Soccer's so-called European Super League was a hot rumor for 30 years, and when it was finally announced last month, it existed for about 48 hours.

The Europe-wide league would have included the 15 most famous clubs on the continent, plus five based on other league results. It would have superseded the Champions League and probably pushed each country's domestic league down a step as well.

Outrage from fans and media alike managed to push most of the 12 founding members to back down. But the protests also served to obscure a larger truth: The current structure of European soccer causes almost as many problems as the potential Super League would have.

The phrase "sporting merit" cropped up again and again during the Super League kerfuffle. The idea that 15 of the 20 teams could not be relegated from the league seemed to particularly offend fans, who want to see failing teams punished and successful teams rewarded.

The idea that the current setup promotes "sporting merit," though, must have been galling to fans of non-superclubs in Europe. Those fans have seen financial disparities constantly work against those teams outside the elite.

Money buys happiness in European soccer. Even in leagues where teams earn huge revenue from their domestic leagues, the up-to-nine-figure sums earned by going deep in the Champions League can make a big difference. In smaller leagues where European revenue completely dwarfs local TV and league revenue, one good season in Europe can all but ensure another few years of league dominance.

Up and down the continent, the rich have long been fixed at the top of their respective leagues. Finding a league that's competitive beyond a small handful of teams is virtually impossible. Those perennial top teams qualify for the Champions League and, increasingly, demand larger shares of the domestic revenue as well.

It is a self-perpetuating system. The Champions League, in this way, is almost as relegation-proof as the Super League would have been. There's only one way to break into the club: money.

Before Russian mega-billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, before Gulf states bought Manchester City (Abu Dhabi, 2008) and Paris Saint-Germain (Qatar, 2011), the three clubs had combined for five top-division titles in about 250 combined years of trying.

Since then, it's been five for Chelsea, five for Man City and seven for PSG. They also have combined for 20 appearances in the Champions League quarterfinals, compared with two before the ownership changes.

Billionaires have and will continue to own other clubs, but these three were shocking simply because they have been entirely immune to whatever financial losses might come their way. It changed the calculus in European soccer. Buying straight to the top table was previously unheard of.

Now the only hope for most other teams is that a benevolent billionaire will do the same for them. Find an owner who is willing to buy and buy and buy, and "sporting merit" will follow.

Just look at this year's Champions League semifinals: PSG, Manchester City, Chelsea and Real Madrid, the club that was most famous for its spending before the other three came along.

The reason the European Super League finally blinked, briefly, into existence was to try to put an end to this arms race. It was a plan cooked up by billionaires, but with limits, to permanently fix themselves to the billionaires with none.

The European Super League is dead, thankfully. But as Manchester City and Chelsea face off in the Champions League final next week, let's not kid ourselves. The current system isn't that much different.

Jon Marthaler writes periodically about soccer for the Star Tribune. E-mail: