"In establishing this league, the women’s game was certainly not a primary concern, nor was it a secondary or tertiary concern for that matter."Ailura

Last Sunday night (18/04) saw twelve leading football clubs announce the European Super League (ESL) in a joint press release. With an extra three teams expected to join, these founding fifteen clubs would govern and automatically qualify for the league every year. The ESL implicitly offered itself as a rival, and eventual replacement, of the UEFA Champions League, a competition between the top-performing clubs each year from several domestic leagues which is set for a debated “Swiss Model” revamp of its own from 2024.

The plans for the ESL were condemned by UEFA, the governing body of football in Europe, which threatened that clubs participating in the ESL would be banned from all other domestic and European leagues. They also warned that any players involved could be made ineligible to participate in the World Cup. This scenario seemed catastrophic to football as we have known it.

Alongside pressure from politicians including both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Leader of the Opposition Sir Keir Starmer, the announcement was met with enormous uproar from fans.

Within only two days, the backlash against this plan had risen to sufficiently destructive levels. Now, the league has imploded, with all six English teams withdrawing their intention to participate and its organisers suspending all operations. Despite the u-turn, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez believes that the league will go ahead, citing “binding contracts” signed by the twelve clubs. Meanwhile, football supporters continue to protest against what they perceive as an attempt against sporting meritocracy.

Yet, amongst all this chaos, few have taken note of one of the most ludicrous elements of the ESL: its would-be implications for women’s football.

“A league system which fosters talent at the club level leads to a stronger national team, which in turn inspires confidence in women’s football.”

In the original press release, a mere sentence was afforded to address the fate of the women’s clubs. It read: “as soon as practicable after the start of the men’s competition, a corresponding women’s league will also be launched, helping to advance and develop the women’s game.” Any fan of women’s football can see the absurdity of this proposal. The twelve founding men’s teams may represent the most elite level of European football, but their equivalent women’s teams do not. Liverpool WFC currently plays in the second-tier league, having been relegated last season on points-per-game (PPG), while the recently founded Real Madrid Femenino do not yet have a single season under their belt. Even more mind-boggling is the fact that Olympique Lyon Feminin, who are the most successful team in European football, having won the Champions League seven times, would have been excluded from the Women’s ESL.

Clearly, everything the ESL promised to do for men’s football, it would have failed to do for women’s. In establishing this league, the women’s game was certainly not a primary concern, nor was it a secondary or tertiary concern for that matter. The initial announcement makes you wonder if the organisers only just remembered, minutes before the press release, that the women’s game exists, and tacked on a token mention with no real plan behind it.

“...facilities, coaches and players can be bought, fans cannot.”

In order for the quality of women’s football to improve, it needs to be a viable full time career choice. Currently, the extremely wealthy men’s teams subsidise the women’s teams to that end; for example, the progress made by Manchester United WFC in only three years is proof that high input equals high output. A league system which fosters talent at the club level leads to a stronger national team, which in turn inspires confidence in women’s football. Were the ESL to go ahead, female footballers could only ever have half a career. Either, they could play for the super league teams who would be better financed and better facilitated, but sacrifice playing for their national team, or, they could remain within the UEFA-run leagues, but under clubs who would not provide sufficient funding.

Even with investment, a Women’s ESL would not survive; facilities, coaches and players can be bought, fans cannot. Financial investment is an essential stimulus, a necessary startup for the women’s game, but ultimately, it is spectators who provide a sport with longevity. It would have been a travesty to see women’s teams, which are currently building loyal and local fanbases, relocated into an inaccessible European mega-league.

Thankfully, it looks like these speculations will live and die as just that - speculation. But this narrowly averted crisis points to a larger issue: women’s sport is still an afterthought.


Mountain View

European Super League: A death knell for smaller top-flight clubs

Many of the issues plaguing women’s sports today are unfortunately institutional ones. Lack of funding, pay inequality, sexual harassment and abuse from senior figures. But they are also connected to culture and discourse, meaning we can effect some change from the bottom up. In the same way that disillusioned fans were determined to boycott the ELS, we might also exercise our consumer influence by tuning in to or attending women’s sports more regularly. In regular times, tickets for the UK’s top tier women’s league, the FA WSL, are no more than ten pounds. This past year, the FA WSL has continued to grow; due to the misfortunate Covid response of the US women’s soccer league, many world-cup-winning American stars such as Christen Press and Tobin Heath have joined the English league, bringing the quality of play to an even higher standard. When fans are allowed to return, and assuming the plans for the ESL really are doomed, the FA WSL should prove to be an exciting and accessible league to follow.

Additionally, I might suggest a very small, potentially impactful, but undoubtedly controversial adjustment to the way we talk about sports. A key issue, hopefully highlighted here, is that some people seem to forget that women’s sport exists. Current terminology hardly helps them remember. In men’s professional sport, when anything is named, be it a team, a league or a trophy, it is rarely qualified with a big, blazing “M”. In women’s sport, as we know, the “W” is ubiquitous. When we refer to men’s football as simply ‘football’, it implies that the men’s game is the default, the original, the ideal form. Men’s football is simply ‘football’ but the women’s game requires a qualification, suggesting that it is additional, expendable, superfluous. Here at Cambridge, lots of teams, such as the Boat Club (CUBC), are gender neutral where possible, and where they need to distinguish, they do so equally. Specifying ‘men’s football’ or ‘men’s team,’ when that is in fact what we mean, could be a small way to challenge a culture which treats women’s football, and women’s sports generally, as an afterthought.

This change will unlikely be formally instituted in the Premier League any time soon, but a shift in popular discourse might inspire concern for the women’s game next time the men’s teams are planning something so radical.