the proposals from its fans and the wider British public. The strength of feeling led to the team’s change of heart, according to the person with knowledge of the club’s plans.
The Guardian newspaper reported the team was forced to pull out after a revolt by players concerned they would not be able to participate for their national teams in global events like the World Cup or regional tournaments like this summer’s European Championship and the Copa América in South America.
Those threats had come from UEFA, which oversees soccer in Europe, including the Champions League, and FIFA, the sport’s global governing body.
FIFA had warned clubs in January that it would bar them and their players from international competitions if they pressed ahead with plans for a new league, and the organization’s president, Gianni Infantino, seemed to renew that threat — without repeating it — in an address to a European soccer congress on Tuesday in Switzerland.
“If some elect to go their own way then they must live with the consequences of their choice, they are responsible for their choice,” Infantino said in a speech to European soccer leaders in Montreux, Switzerland. “Concretely this means, either you are in, or you are out. You cannot be half in and half out. This has to be absolutely clear.”
The threat, if FIFA was to follow through, carried weight. The 12 Super League clubs employ many of the world’s top players, including the cores of the national teams of Brazil, Argentina, England, Italy, Spain France and even the United States.
Privately some of the clubs involved in the project have expressed frustration about how it had been rolled out since Sunday. A statement to announce a league that its backers said would “open a new chapter for European football” came late on Sunday as much of Europe slept.
But after the teams involved made almost no public comments, the Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez, the only executive involved in the scheme to defend it publicly, was left to defend it alone on a chat show that was broadcast at midnight Monday in Spain.
Pérez, the chairman of the new league and one of its leading proponents for years, insisted the project would benefit all of soccer, which he said was at risk of economic collapse because of the global pandemic. He did not address why so many of the clubs that have signed up to the new league had been so badly mismanaged before the pandemic struck, or make a persuasive case for how funneling billions of dollars in television and sponsorship revenue to a handful of top clubs would filter down to the leagues and teams that will be left out.
“Whenever there is a change, there are always people who oppose it,” Pérez said then. “We are doing this to save football at this critical moment.”