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European Super League back in spotlight after landmark ruling

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UEFA Press Conference - UEFA Headquarters, Nyon, Switzerland - December 21, 2023 UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin during the press conference in this screengrab obtained on Zoom UEFA/Handout via REUTERS Acquire Licensing Rights

Summary

  • EU court says FIFA, UEFA abused dominant position by forbidding clubs from joining breakaway league
  • Landmark EU ruling could change way soccer is run
  • Sport development company A22 announces plans for new competition
  • Real Madrid, Barcelona say ruling opens way for new league
  • Man United, Bayern Munich say they remain committed to UEFA

 

UEFA and FIFA contravened EU law by stopping the formation of a Super League, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) said on Thursday, but though breakaway organisers welcomed the ruling, major leagues and clubs moved quickly to support the status quo.

The decision stirred up the arguments that swirled around the original Super League plan in 2021 as the ECJ has ruled against the principle of the governing bodies restricting a new league, but crucially added that the judgment did not necessarily mean such a league must be approved.

The 12 leading European clubs that proposed forming the breakaway league (ESL), which sparked widespread protests among fans, had been threatened with sanctions by UEFA if they went ahead with the plan, leading to nine of them pulling out.

Sports development company A22, formed to assist with creating the ESL, had claimed UEFA and global governing body FIFA held a monopoly position which was in breach of the EU’s Competition and Free Movement Law.

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Soon after the verdict A22 released plans for a new competition that would feature 64 men’s teams and 32 women’s teams competing in a midweek league, threatening UEFA’s flagship Champions League tournament.

In its ruling, the EU’s top court said that FIFA and UEFA abused their dominant position by forbidding clubs to compete in a European Super League, although that project may still not be approved as the court did not rule on it specifically.

UEFA, FIFA, Football Supporters Europe, LaLiga, the European Club Association, European Leagues and FIFPro Europe said in a joint statement: “There is no place for any type of ‘super league’ in Europe. Sporting merit is what counts.”

UEFA has organised pan-European competitions for nearly 70 years and sees the ESL project as a significant threat to the lucrative Champions League, for which teams qualify on merit.

Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and nine other top clubs announced the breakaway plan in April, 2021.

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But the move collapsed within 48 hours after an outcry from fans, governments and players forced Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid to pull out.

A22 CEO Bernd Reichart said in an interview with Reuters that the new competition would win over fans by providing a tournament that was more competitive and by making it free to view on television.

“This is what makes this proposal so fan-centric and so attractive to every fan,” Reichart said.

Shares in Juventus, listed on the Italian Stock Exchange, rose more than 10% on prospects for a revived ESL, with trading having to be halted because of excessive volatility.

SHORTFALL ADDRESSED

UEFA said the ruling did not signify an endorsement or validation of the Super League and that it had addressed a shortfall which had been highlighted in its own framework.

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“We will not try to stop them. They can create whatever they want. I hope they start their fantastic competition as soon as possible, with two clubs,” UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin told a news conference.

FIFA said it would analyse the decision in coordination with UEFA, other confederations and the member associations before commenting further.

“With the greatest respect for the European Court of Justice, today’s judgement does not change anything, really,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said.

“Historically, we have been organising the best competitions in the world and this will also be the case in the future.”

Manchester United and Bayern Munich issued statements saying they remained committed to UEFA’s competitions while domestic leagues across Europe rejected the Super League.

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The UK government said it was working on legislation to prevent English clubs from joining another breakaway competition.

Reichart said the ESL was not a breakaway league and that it would be compatible with domestic league calendars.

Spain’s LaLiga said: “Today, more than ever, we reiterate that the ‘Super League’ is a selfish and elitist model.”

The court’s ruling said FIFA and UEFA must “comply with the competition rules and respect the freedoms of movement”, adding that their rules on approval, control and sanctions amounted to “unjustified restrictions on the freedom to provide services”.

“That does not mean that a competition such as the Super League project must necessarily be approved. The Court, having been asked generally about the FIFA and UEFA rules, does not rule on that specific project in its judgment,” it concluded.

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After the collapse of the ESL plan, only three clubs remained in support of it, but Juventus opted to pull out this year after their former chairman Andrea Agnelli, one of the figures behind the project, and the club’s board resigned in November 2022.

SPANISH COURT

Real and Barcelona still hoped to go ahead with the competition and the ESL took its case to a Spanish court, which subsequently sought guidance from the Luxembourg-based European Court.

Real Madrid President Florentino Perez said the ruling marked “a before and after” for football.

“The present and future of European football are finally in the hands of the clubs, the players and their fans,” Perez said in a pre-recorded video statement.

Barcelona said they were satisfied with the ruling and that the creation of the ESL would allow football to address issues of fixture overload, putting “local and international players and supporters at the centre”.

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“The medium-term sustainability of European football entails the need create a concept along the lines of the Super League,” the club said in a statement.

The ruling will now be considered by the Spanish court, where a judge can apply its responses to facts of the case.

-Reuters

Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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