Unless you’ve been hiding away the last couple of days you’ve probably heard that twelve major clubs intend to launch their own European Super League in direct competition to UEFA’s Champions League. Quite unsurprisingly, the very idea has sent the European football authorities into a fit of rage and are set to start a legal dispute that will rock football.
Background to the European Super League
It could be argued that the path to the European Super League was set when UEFA rebranded the European Cup to the Champions League in 1992, incidentally the same year that the Premier League was launched in England. That was when UEFA began to capitalise on the commercial opportunities. At that point, the tournament was restricted to just the champions of the European leagues (plus the previous year’s winner) but has since developed into a behemoth of world sport with multiple qualifiers from the major European leagues.
That year there were 82 matches in total whereas now there are 125 matches with UEFA planning on increasing this to a monster 225 games from 2024. The competition will be completely reformatted with an additional 4 entrants into the group stage. Teams will play 10 different opponents in the group stage (5 home, 5 away) in a format known as the Swiss system. The top 8 teams in the league automatically qualify for the knockouts with the teams placed 9th-24th competing in a playoff round to join them.
Two of the four additional places were to be reserved for clubs that didn’t qualify via the normal means but had the highest historical coefficient ranking. For example, had the system been in place this season that would have meant Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur would have gone into the group stage, ironically two of the breakaway clubs.
What is the European Super League?
These proposals were unacceptable to the European Super League clubs who believed it did not do enough to protect revenues and prioritised quantity over quality. These unacceptable plans from UEFA are likely what kicked the twelve teams into action. Rumours have been swirling for many years with former Arsenal manager predicting a breakaway league as far back as 2009.
He stated: “The national leagues will survive but maybe in 10 years, you will have a European league. I’m not sure 100% that I’m right but I feel inside our game there are some voices behind the scenes coming up to do something about that, especially if the rules become too restrictive for these clubs.”
He may have been 2 years out with his prediction but the words were highly prophetic. One other part of his prophecy is also at the heart of the incoming legal dispute where he stated that “The income is basically owned by UEFA and they distribute the money to the clubs.” Ultimately, that is the crux of this war, whoever distributes the money holds the keys to power in European football and will be able to make the decisions that favour their interests.
And so it came to pass. Late on Sunday evening the twelve clubs simultaneously made their announcement on social media that they were joining the European Super League and linked their statement to the brand new website. The competition promised 20 teams would compete with a total of 15 permanent members (3 of which have yet to be confirmed) and 5 annual qualifiers. They will be split into 2 groups of 10 playing home and away with the top four of each group qualifying for the knockouts.
JP Morgan have financially backed the project and to curry favour with the domestic leagues they insisted that their leagues would be unaffected and that part of the profits would be pumped back into those leagues in the form of solidarity payments. In the press release, they stated that “these solidarity payments will be substantially higher than those generated by the current European competition”.
“We will help football at every level and take it to its rightful place in the world. Football is the only global sport in the world with more than four billion fans and our responsibility as big clubs is to respond to their desires.”Florentino Pérez, President of Real Madrid CF and the first Chairman of the European Super League
Reaction to the announcement
Currently, the founder clubs of the European Super League will be equally concerned by public opinion as any legal dispute facing a huge PR battle with fans, other clubs, the footballing authorities and even national governments heavily criticising the announcement.
The biggest complaint about the European Super League is that football and sport as a whole is meant to be based on merit. By ringfencing 75% of the available slots for the same 15 clubs there is no doubt it will create a monopoly. Those 15 clubs will have access to funds that over teams can only dream ensuring they remain at the pinnacle of the game.
Chair of the Football Supporters Association (FSA), Malcolm Clarke voiced his anger at the European Super League stating, “For years football has appeased these greedy vultures by feeding them bits of meat but all it has done is heighten their appetite and make them stronger. Now is the time to stop that.”
A number of the other clubs have voiced their disapproval by releasing statements and Leeds United wore specially printed t-shirts in protest. Likewise, the Premier League have released a statement condemning the proposals, “Fans of any club in England and across Europe can currently dream that their team may climb to the top and play against the best. We believe that the concept of a European Super League would destroy this dream.”
Jurgen Klopp, manager of one of the European Super League’s founders Liverpool was also seemingly against the plan. He said “Of course, it’s economically important, but why should we create a system where Liverpool faces Real Madrid for 10 straight years? Who wants to see that every year?”
Even the prime minister Boris Johnson has waded into the dispute telling football authorities that he will do all he can to stop the European Super League with a statement for No 10 telling them that “no action is off the table and the Government is exploring every possibility, including legislative options”.
FIFA would normally not approve of governmental interference with Article 17 of their regulations providing that “Each member shall manage its affairs independently and with no influence from third parties.” Previously countries that have had interference from their government have been banned but it is not clear if FIFA would make an exception if it meant the European Super League would be blocked.
