By Callum Keown
Soccer’s European Super League collapsed on a dramatic night for the sport, as all six English clubs walked away from the controversial breakaway competition.
The league, formed by a group of 12 elite clubs and set to be funded by U.S. investment bank JPMorgan /zigman2/quotes/205971034/composite JPM +0.34% , sparked outrage among fans, players and even politicians after it was formally announced late Sunday, after months of speculation.
But less than 48 hours later, as the backlash reached fever pitch , the “U.S.-style” Super League fell apart, as one by one its charter members began pulling out.
The league issued a statement saying it would look to “reshape the project” following the exit of the English clubs — leaving just three Italian clubs and three Spanish giants involved: Juventus /zigman2/quotes/200971889/delayed IT:JUVE +2.22% , AC Milan, Inter Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. However, Turin-based Juventus’s chairman, Andrea Agnelli of the famed industrialist family behind Fiat /zigman2/quotes/204248628/composite STLA +0.99% /zigman2/quotes/209202731/delayed IT:STLA +0.19% , said the league could no longer go ahead.
Atlético Madrid withdrew early Wednesday.
The roller-coaster two-day period also saw José Mourinho sacked as Tottenham manager and former JPMorgan banker Ed Woodward resign as chief executive of Manchester United /zigman2/quotes/205140601/composite MANU +0.91% .
Social-media users had a field day as the all but universally panned league fell apart. Some likened it to the “Red Wedding” from television’s “Game of Thrones,” in which a number of key characters were shockingly killed off.
Big-screen references for the league’s dramatic downfall also applied.
Manchester City, owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group, was the first to officially leave, shortly before 9:30 p.m. U.K. time, while Chelsea — owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich — also began preparing documents to exit the league. By 11 p.m., Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham had all released statements signaling their intent to leave, and it became clear that the ESL, at least this time, would be short-lived.
Those on the sidelines, including top Dutch club Ajax — not involved in the breakaway group — enjoyed the show.
With the number of clubs involved rapidly diminishing, several observers joked that JPMorgan may end up having to field a team of bankers. The investment bank was reportedly committing an initial €3.5 billion ($4.2 billion) investment.
Fans had led the charge against the new, largely closed competition, which was criticized as greedy and damaging to the integrity of the sport, while Prince William and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson publicly condemned the idea.
Chelsea fans protested outside the club’s Stamford Bridge stadium earlier in the evening ahead of the team’s match against Brighton, before celebrating wildly when the news came through.
Fans were quick to lament the loss of the controversial league, which certainly provided drama as promised in its inaugural statement.
The Arsenal board apologized to fans, becoming the only club to do so through an official statement, and conceded it would “take time to restore your faith.”
“The last few days have shown us yet again the depth of feeling our supporters have for this great club and the game we love,” the club said. “We made a mistake, and we apologize for it.”
But it didn’t go down well with fans, who have organized a protest for Friday calling for U.S. owner Stan Kroenke to leave the club, urging him to sell up.
Liverpool owner John Henry, whose Fenway Sports Group also owns the Boston Red Sox and had earlier this year planned a public stock offering , issued an apology on Wednesday morning via the club’s official Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR -0.04% account, as England’s elite clubs embarked on efforts to repair the damage of the previous 48 hours.
The landscape of soccer will still change following recent days’ events. The long-plotted Super League led Europe’s governing body, the Union of European Football Associations, to make changes to its premier UEFA Champions League competition, which the Super League was set to challenge for primacy.
The new Champions League format, approved Monday, will see more games played among Europe’s elite, while also setting aside two places each season for clubs that have historically had success in Europe but failed to qualify on merit. The changes themselves have been criticized but are widely seen as better than a new league, which would have ensured 15 clubs feature every year regardless of their performance in their home leagues.