Court Ruling May Revive Plan for Soccer Super League in Europe

An effort to to create a new soccer Super League that collapsed so spectacularly within 48 hours in 2021 has been given new life after Europe’s top court ruled on Thursday that the sport’s governing bodies were “abusing a dominant position” when they shot down the plans for the new competition.

Immediately after the ruling, A22, the Madrid-based company behind the original Super League plan, held a news conference to announce proposals for a 64-team, three-division men’s competition and a 32-team competition for women that would be streamed free. However, Bernd Reichert, chief executive of A22, did not provide details about how the events would be funded or about how many teams were in favor of the idea.

The original $4 billion Super League project brought together 12 of Europe’s biggest and richest clubs in a largely closed competition. But the sudden, poorly conceived announcement of the plan, which would have upended the competitive landscape for the sport on the continent and the century-old structures that underpinned it, led most of the teams to pull out in the face of widespread fan protest and even the threat of government legislation.

Despite the stunning rejection, the Spanish behemoths Barcelona and Real Madrid remained committed to the breakaway project even after the near immediate withdrawal of the eight other clubs — Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, from England; Internazionale and AC Milan, from Italy. One remaining partner, Juventus of Italy, eventually pulled out, too.

The verdict on Thursday, from the European Court of Justice, found that rules related to the creation of new competitions controlled by world soccer’s governing body FIFA and the European association, UEFA, were not “transparent, objective, nondiscriminatory and proportionate.”

Jade-Alexandra Fearns, an expert in antitrust and competition law at the firm of Paul Hastings, said that the verdict was “a watershed moment for the future of interclub football projects.”

“The ruling essentially finds that FIFA and UEFA have abused their dominant position by blocking the creation of the European Super League and sanctioning the clubs involved, completely contrary to E.U. competition law,” she added.

The implications of the judgment could be seismic, especially for UEFA, which two years ago claimed a major victory following the collapse of the Super League project. The court’s decision puts UEFA’s iron grip over top European club soccer, including the hugely popular and lucrative Champions League, under threat.

The ruling does not make a Super League inevitable, and the court said its decision “does not mean that a competition such as the Super League project must necessarily be approved.” It does, however, create uncertainty about the future — and opportunity for those eager for change.

The new proposals from A22 appeared to be an attempt to move away from the elite-club format that was met with widespread disapproval in 2021. The updated plan also seemed to be an effort to comply with a reference in the judgment that appeared to back a European competitive model based on merit. A22 said that none of the teams in the competition would be granted permanent status.

Still, there was very little public backing toward a fracture of the status quo, beyond celebratory statements issued by Barcelona and Real Madrid.

“As one of the clubs driving the Super League project, F.C. Barcelona feels that the ruling paves the way for a new elite-level football competition in Europe by opposing the monopoly over the football world,” the Spanish club said in a statement.

Whatever the consequences, the judgment is still a major rebuke of how global soccer is governed, and it comes amid efforts by the leaders of UEFA and FIFA to row back changes intended to curb their power, including extending 12-year statutory term limits that they now must abide by.

“The court has said there are systemic governance problems at the top and if they don’t address those their exercise of their regulatory powers is unlawful,” said Miguel Maduro, former head of governance at FIFA.

Football Supporters Europe, a body representing fans, immediately underlined its opposition to a breakaway. “Whatever comes next, the Super League remains an ill-conceived project that endangers the future of European football,” the group said in a statement.

After the ruling, UEFA expressed determination to stay firmly in control of soccer in Europe. The governing body “remains resolute in its commitment to uphold the European football pyramid, ensuring that it continues to serve the broader interests of society,” it said, adding that new rules introduced in 2022 address most of the issues raised in the ruling.

“We will continue to shape the European sports model collectively with national associations, leagues, clubs, fans, players, coaches, E.U. institutions, governments and partners alike,” UEFA added.

But UEFA’s control over the Champions League, the most-watched annual international sports competition, which has revenue in the billions, is now under threat. The ruling means other groups could suggest alternative competitions, provided they align with European Union regulations and a commitment to criteria that UEFA must now explicitly lay out.

UEFA had moved in recent years to create a structure to at least give the impression that it was loosening its grip over club competition in Europe. It created a joint venture with the European Club Association, an umbrella organization representing 200 of the biggest clubs, to control the commercial rights for the Champions League and two lower-tier tournaments, ceding a 49 percent interest to the teams.

Any new competitions still face serious hurdles despite Thursday’s ruling.

After the collapse of the first Super League plan, teams in England’s rich and powerful Premier League signed up to regulations aimed at preventing them from unilaterally joining any future breakaway effort. Teams in France and Spain would also find it difficult to split after agreeing to leaguewide sales of long-term commercial rights to private equity investors.

In a statement, Manchester United said, “Our position has not changed.”

“We remain fully committed to participation in UEFA competitions, and to positive cooperation with UEFA, the Premier League, and fellow clubs,” the team added.

The British government, which strongly criticized the Super League plans in 2021, repeated its opposition to any similar project. Lucy Frazer, the minister responsible for sport, posted on social media that the government was “bringing forward legislation for a football regulator that can stop any similar attempts to do this in the future & protect the game.”

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