'Operation Gandalf': the first Super League of 1998 failed for the same reasons as Florentino's

Relations between European clubs, leagues, national associations and the mighty UEFA have always been difficult, among other things because of the huge amounts of money that football moves. Just remember, for example, the hard personal experience of the Swede Lennart Johansson, remembered president of UEFA, who in 1998 competed for the presidency of the FIFA and lost against Joseph S. Blatter despite having 50 pledges to vote written of European federations …

From precisely that year, the ‘Seventh’ of Real Madrid, dates the first great secessionist challenge of the richest clubs, then called ‘Operation Gandalf’: “A name taken from the Hobbit that was probably related to Arthurian legends and the creation myth”, as the lawyer explains to EL CONFIDENTIAL Juan de Dios Crespo, who advised several clubs during those negotiations (remarkably similar to the current ones).

Chronology of a failure: how the European Super League was born (and died)

The confidential

“The project failed for the same than now ”, explains Crespo in a telephone conversation:“ FIFA put more money and broke the consent, exactly the same as now ”. There was only one difference: the break it was not national, as has happened this week with the six English clubs. “Some went with agreement, and others were sued to pay the penalty for abandoning ship ”.

The Super League has died before being born and its promoters have received an international slap in the face, but it is clear that the project did not even occur to him. Florentine Pérez nor Joan Laporta ni to Andrea Agnelli. Just a year and a half ago, the announcement of a UEFA Conference League financed with money from the ‘big’ clubs caused a huge uproar in the body that governs European football, to the point that La Liga and Javier Tebas improvised an urgent international congress in Madrid to (successfully) placate the revolution of the elite.

Mijatovic scores the goal in the 1998 Champions League final (REUTERS)

The true germ of the revolution, however, emerged a quarter century, when the first attempt by wealthy clubs to create their own competition (outside of UEFA) caused profound changes in European football. The first reform proposal of the European Cup had in fact appeared in 1993, work of the aforementioned Johansson. In 1995 the idea was taken up again, but without major consequences: the leaders did not agree on the format or the continuity of the Recopa, which would be finally eliminated shortly after. The ‘big’ clubs, however, continued to work discreetly behind UEFA’s back. At that time, the influence of Real Madrid was not as great as it is now; his last triumph in the European Cup had been in 1966. They were Bayern Munich and Manchester United the main protagonists of the revolt.

In early 1996 UEFA proposed increase from 24 to 32 the teams participating in the Champions League, to ensure the presence of the ‘greats’. The model of the new Champions was approved that same summer was even more guarantee: 56 teams in the preliminary phase and 24 in the final phase. A big enough cushion for teams rich in bad seasons.

Open war

It wasn’t enough, apparently. Nine months later, in April 1997, the powerful clubs presented a Superliga project with 16 teams that would begin with the new century. The new tournament was a serious and articulated danger for UEFA: the Ley Bosman had increased the power of the clubs, which could have the best foreigners, and the ‘galactization’ Football was already incubated in the minds of several managers.

Nyon executives reacted much like they did in 2021: they threatened to expulsion to the teams promoting the rebellion against their monopoly. The project was sponsored by Media Partners, a group of investors specialized in the management of international events that offered fabulous returns to clubs, and was endorsed (as now) by the American investment bank JP Morgan with almost half a billion pesetas (more than 2,800 million euros).

On July 19, 1998, they discreetly met in London leaders of 15 ‘big’ clubs to design the final format of the new competition. Lorenzo Sanz, president of Madrid who had just achieved the ‘Seventh’, repeated that it was an “irreversible competition”. The newspapers were filled during the following week with criticism from the clubs that stayed out of the banquet, redoubled since Swiss by outraged UEFA leaders (again, a similar scenario to the current one), associations, FIFA – of course – and even the unions of footballers.

Aleksander Ceferin and Andrea Agnelli, in a draw held in 2019. (EFE)

“European football is in danger”wrote Johansson: “UEFA is not surprised by these new plans, and is ready to react to this new challenge. It will not be money, however, that dictates the course of events. The benefit economic may be just one of the criteria ” […] “European football has developed in an organized way, and in a spirit of solidarity, for more than 100 years, and this attempt to cut back the most lucrative and exploit it financially you will not be successful. UEFA will not allow European football to lose its credibility”.

The arguments are powerfully reminiscent of those of 2021: a purely competition commercial and detached from merit sport that endangers the social fabric of football and “solidarity” (in addition, of course, the power of UEFA). The initial neglect of the countries of Eastern Europe On the part of Media Partner, it was used to criticize the essence of a project based “on excessive and selfish ambitions”, as the then president of the Spanish Football Federation wrote in an article, Angel Maria Villar, which “attacks the structure pyramidal of football, made up of clubs, national federations, confederations and FIFA, which has so successfully promoted a increase constant of football throughout its history ”.

The crisis came just months after the controversial FIFA elections, but Blatter he immediately joined UEFA. At that moment, Gerhard Aigner (UEFA general secretary) urgently visited Madrid to negotiate with the clubs. “Aigner was God at that time,” says a former leader of that time: “I remember perfectly that Villar forced to visit him in the Federation, and not meet outside, because he did not want to appear intimidated and the situation was really serious. They could carry the football forever ”.

More money

Two months later, in September, UEFA put money on the table to cancel the revolution. In addition, it radically modified its competitions with a Champions League of 32 teams in its final phase and the merger of the Recopa Europe (which had fallen into disrepute) and the UEFA Cup (now Europa League). The system mixed (initial league and heats after) significantly reduced the risk of early elimination and ensured a minimum number of televised encounters. In the debates, the poor economic health of the clubs was analyzed, some of which accumulated significant deficits, it already appeared for the first time the notion of the controversial ‘financial fair play’.

Federations and national leagues feared that the new direct contact between UEFA and unruly clubs (to keep them within the corral) reduce their role and influence in the organization of the circus. But despite their efforts to cooperate directly with the clubs, in 2000 the G14, a pressure group of the 14 ‘big’, who did not want to leave the entity but did better defend their interests. (Replaced in 2008 by the European Club Association, ECA). They featured Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Inter, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester United, Milan, Olympique de Marsella, Oporto, París Saint Germain, PSV Eindhoven y Real Madrid (7 of the 12 drivers of this last attempt).

Joan Laporta and Ramón Calderón, presidents of Barcelona and Real Madrid, in 2008, when the ECA was created. (EFE)

The waters never quite calmed down, but for many years The happy Super League was not mentioned again as a probable scenario. Until 2016, the year in which Michel platini left the UEFA presidency and leading ECA clubs smelled the weakness of the criticized European entity in the middle of the investigation of the United States Prosecutor’s Office for the widespread corruption in FIFA and UEFA. The ‘greats’ then began to conspire again to create a tournament parallel that would bring higher television revenues. Uninvited leagues and clubs moved with extraordinary rapidity (including a congress organized in Madrid in record time by LaLiga), and again the wound was sutured as best it could.

The wound, however, presents a very complicated healing: the clubs believe that UEFA profits excessively from the tournaments it organizes, when they are the protagonists. Florentino Pérez has acknowledged defeat this week, but ensures that the project continues, in one way or another. Not even its highs enemies deny this scenario in private, and now begins a period of talks that could lead to a scenario less unsuccessful than what has been repeated this week of strong emotions in continental football. Twenty three years later, the underlying problem of football remains the same, although the new world is unrecognizable.

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