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Hours before 12 of Europe’s leading football clubs announced plans for a breakaway Super League that would shield them from the consequences of sporting failure, one was busy demonstrating why such protection might be desired. Juventus, winners of the past nine Serie A titles, fell to fourth in the table as they lost 1-0 at Atalanta, dropping behind their opponents in the process.
The Bianconeri could have slipped all the way out of the Champions League places if Napoli had beaten Internazionale later that evening. In the event, those clubs drew, but Juventus’s margin for error has evaporated. The gap to Napoli is now just two points, while sixth-placed Lazio could close to within one if they win their game in hand.
Perhaps none of it will matter. A statement released by Uefa together with governing bodies in Italy, Spain and England warned that any clubs and players involved in the Super League would be banned from all other competitions. How swiftly such threats could be acted upon remains to be seen. Many still believe the Super League proposals are an act of extreme brinkmanship, designed to draw concessions from Uefa in the planned restructuring of the Champions League.
Regardless, that Atalanta should pick this weekend to record their first win against Juventus in two decades, leapfrogging their opponents in the process, felt powerfully poignant. The Bergamo club have been one of European football’s fairytale stories over the past two years, reaching the Champions League knockout stage in consecutive seasons on a budget that would barely cover Cristiano Ronaldo’s wages.
Their swashbuckling football has drawn praise from across the continent yet the Juventus president, Andrea Agnelli, used his platform at the Financial Times Business of Football Summit in March last year to question whether a team like theirs deserved entry to Europe’s top club competition. “I have great respect for what Atalanta are doing, but without any international history, and with a great sporting performance, they had direct access to the Champions League,” said Agnelli. “Then, think about Roma, who have contributed in recent years to maintaining Italy’s [Uefa coefficient] ranking, who had one bad season and are out, with all the consequences that brings on an economic level. We need to protect investments.”
Those remarks were roundly condemned, yet few recognised them as what they were: the herald of a shift among Europe’s most powerful clubs to protect their financial interests more aggressively than ever before. Perhaps even Agnelli could not have foreseen things moving so quickly, but timelines have been accelerated by Covid and its drastic impact on club revenues.
Across Italy, as all over Europe, the proposals have been met with shock and fury. “Super League? Super no,” exclaimed the banner on Gazzetta dello Sport on Monday, and even the news-focused La Repubblica splashed the story across its front page. “The closed Super League … cancels the fundamental concept of merit,” Paolo Condò wrote inside. “An unacceptable wound.”
Beyond straightforward hostility to the proposals, there were questions about how they had affected Serie A’s recent TV deal. Gazzetta’s leader column, written by Andrea di Caro, observed that Agnelli had previously been charged with steering negotiations with a private equity consortium who were seeking to take a 10% stake in a new media company that would manage broadcast rights going forward.
That proposal, worth a reported $2bn, would have brought much-needed financial relief to struggling clubs but was also hailed as a method to separate the process of negotiating TV deals from partisan interests and bickering. But it was rejected in the spring, with Juventus one of the teams voting against. “Now lots of clubs think they have understood why,” wrote Di Caro, raising the prospect that legal action could follow if any conflicts of interest were proven.
A meeting of Serie A’s club presidents is scheduled for later on Monday, and a response to the Super League announcement expected to follow. The detail is impossible to predict, but it is hard to imagine how it would be favourable.
Lost in all this was that Atalanta’s win was yet another huge result for a club continuing to defy gravity. The match against Juventus was close-fought with victory secured by a deflected shot from Ruslan Malinovskiy in the 87th minute, but nothing was stolen here. Gian Piero Gasperini’s side earned the points with hard graft and shrewd changes. The manager’s decision to revert to a back three after several weeks of successful experimentation with a four-man defence was prompted in part by absences at the back, yet Atalanta were able to restrict the champions to a single shot on target in 90 minutes even without the excellent Cristian Romero.
Juventus were missing one fairly important player of their own, Ronaldo officially ruled out with muscle fatigue. Not everyone was satisfied with that explanation, following the days of speculation regarding his future that followed him throwing his shirt on the floor (in the direction of a ballboy) at the end of the win against Genoa one week before.
His demeanour has come under scrutiny since their Champions League exit, but no one can doubt the on-pitch importance of a player who leads Serie A with 25 goals. Juventus have failed to win any of the four matches he has missed.
Assuming that Juventus are permitted to see this season through to its conclusion following their Super League announcement, they will need Ronaldo back and firing sooner rather than later. Beyond the minimum target of a top-four finish, they also have a Coppa Italia final against Atalanta to come.
“Winning today means we can beat Juventus, and they know it,” Gasperini said on Sunday. More likely, they already knew. Fans of football will cite examples such as Atalanta as reasons why a meritocratic football pyramid must be preserved. But for wealthier clubs whose priority is first and foremost to protect an investment, a club such as theirs can only be a threat.
Crotone 1-2 Udinese, Sampdoria 3-1 Verona, Sassuolo 3-1 Fiorentina, Cagliari 4-3 Parma, Milan 2-1 Genoa, Atalanta 1-0 Juventus, Bologna 4-1 Spezia, Lazio 5-3 Benevento, Torino 3-1 Roma, Napoli 1-1 Inter