They say that every cloud — no matter how dark, stormy and ugly — carries a silver lining, and in Spanish football terms, that might be how Sevilla FC are feeling right now.
It’s hard to avoid viewing the European Super League project, which was self-indulgently and haphazardly introduced to a largely repulsed and angry football world on Sunday, as the offspring of greed and irresponsibility, consummated after drinking one too many on a night out.
Given that those breakaway brats didn’t see fit to invite Sevilla — Guinness World Records entrants not only for the most Europa League/UEFA Cup victories (the latest of which was last summer) but for winning three of them in a row — there could have been furious resentment in the Andalusian capital — either at the rampant greed of it all, or the reality of being excluded from this new trough in which Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have enthusiastically stuck their snouts. Instead, they can reflect with even more excitement upon their daring, muscular and all-round impressive win at the home of the 2020 Copa del Rey winners Real Sociedad.
On Sunday, Sevilla trotted out at the Reale Arena, took a swift punch to their nose — administered by an ex-favourite from their ranks, Carlos Fernandez, who scored an absolute gem of a goal just a few months after moving from Sevilla to La Real — and then reacted with a flurry of prime Mike Tyson hooks, jabs and haymakers. Their courage won out that afternoon, 2-1, and it could have — even by half-time — inflicted a three- or four-goal drubbing on their Basque rivals.
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What the victory did, at that early afternoon stage while the unpleasant manure-scented stench of unshackled greed hadn’t yet drifted across the European footballing plains, was present Sevilla’s firmest title credentials since they were La Liga champions in 1946. When the final whistle blew, and goals from Fernando and Youssef En-Nesyri had won Julien Lopetegui’s side their second-most-difficult remaining match, Sevilla were a point behind Barcelona, two behind Madrid and three off the top where Atleti sit.
The fact that Madrid drew, Atleti won and Barcelona were on Copa duty meant that by the end of Sunday night in Spain, the title race was magnetic, potentially magnificent. Atleti have 70 points from 31 matches; Madrid have 67 from 31; Barcelona 65 from 30; and Sevilla 64 from 31. Barcelona and Atleti still have to meet, Madrid and Sevilla still have to meet, and let’s not even get started on the head-to-head records that separate teams if they finish the season on equal points.
But, by Monday morning, Sevilla were champions-elect.
The silver lining to this Super League storm is that La Liga, driven by an understandably furious president Javier Tebas, will now examine whether to punish the top three for their Euro treachery by expelling them from the domestic competition. The specific wording, prior to La Liga’s summit meeting on Thursday from which the big three (and City Football Group-owned Girona) are excluded, was to call the Super League “a selfish approach, designed to further enrich the wealthiest” that “will undermine the appeal of the entire game and have a profoundly damaging impact on the immediate future of La Liga, the clubs that make it up and the entire football ecosystem.”
None of us know for sure whether La Liga will try or have tried to expel Madrid, Barcelona and Atleti from this season’s competition, nor whether that would succeed legally. But, for the purpose of argument, there are two immediate conclusions from the greed storm that has been whipped up since this news broke.
First of all, if we imagine La Liga without those three, then while the allure of Spain’s competition obviously diminishes, wouldn’t it be interesting to see which clubs become the superpowers? Nature abhors a vacuum, so in line with the ancient revolutionary chant of “The King is dead, long live the King,” who seizes the throne with the Ancien Regime gone?
The table today doesn’t look too far from the truth. No matter the historic significance of Athletic Bilbao, and even Valencia, Sevilla have been so well run, so financially successful, so ferocious in the transfer market and so addicted to winning trophies that them beginning a new era as the dominant force looks an absolute given. It genuinely intrigues me to think of what will happen when Real Betis and La Real and Villarreal, like Sevilla and Athletic, 100% believe that they can become champions or do the league and cup double.
Will this scenario ever come to pass? Cynics will say no, and the smart money accompanies that hard-boiled attitude.
No matter the outrage and desire for punishment and vengeance, history tells us that the likeliest outcomes are either the breakaway group being hauled back in and a negotiated settlement being reached with UEFA… or the greedy rebels winning their endgame and the big footballing authorities — UEFA, FIFA, La Liga, the Premier League and Serie A — being forced to eat humble pie by allowing the Super League clubs to compete domestically, too.
On Thursday, you’d love to be a fly on the wall listening to Sevilla, Villarreal, Real Betis and Real Sociedad (who’d be Champions League qualified if Atleti, Barca and Madrid are excommunicated) and the arguments they put forward about how to deal with the naughty boys: a rap on the knuckles and being ordered not to do it again, or expelled immediately?
But back to the title race. Perhaps Spain’s “other” clubs take a pragmatic view, perhaps they fear an immediate future without the three clubs who’ve won every La Liga title since 2004 and tell Senor Tebas: “We need to negotiate, not dive in with all studs showing.” If that’s the case, then Sevilla won’t just be handed the title for finishing (by some distance) best of the rest.
Yet this Super League effluence will still have left a stench. If none of this had emerged, we were in for a blisteringly good sprint to the tape. Even if Sevilla wouldn’t have carried many observers’ vote as dark-horse winner, they’ve been showing marvellous consistency, focus and fighting spirit; they have neither European matches to cope with (like Madrid) nor the type of injury worries that have plagued the two Madrid teams; and Lopetegui’s mob can claim to have the head-to-head advantage over Atleti.
Without this ill-advised Super League tornado, there were at least two absolutely scintillating matchdays looming in Spain when all the top four need to be at ramming speed.
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Firstly, this weekend when Atleti need to win at Athletic, when Betis travel to a Madrid side they’re quite capable of beating, when Barca could feasibly lose at Villarreal and when Sevilla host an Andalusian derby against Granada. Then, May 8 and 9: first Barcelona host Atletico at Camp Nou, then on the Sunday Madrid at home to Sevilla.
All in, no holds barred, no quarter asked or given. A proper four-team title challenge for the first time in ages. The problem now being that every remaining match carries new animosity, causes new controversy and will be the source of acrimonious finger-pointing.
The beauty of a winner-takes-all end to the season, with Atleti looking for only their third title in almost half a century, Sevilla trying to be champions for the first time since World War II ended, Los Blancos attempting to be only the third Madrid side to defend their title since 1990 and Barcelona looking to be crowned champions in one of their most chaotic and divisive seasons in living memory? Well, that’s inevitably going to be tainted by a backdrop of threats, PR campaigns, legal action, accusations of treachery and even the potential that the players from Atleti, Barca and Madrid won’t be allowed to play either European Championship or Copa America football this summer.
The organisers of the Super League have not simply planned a continental competition that takes little or no account of what players and fans want, they haven’t merely been dragged along by the heady scent of venture-capital millions; they, as the elite of the game who allegedly need a ritzier table at which to dine, have made a complete and utter pig’s breakfast of when to make their plans public, of what impact they might have on fellow clubs, football supporters or general public opinion.
If the timing of how this has become public and the level of preparation for what might follow are guiding examples of how capable this lot might be of effectively running this putative new pan-European competition, then everyone who’s going to put money into it better look out because, at first glance, it’s a shambolic mix of shameless greed and sheer ignorance of how to win friends and influence people.