A legal dispute with UEFA is on the horizon
UEFA, as expected, has come out all guns blazing promising to do all they can derail the proposals with litigation firmly on the table. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin was particularly venomous in his response calling the plan a “spit in the face of all football lovers”.
Ceferin does have legal expertise himself having been a criminal lawyer for 24 years so is well positioned to press forward with litigation. Regarding taking action in any legal dispute with the European Super League he said, “We will take all the sanctions that we can and we will inform you as soon as we have a clear answer. My opinion is that, as soon as possible, the players have to be banned from all our competitions.”
As it stands it’s actually the European Super League that have taken the first steps launching pre-emptive legal action to prevent UEFA from retaliating. They appealed for co-operation from the football authorities but released the below statement:
“We hope that is not your response to this letter and that, like us, your organisations will recognise the immediate benefits of the competition established by SLCo.
We also seek your co-operation and support on how the competition can be brought within the football ecosystem and work with us to achieve that objective.
Your formal statement does, however, compel us to take protective steps to secure ourselves against such an adverse reaction, which would not only jeopardise the funding commitment under the grant but, significantly, would be unlawful.
For this reason, SLCo has filed a motion before the relevant courts in order to ensure the seamless establishment and operation of the competition in accordance with applicable laws.”European Super League letter to UEFA and FIFA
Opinion on the matter is divided about whether the European Super League would succeed in any legal dispute. Tsjalle van der Burg from the University of Twente in the Netherlands was quoted in the Daily Express as saying it is “illegal from the perspective of European competition law” as “football clubs compete with one another for consumers (stadium visitors, television viewers, buyers of club merchandise) at the national level (mainly)”.
He described the actions of the European Super League as “concerted actions to restrict competition and would also violate EU competition law” and that the European Commission is “legally bound to put an end to the threats of a Super League.”
Conversely, Mark Orth of MEOlaw in Germany was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying that the European Super League would likely win the legal dispute taking the view that it is UEFA that holds the monopoly and an alternative to the Champions League would actually offer more competition.
He said, “If a monopolist is allowed to prohibit the generation of competition, then you do not need competition law at all.” before going on to say “If that is allowed it touches on the fundamentals of competition law. There should be an opportunity to open the market.”
This may well be an argument that the European Super League leads with and there is legal precedent. The European Commission rule that the International Skating Union could not block speed skaters from a lucrative new competition and likewise a further ruling used that case as precedent preventing wrestling federations from blocking wrestlers from taking part in a non-affiliated event.
For the English Premier League teams they would be in breach of Rule L9 which states that teams may not enter competitions apart from those listed unless they have the permission of the Premier League Board. Having faced such opposition it is unlikely that this will be granted and failing to comply could lead to their expulsion.
What legislative action could the government take against the European Super League?
With Boris Johnson stating that “no action is off the table” it is unclear what route he will take to block the European Super League. In Germany, a law means no club can be majority owned by an individual and that fans must have that majority. There is concern that having such a law in place could restrict investment into football but that didn’t stop Bayern Munich from winning the Champions League last season nor Red Bull from helping fund RB Leipzig by using a loophole to take over the club and go from the fifth tier all the way to the European elite competition.
Another route may be to restrict the TV rights. Certain events are on a list of designated events that must be shown on terrestrial TV free-to-air as part of the Broadcasting Act 1996. Should the European Super League become a designated event this would severely hamper the ability of the project to generate income through broadcasters.
Also method on the table for the government could be to provide logistical obstructions. To have fans at a stadium a safety certificate needs to be granted by local authorities and they need support from the local police. Work permits are also required for overseas players playing for the European Super League clubs and denying these could make it difficult for teams to build squads and there are countless other examples. Culture secretary, Oliver Dowden confirmed that the government is “looking at whether we should continue to provide that support”.
This story is far from over and there is no doubt we will hear more from both the European Super League and UEFA as the legal dispute unfolds. What is clear though is that football has been shaken and there may be no coming back from this announcement for the sport.
Update: Amidst intense pressure from fans, the media and the wider footballing community the proposed European Super League appears to have collapsed for the time being. All six English teams plus Athletico Madrid of Spain and Inter Milan of Italy have now signalled their intention to withdraw from the project.
Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli, who was previously described as a “snake and a liar” by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, was quoted as saying: “I remain convinced of the beauty of that project, of the value that it would have developed to the pyramid, of the creation of the best competition in the world, but evidently no. I don’t think that project is now still up and running.”
It now seems inevitable that the remaining clubs will have no choice but to cancel the European Super League. It may be the case that they will simply return to the drawing board to reconfigure the plans but for now, the plans will remain on ice.
The long term effects of this saga will be intriguing as the wider footballing community will be incredibly sceptical of any actions the twelve clubs now take. There is even talk of points deductions and fines for the Premier League six. Whether legal action still occurs or the government pursues changes in legislation will also be of interest with calls to find a way to stop this from happening again.
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