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European Football Faces Mutiny of the Mega Rich

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: European soccer’s governing body meets amid breakaway league proposal, India reports record high COVID-19 cases, and Germany’s CDU chooses Armin Laschet as chancellor candidate.

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Soccer’s Civil War

Members of Europe’s soccer governing body, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), gather in Switzerland today for their annual meeting as the world’s most popular sport faces a mutiny.

On Sunday, 12 of the world’s richest clubs, six from England, three from Spain, and three from Italy, announced the formation of a European Super League. The move would create a closed, U.S.-style league that would replace the current top-flight European competition, where qualification is based on a team’s end-of-season position in their respective national leagues. The proposal effectively guarantees a permanent cash flow for the richest teams, eliminates the financial risk associated with not qualifying, and shuts the door on potential interlopers.

The decision by the clubs, valued collectively at more than $35 billion and whose owners include U.S. and Chinese businessmen, a U.S. hedge fund, a Russian oligarch, and an Emirati sheikh, has been met with condemnation by fans and politicians alike as a money-grubbing ploy. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government would support attempts to kill the proposal, as has French President Emmanuel Macron. That won’t be easy. European competition law is in favor of the mutineers, and U.S. bank J.P. Morgan has already committed $4.8 billion in financing.

For the league’s proponents, the group is merely following the trend of consolidation in other entertainment fields like music, movies, and television and is pursuing a broad base over niche appeal. “Football is the only global sport in the world with more than 4 billion fans,” Real Madrid president and Super League chairperson Florentino Pérez said in a statement. “And our responsibility as big clubs is to respond to their desires.”

Amateur echoes. To a U.S. audience used to closed shops like the NBA, NFL, and MLB, the move might seem like a natural progression. But whereas the lifeblood of U.S. sports comes largely from a network of colleges and universities, European sports retain some of their amateur foundations: Players are still recruited locally from a young age, stadiums mostly remain within walking distance for fans, and some teams, like Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, are even owned by supporters (although neither club’s members were consulted on the new league). For more on the U.S.-Europe sports divide, read Tom McTague’s 2019 piece in The Atlantic.

Identity crisis. As Simon Kuper writes in the Financial Times, the rapid flow of money into soccer in recent decades has allowed television revenues to dwarf ticket sales, leading to an identity crisis as the forces of brand-building and marketing take precedence over more humble concerns. “Clubs need to know what they are,” Kuper writes. “Rather than profitmaking companies, they resemble museums: public-spirited organizations that serve the community while remaining reasonably solvent. The Super League certainly isn’t that.”

Aleksander Ceferin, president of UEFA, criticized the breakaway teams on Monday and promised to fight back. “I can’t understand that you see fans protesting and you don’t care,” he said at a press conference. “And you’re not poor. You have money, but you want more and more and more. I am sick of hearing about clubs as assets. This is about history.”

What We’re Following Today

India’s grim record. India reported a record 273,810 new COVID-19 infections on Monday and 1,619 new deaths as the country’s epidemic continues to spiral. Crematoriums in parts of the country are overwhelmed, Reuters reported, suggesting a far larger number of COVID-19 deaths than appear in official figures. In a bid to stem the surge, Indian authorities have now expanded vaccine access to all adults starting May 1. India’s rise in cases has added to a record increase in cases globally: 5.2 million more people contracted COVID-19 last week, the highest weekly figure since the pandemic began.

Armin advances. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) voted overwhelmingly for Armin Laschet as its candidate for chancellor in upcoming elections as the party attempts to quell a late bid by Bavarian premier Markus Söder for the position. The online ballot, taken by the party’s executive board early on Tuesday morning, backed Laschet with 77.5 percent support. Earlier on Monday, Söder had told German reporters he would respect any CDU decision.

Farewell, Castros? The Cuban Communist Party elected Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s current president, to replace Raúl Castro as first secretary, the nation’s most powerful office, at the end of its eighth national congress on Monday. Díaz-Canel’s election marks the end of the Castro dynasty in Cuba, which began when Fidel Castro came to power in 1959—though some have argued the family will continue to run the country behind the scenes. “Comrade Raúl will be consulted on the most important strategic decisions of greatest weight for the destiny of our nation,” Díaz-Canal said after his election. “He will always be present.”

Keep An Eye On Britcoin. The Bank of England is exploring whether to follow China’s lead in developing its own digital currency. The proposal, dubbed “Britcoin” by U.K. Finance Minister Rishi Sunak, is in early stages: A task force between the U.K. Treasury and Bank of England has been formed to investigate the viability of such a move. The European Central Bank said last week it was also looking at electronic cash, but implementation was years away.

Amhara’s emergency. Ethiopia has declared a state of emergency in part of the regional state of Amhara as authorities attempt to stem an increase in ethnic violence between the Amhara and Oromo peoples. Federal troops have been deployed to suppress the violence, which has killed at least 300 people since March. The incidents have led to turmoil between the Oromo and Amhara factions of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party, as both sides accuse the other of instigating attacks.

Odds and Ends

Britain’s town crier championships will be held in silence this year for the first time as the centuries-old tradition adapts to the COVID-19 pandemic. Criers are usually judged by three criteria: volume and clarity, diction and inflection, and content—but this year’s remotely held competition will focus solely on the latter as competition chiefs decided on written entries to accommodate those who couldn’t record a high-quality video entry. “It’s a real skill to write a cry that sticks to the theme, that enlightens people, and doesn’t bore the audience. And it all has to be done in 140 words,” organizer Carole Williams told the BBC. The winning entrant will be announced in May.