What Does The European Super League Mean For Women’s Football?

Will it really 'advance and develop' the women's game? Georgia Aspinall investigates.

Jessica Sigsworth and Demi Stokes

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

At midnight last night, football was changed forever. The top six teams in the Premier League agreed to join a new European Super League (ESL) in a move that could see them banned from all other domestic, European and global competitions.

What is the European Super League (ESL)?

Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham will join AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid in the ESL, with three more expected to announce soon. The competition has been widely condemned by football fans because it would include the same 15 teams every year with the big six automatically qualifying every season – no matter where they place in other leagues.

In essence, the ESL is meant to rival the Champions League (which is set to be extended to 36 teams by 2024, resulting in A LOT more games at a time when players are already competing more than ever before – and have the fatigue to show it). Under the current league system, only the teams who place in the top four of the UK’s Premier League qualify for the Champions League – however now with the ESL, the big six will automatically play a major European league regardless of where they place in the Premier League or any other competition, making both the PL and Champions League largely redundant.

That’s why when speculation about the announcement was rife, FIFA, UEFA and the FA all announced their opposition, with FIFA confirming that the clubs involved in the ESL would be banned from competing in domestic and European competitions, like the Premier League or Champions League. Gary Neville even suggested the clubs have their prior titles taken off them.

Critics say closed competitions of this nature go against the spirit of football as a game for all to potentially succeed in no matter how big your club is - and that it would completely destroy domestic football in the UK if these best six teams are unable to compete against smaller teams hoping for promotion, or their long-standing rivals that always bring exciting matches.

In fact, Boris Johnson has even got involved after uproar from football fans, saying that the government will ‘look at everything that we can do with the football authorities to make sure that this doesn't go ahead in the way that it's currently being proposed.’

But one positive of the announcement appears to come for the women’s game. We say ‘appears’ with bated breath, of course.

‘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,’ the ESL statement reads.

What does the European Super League mean for women's football?

Cue a flurry of questions. Currently, women’s football in England consists of two nationwide leagues and three regional. The Women’s Super League (WSL) is the highest league, with the Women’s Championship the second-highest (winners of the championship are promoted to the WSL). The top three teams of the WSL then qualify for the UEFA Women’s Champions League.

Now though, the same would go for women’s football – whatever teams choose to join the ESL would qualify for the women’s tournament regardless of where they place in the WSL. It’s not yet known what teams will be a part of it though, with questions raised about whether it could be the same six founding the men’s ESL.

Because, while Arsenal Women and Chelsea Women are the best performers of the WSL, Liverpool Women didn’t even qualify for it this season – playing in the championship instead. Could the ESL – of which Liverpool FC is a founding member – justify forming a women’s tournament with a team that isn’t even playing the highest league right now? Unlikely.

The ESL say the creation of a new league for the women’s game will help ‘advance and develop’ it. It will definitely bring in more money, with founding clubs promised £3billion just for joining and uncapped ‘solidarity payments’ that are ‘substantially higher’ than current European competitions. While exact figures haven’t been released, the ESL did say it was ‘expected to be in excess of £8.6bn’ for the ‘initial commitment period’.

For football fans at large, the motive for joining the ESL then is clear: money. But when it comes to the women’s game, money could really help. Be it advancing their training facilities and coaching staff or having more buying power for top players, more investment is always great for the women’s game.

Salary wise, female players are still paid less than the men, with women only able to play professionally full-time as recently as 2018. Literally, they all had side jobs while playing professional-level football up until then. The age-old argument from sexists around the world has always been ‘Well the men bring in more money, so they should be paid more’. It’s quite ironic then that now, when the top six clubs demonstrate that very ethos – that is really is all about money – the same fans are screaming ‘capitalism has ruined the game!!! A game built on the backs of socialists by the working class!!’.

There’s been no real effort made to explain how the ESL plan to advance the women’s game.

Irony aside, whether or not the money will help the women’s game enough to outweigh the risks of it is up for debate. There’s no guarantee that teams playing in the women’s ESL will be paid the same, or receive the same competition money. There’s also been no real effort made to explain how the ESL plan to advance the women’s game beyond creating a new tournament. How much of all those billions will clubs actually spend on their women’s sides?

There’s also no word yet on whether or not the women’s teams involved would also be banned from their other competitions in the same way the men are being threatened with. Given FIFA didn’t declare either way, we can presume that if the same clubs chosen for the men’s ESL have their women’s sides play in the new tournament, they would face the same ban as a whole. If they were to, it would be a disaster for women’s football.

Not only would we not be able to compete in the Women's World Cup, but domestically, it’s sad to say, the game is still being built for women in the UK. Only last month did the FA broker a deal with Sky to broadcast all 44 WSL matches of the 2021-22 season, the biggest broadcast deal of any professional women's football league in the world and the first time that the WSL's rights had been sold separately from the men's game.

If the best six teams in the WSL join the ESL, and are then unable to compete in the WSL, the WSL would become as redundant the Premier League - at a time when women’s football is much more unpredictable. Yes, the biggest clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea do tend to perform the best, but at present women’s football is still growing to the point where small clubs can achieve unbound success. The WSL is building momentum, fan bases are growing and more tickets being sold, so if the spirit of the game is taken out of it just as it may for the Premier League – will that not do more damage to the women’s game?

Equally, if the fear with the ESL is that no one watches to watch the same 15 teams play each other every year forever more, as Jurgen Klopp has said before, would that not be the same for the women’s ESL – only causing more harm because the women’s game is already so underrated?

These are the questions we must be asking, because if it turns out that the women’s game will fall foul to the same fate as domestic men’s football in the UK, the ESL can no longer hide behind the idea that they’re advancing the women’s game in order to sell this new format to football fans at large.

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