As crowds gathered outside Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium, there was a moment — almost like the flick of a switch — when angry jeers turned to whooping cheers.
Fans, currently unable to watch Premier League games amid Covid-19 restrictions, had come together on Tuesday to protest Chelsea’s participation in the European Super League ahead of the side’s goalless draw against Brighton.
While the protests were ongoing, the news was announced that the club would withdraw from the breakaway league, which has been met with fierce condemnation across football and beyond.
Soon, all six of the Super League’s English participants had followed suit and bowed out of the competition. Barely 48 hours since it had been announced, the project was unraveling.
Arsenal went the furthest in acknowledging the crucial role that fans had played in pressuring the club to withdraw.
“The last few days have shown us yet again the depth of feeling our supporters around the world have for this great club and the game we love,” began an open letter from the Arsenal board. “We needed no reminding of this but the response from supporters in recent days has given us time for further reflection and deep thought.”
In seeking to make European football more lucrative at the expense of competitive drama — 15 clubs would be immune from relegation in the Super League — the concept took football to a place the sport’s broader community didn’t want it to go.
From fans, players, pundits and politicians — not to mention rival clubs and the game’s governing bodies — the response to the Super League was emphatic.
As supporters took to the streets outside stadiums with banners, inside the ground players staged their own protests through T-shirts and post-match interviews.
On Tuesday, players for Liverpool, one of the 12 clubs to initially sign up for the exclusive competition, took to social media: “We don’t like it and we don’t want it to happen,” was the collective message, even if they didn’t explicitly mention the Super League.
Their manager, Jurgen Klopp, had shared his own reservations the day before, while Pep Guardiola, Klopp’s counterpart at Manchester City, railed against the way “everyone thinks for themselves” at the top of the game.
Broadcasters, including Amazon and BT, distanced themselves from the Super League, as did some of the game’s leading TV figures: “If it actually happens, I will never work on this European Super League,” tweeted BBC and BT presenter Gary Lineker.
With the footballing community practically unanimous in its disapproval, politicians weighed in.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the sport’s authorities would have the “full backing” from his government to take action against the Super League plans, while opposition leader Keir Starmer called clubs’ withdrawal a “watershed moment” for the game.
The Super League fiasco has not only demonstrated how much power is wielded by the wealthy owners of Europe’s top clubs, but also how football’s fans and stakeholders can wrestle back some of that power.
There has also been resistance from some club owners. Paris Saint-Germain’s chairman and CEO, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, urged football not to forget its fans as he pledged allegiance to UEFA’s European competitions, and Bayern Munich, which defeated PSG in last year’s Champions League final, also rejected the Super League.
Bayern and other German clubs operate under a 50+1 ownership rule, meaning members and fans hold the majority of the ownership stakes, rather than commercial partners.
But what has been brought into sharper focus is how the game balances the intentions of club owners against the desires of the fans — an ongoing and existential question for football.
On Monday, the UK government announced a fan-led review of the sport in the wake of the Super League launch, which it calls a “root-and-branch examination of football in this country.”
“Football needs to take its fans incredibly seriously and move against them at their peril. I think that’s probably a lesson learnt that will actually help with the situation moving forward,” UK sports minister Nigel Huddleston told CNN Sport’s Christina Macfarlane.
Huddleston added that the review will “come up with a whole host of recommendations on football governance and also the flow of money in football. We’ll see what those recommendations are and hopefully that will also help put us on a firmer footing.”
Among the possible outcomes of the review could be the introduction of an independent regulator of professional football in the UK.
“It’s been talked about for a few years, we’re not discounting it,” added Huddleston.
“There’s definitely issues with it in terms of scope of responsibilities. I suspect the idea of a regulator wouldn’t go down well with some of the football authorities who believe that they should probably be doing them themselves.
“But we’ve seen too many failures and too many problems with English football over the last few years.”
The Super League and the question of ownership at the top of the game has united and mobilized football’s community-at-large in a unique way, unlike other issues afflicting the game.
Asked for his views on the Super League earlier this week, Leeds forward Patrick Bamford questioned why the game’s decision-makers are prepared to take drastic action when football’s finances are at stake, but not against racism.
West Ham, one of the clubs that could have missed out on a chance to face Europe’s top sides with the introduction of the Super League, tweeted on Tuesday that it’s time to “get back to focusing on what’s important and stand together to show that there is No Room For Racism.”
The announcement of the Super League has also led to racial abuse towards club owners on social media, according to Campaign Against Antisemitism, which has identified tweets “appealing to classic tropes of Jewish greed, parasitism and control, as well as references to the Holocaust.”
“No controversy, however great the passions it may stir, can justify the horrendous antisemitic abuse meted out by some Twitter users towards football clubs and their owners,” said a spokesperson for Campaign Against Antisemitism.
When contacted by CNN about the antisemitic posts, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Keeping people safe on Twitter is a priority for us. We have clear policies in place — that apply to everyone, everywhere — that address threats of violence, abuse and harassment and hateful conduct and we take action when we identify accounts that violate these rules.”
Twitter also said that action has been taken against tweets referenced in the report for violating the company’s hateful conduct policy.
The balance of power between Europe’s “big clubs” and the sport’s governing bodies is an issue that isn’t going away any time soon, but it’s far from the only issue bedeviling the sport.
There are myriad others which have persisted for years, not least the level of investment in the women’s game and the way decisions are made to host leading tournaments such as the World Cup.
Last month, for example, international teams took the opportunity to highlight the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar during qualification games for the 2022 World Cup.
In late 2019, Nasser Al-Khater, chief executive of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup organizing committee, told CNN that the nation had been “judged by the court of perception very early on.”
“Was Qatar treated unfairly? Yes, in my opinion, very much so,” said Al Khater.
But with the tournament now just over a year away, last month’s qualifying games are unlikely to be the last time that Qatar’s human rights record comes under the microscope — and if the events surrounding the Super League have taught us anything, it’s that the greatest catalysts for change in football can be found within the game itself.