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The inside story of the battle over soccer's Super League

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Money, glamour, intrigue, cries of betrayal between those once thought to be close. No, we're not talking about secrets spilled in a certain royal memoir. We're talking about the struggle over who will get to stage some of the most watched sports events in the world. That would be soccer, or football to the rest of the world, and, most specifically, the Champions League, an annual event that draws more worldwide viewers than the Super Bowl, NBA Finals and World Series combined. That tournament is organized by the Union of European Football Association, or UEFA, a league of some 200-plus clubs that includes everybody from international superstars to those little known outside their home clubs.

But if you remember, back in April 2021 - and if you're a soccer fan, how can you forget - the owners of the very biggest clubs announced they would try to form a so-called Super League, where only the very best clubs and the very best players would be competing every week. But that was a direct challenge to the Champions League and, even more so, to the tens of millions of avid fans who saw the upstart league as a money grab and a threat to the egalitarianism of the sport where upsets, although rare, do happen. The fury of fans came so fast and so loud that the plans fell apart, or did they?

A new documentary series on Apple TV+ called "Super League: The War For Football" tells the inside story of the battle over the Super League, with interviews with many of the key figures. And director Jeff Zimbalist is with us now to tell us more about it. Jeff, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JEFF ZIMBALIST: Thank you, Michel. Appreciate it.

MARTIN: Also with us is Roger Bennett, a series consultant and contributor. He's also the founder of the Men in Blazers media network and - who are we kidding? - an old friend of ours whom we rely on to tell us the ins and outs of the beautiful game. Rodge (ph), welcome back. Thank you for joining us.

ROGER BENNETT: It's always an honor, Michel.

MARTIN: Thank you. So to start us off, when news of the Super League was first announced in April of 2021, it was a massive story. But from where we sit here, it just seemed like it kind of fizzled out, like some cheap fireworks, like they hadn't even really thought the thing through or something. But as the documentary shows, the behind the scenes was a really crazy story.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SUPER LEAGUE: THE WAR FOR FOOTBALL")

ALEKSANDER CEFERIN: The phone was off, and at that moment, I knew he's hiding. I knew he didn't tell me the truth. I realized that it's a betrayal.

MARTIN: That's UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin realizing that his friend, or at least somebody he thought was his friend, Andrea Agnelli, had been working on the Super League behind his back.

So, Jeff, I'm going to start with you. Before you started this project, did you have any clue about any of this? Did you know that it was that hot mess?

ZIMBALIST: I was watching it unfold with hundreds of millions of other fans during those 48 to 96 hours back in April of 2021. And that was one of the amazing things about this story, is usually these decisions are made by men in suits in high offices, behind closed doors with lawyers and contracts, these sort of faceless tacticians, the machinery far away from anything that we could ever catch a glimpse of. And in this case, the story leaked before the announcement even came out. So we were watching the so-called war for football play out, watching the strategies of both sides as they unfolded.

You know, as a fan, I was shocked. This is a coup d'etat attempt on the highest offices of the biggest sporting industry in the world. It would turn football on its head, but also have repercussions that extended far beyond the sport. The whole thing sort of adds up to a lens through which we can see the inner workings of this massive $40 billion a year industry.

MARTIN: OK, so, Roger, this is where I need you to do some explaining about what this is about because the impetus for the attempted formation of the Super League is the structure of the sport, where clubs can move up or they can move down depending on how they do. So for people who don't follow it, can you just explain, like, what is the structure that led to people wanting to do this?

BENNETT: Yeah, happily. World football is a "Star Wars" cantina of teams in every nation. In the past 10, 15 years, it's become an enormous business - just the eyeballs on it. I think the Champions League final - 700 million people watched that. That really makes the Super Bowl look JV in comparison. And because of those numbers, because of the financial billions, you have oligarchs and sheikhs, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, who just paid Cristiano Ronaldo $240 million a year to play there, essentially, and to resolve it in Vegas there. And they're using football to act as a megaphone for their nation-state, Saudi Arabia. Let's not think about Khashoggi or bone saws. Let's think about transcendent goals, yeah, remarkable moments. Just in the way we talk about Qatar right now, we think of Lionel Messi and his hero's journey during the World Cup a couple of months ago.

And so American sports investors have seen that money. They've seen the opportunity. They've seen this startling eyeballs on football, which is really the true global megaphone. They've started to buy teams, almost en masse. And the Super League was their effort to take the Champions League - the best, the biggest, the greatest football tournament at the club level - and eliminate any of the uncertainty, essentially say no one can get into this anymore, apart from the world's biggest super clubs. We will get in automatically every year.

Think of it, Michel, a bit like a movie where Tom Hanks, Cruise, DiCaprio and maybe Meryl Streep - they all say, yeah, let's get rid of the Joe Pescis, the William H. Macys. No one wants to get the character actors. We're just going to have the big stars. We're only going to make blockbusters. We're going to eliminate the indies, the comedies, no "Jeopardy!" No Circus. We're going to essentially do what they do, which is an attempt to take football private.

MARTIN: All right. So, Jeff, what do you hope people will draw from this series? I mean, is there something that you think we should be thinking about as consumers of the sport? I hate to use that term, but it is what it is, you know?

ZIMBALIST: Yeah. I mean, I think football, historically, has had the power to unite, in times of war, even, massive populations around the world, and it's also divided us. And this was a polarizing, divisive saga where people dug their heels in on both sides and were further entrenched with stronger opinions. It turned into a war. I mean, the language of military action was used in this fight for the soul of the sport. And hopefully, this series allows us to put our biases on hold and identify with, step into the shoes of the other side of the equation and start to see things a little bit more from their perspective so that there is maybe a meeting more towards the middle and some solutions to some of the problems that the Super League was trying to address but still which bubble underneath the surface.

MARTIN: Rodge, what about you? Before we let you go, what would you like to see happen? I mean, Jeff is reporting on this. He's the journalist. He's laying out, you know, both sides and giving people an opportunity to speak their piece. You're a commentator. You're allowed to have an opinion, and I think you have one. What would you like to see happen?

BENNETT: The wonder of this moment is that this Super League, this radical idea, it lasted about as long as Quibi, I think shorter than the Scaramucci, you'd say. The Fyre Festival lasted longer than this idea. You are right in what you're hinting. This is not a story of the past. There is a story of the future. One of the open questions is, what happens now? The financial disparity, the heart of world football, like Natalie Imbruglia, is cold and shamed and lying naked on the floor. It's still there. UEFA, FIFA remain more corrupt than Tammany Hall. Racism stains the game we love. We've just seen a World Cup in Qatar, which is ridiculous.

So there will be a lot of talk about reform. There'll be a lot of talk about change. But there is a saying, which I saw in this when, you know, James Corden, Prince William and Boris Johnson - strangest bedfellows of all time - were all on the same side. That's how crazy this notion was for a moment. There's an old saying, Michel, by a legendary old Manchester United manager, Matt Busby. Football without fans is nothing. And that's ultimately the only thing that gives me heart, that whatever changes will occur have to be, ultimately, for the force of good.

MARTIN: That was Roger Bennett, founder of the Men in Blazers media network. He's featured in the docuseries we've been talking about, "Super League." We were also joined by Jeff Zimbalist, who directed the series. And you can stream it now on Apple TV+. Roger Bennett, Jeff Zimbalist, thanks so much for joining us.

BENNETT: Courage.

ZIMBALIST: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.