wake up call

Much in the world of football is cyclical. Each leagues’ yearly seasons are the easiest examples of this. But larger scale tournaments happen over longer, repeating periods: World Cups, European Championships and Asian Cups all take place in four-year cycles, while the rest of the world’s confederations operate on two-year ones — well, most of the time anyway. Many leagues have eras of supremacy within them, with one club hoisting themselves to the fore for a few years, succeed that dominance to another club for a period, and then regain it again down the road.

Doha Qatar Stadium Complex
will club football’s greatest event soon find a home in the middle east?

Even rumors within the sport are full of repetitive eras. Transfer rumors seem to rise exponentially in the months leading up to a transfer window, then quickly die off after, only to arise again a few months later. We accept these as normal aspects of the game, the ebb and flow nature giving us a yearly rhythm to follow and look forward to.

But there are some recurring, cyclical aspects of soccer that pop up from time to time that actually disrupt that rhythm. This despite the fact that we’ve seen it pop up time and time again.

One example of these recurring disruptions is the long-mooted “super league”. A specter that’s long haunted the UEFA and FIFA, each variation of the rumor has its own unique twist. This time it’s going to replace the Champions League, or this incarnation will include teams from all over the world. Regardless of its shape or form, it’s nothing that the suits in Nyon or Zürich have any interest in seeing come to fruition… and thus we see this cyclical rumor’s disruptive nature. But each time the idea gains some steam, it’s ultimately brushed off.

However, when Oliver Kay of the Times — one of the most respected writers in the English media — devoted an entire piece to the latest incarnation the rumor last week, everyone curiously sat up and took notice. That likely had something to do with the supposed backers being from the same group that’s already shaking things up in Europe: the Qataris. You know them. They’re the same ones that are funding the extravagant, bank-busting project at Paris Saint-Germain. And they’re also the same guys throwing so much money at Barcelona that the Catalunyans finally caved in to pasting a for-profit company’s name on the front of their shirts. And with all signs pointing to the tiny Persian Gulf nation having actually bribed their way to landing the World Cup 2022, their pedigree for being able to buy change in the sport is both well documented and proven.

So it’s really little wonder that when Kay dared to publish the words “Qatar” and “Dream Football League” in one headline, the rumor we’ve heard a thousand times before suddenly became a little more credulous.

Qatar's Dream Football League
though the DFL rumors might not be true this time around, that doesn’t mean that they never will be.

As the article outlined, sixteen permanent clubs would be lured to compete every other summer in Qatar’s searing heat by a $270 million bounty, with eight additional invitees each tournament.  Chelsea received $60 million for winning the Champions League last season, so a guarantee of over three times that amount just for participating would be something that Europe and South America’s elite would have a hard time saying no to.

Now if you’ve followed the story at all, you’re likely aware that a satirical French football site quickly debunked the rumor, claiming Kay had based his piece on a hoax they had run earlier in the week. And though Kay initially refuted the Cashiers du Football rebuttal on Twitter, by Monday he and the Times had fully retracted the piece saying they had been well and fully duped.

So even though the rumors proved untrue once again — at least for the time being — just as they had every time before, that doesn’t mean that FIFA and UEFA should remain idle on the threat of a Dream League. Let’s imagine for a second the proposition was true. The effects on world football would be both numerous and far-reaching: 

  • Top clubs these days subject their players to upwards of 60-70 matches a season. And with most of those players also being drafted in for national team matches, that number could soar to 80-90. Asking players to spend a month of their summers, the time normally used for recuperation to play additional games in the conditions in Qatar seems borderline suicidal. 
  • Fixture congestion is already an issue between the club and international calendars, but adding this tournament into the mix would certainly make the task significantly harder.
  • With the money being offered at clubs’ disposal, the already gargantuan gap between the haves and the have-nots would be certain to grow even larger. Right now, there are only a handful of clubs in the world that can offer $300k/week wages. But all of the teams taking part in the dream team could offer that up. This would likely result in most of the top talent around the world being siphoned off to a limited set of clubs.
  • Considering one summer’s participation would see most clubs pull in revenues that it would normally take several years to produce, you could easily see a number of the top clubs mailing it in their domestic leagues/competitions. Equally so, the Champions and Europa Leagues would surely suffer as teams no longer find their “paltry” prize money worth the efforts.
  • And if this Dream Football League does ever see the light of day, I’m pretty sure it will also lead to us seeing “human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”

So while the problems outlined above are all very serious, the one I didn’t name is likely the most concerning of them all: me and you.

Yes, it’s our never-satisfied thirst for more top-level football that makes this threat something the powers that be should be paying attention to. The demand from fans to take in this type of event would likely be staggering. Nearly everyone I’ve talked to about the potential league was excited by it. The TV rights alone would surely fetch ridiculous sums, not to mention ticket prices. And with the potential revenues like that dangling out there, the incentive to actually turn this from a cyclical rumor in to a cyclical reality becomes that much harder to ignore.

just because the qataris have said they’re not planning the DFL now, doesn’t mean that they won’t be buying their way to another tournament in the future.

And for the first time, the money to back such an endeavor could be there too. Coupled with the demand from the fans, that might be enough to actually pull things together, whether the Qataris are ready to admit it or not. If there’s money there to be made, someone will eventually attempt to capitalize on it.

So what should FIFA and UEFA do to respond to this threat? For organizations prone to sitting on their laurels, the bigger issue might be getting them to act in the first place. But a rethinking and retooling of both organizations’ marquee club events seems the easiest place to start. The Champions League has become a bloated affair that could see some of its fat trimmed, while the FIFA Club World Cup could sorely used a complete overhaul (see: more teams). Including the clubs in the revamping processes seems a no brainer, but of course, we’re talking about organizations that are known for their incompetence. After all, keeping the clubs appeased is the most simple way to ward off the threat of a breakaway league.

Look, Kay and the Times got it wrong this time. But it won’t be long until this rumor has cycled its way back around to us again, and next time, there may be more truth in it. And whether Platini, Sepp and company are willing to proactively prepare for that inevitable reality, well that may make all the difference. Otherwise, brace yourselves… we’re in for a turbulent ride.

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