Football must heed the lessons of rugby league's original Super League War

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If Sunday's news that 12 of Europe's top football clubs were launching a breakaway Super League felt somehow familiar, it is because it has a lot of ingredients very similar to rugby league's own Super League War, the one that tore the sport apart in the mid 1990s.

Australia's Super League War was in essence a battle to control the lucrative broadcasting rights for the game's high-rating top-tier competition. Sound familiar? In the beginning, there was much talk about taking the sport to the next level, with a broader spread of clubs across the nation and international club competitions, however, the underlying driver was greed. The war was ultimately a business battle between two of Australia's biggest moguls in Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch, keen to take the whole broadcast pie, not just a slice, set about establishing a breakaway league to rival the established Australian Rugby League (ARL). Dubbed "The Super League," it was to be a bigger, better version of the game.

Enormous amounts of cash were thrown at clubs and players to have them sign on. Packer, never one to sit idly by in any fight, hit back with equally large contracts in order to secure the ARL its own superstars and heavyweight clubs.

Brisbane Broncos, Canberra Raiders, Cronulla Sharks, Canterbury Bulldogs, Penrith Panthers, North Queensland Cowboys, Auckland Warriors and Western Reds all signed with Super League. New teams were introduced as part of their promised expansion plans, with Adelaide Rams and Hunter Mariners scrambling to sign players for a debut season.

To shore up future representative fixtures, Murdoch also signed the Rugby Football League (England's rugby league competition) and the New Zealand Rugby League. This would also enable the proposed International Super League club series, rugby league's equivalent to a Champions League.

For Packer's ARL, Balmain Tigers, Gold Coast Chargers, Illawarra Steelers, Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, Newcastle Knights, North Sydney Bears, Parramatta Eels, South Queensland Crushers, South Sydney Rabbitohs, St George Dragons, Sydney City Roosters and Wests Magpies stayed loyal. Individual players initially signed along club lines, but some were approached separately with their high profiles recognised as being essential to the success of both leagues.

A 23-year-old Brad Fittler was one of rugby league's biggest names at the time. He had already won a premiership, represented New South Wales and Australia and was contracted to Penrith Panthers when the war broke out. Packer saw Fittler as a key signing to retain the legitimacy of the ARL, so he was signed to the Sydney City Roosters for a record breaking deal and became the face of the competition.

"I was guided by people I trust. And I was only 23-years-old. But I was happy with my decision. I don't have any regrets," Fittler would tell News Limited 20 years later.

Super League also had its marquee players with Laurie Daley paid big money to stay at the Raiders and be the face of the rebel competition.

"At the time, I guess I didn't know quite the impact Super League would have on the game," Daley reflected.

"Obviously it was massive. There was a lot of damage done to rugby league. Everyone at the time did what they thought best for themselves, their families and clubs.

"Super League had some great ideas which are still being used today. The game has, over time, healed but I will always understand that some people will remain hurt and affected."

The Super League War started an arms race. Payments to players skyrocketed across the board. Club loyalties were tested, as were contracts: much was settled in the courts. Four of the Bulldogs' best players famously signed with Super League on the day the war began, before later realising they might have been undervalued. They took Super League to court and won a release, before signing with the ARL-aligned Parramatta Eels.

Players who had signed with Super League were prevented from representing New South Wales and Queensland in 1995. In 1996 they returned after a court ruling that indicated the Super League competition would not be able to begin until at least the year 2000. In 1997 they were out again, with Super League holding its own state series.

Rugby league, as a sport, was a mess through 1995 and 1996 -- the biggest winners being the legal teams fighting every aspect of the breakaway completion in the courts. There were top level resignations, life-long friendships ended, fans abandoning their childhood teams, and players rightfully doing what was best for themselves and their families.

In 1997, after a victory in the courts, the Super League season was played in parallel to the ARL competition. Two top-flight seasons, competing for eyeballs and legitimacy: It was the worst outcome for both parties.

Many of the teams found themselves struggling financially and, after two separate premiers were crowned in 1997, both parties re-entered negotiations to end the madness. The ARL invited Super League teams to join a new competition in 1998. The National Rugby League was formed, jointly owned by the ARL and Murdoch's News Limited. The 1998 season would see 20 teams compete, but part of the agreement meant that the number of teams competing would be reduced to 14 by the year 2000.

It set in motion more years of pain for many fans as their teams folded or were amalgamated into joint ventures. Player salaries came back down to earth in the following years but, for the most part, they remained better off financially than they were before the war.

The promise of a greater, more international competition, aimed at growing the code throughout the world was ultimately hollow. Murdoch and Packer ended up sharing a different pie, with seemingly little regard to the wreckage wrought upon the game in the process.

And Rugby league, as a sport, still bears the scars of The Super League War today.