Twelve of Europe’s biggest football clubs have agreed to join a ‘European Super League’ that would usurp the Uefa Champions League as the continent’s premier club tournament.
A statement from the new league confirmed that England’s Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham had joined Italy’s AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus, and Spain’s Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid as the founding members of the competition.
Three more clubs are to join ahead of the inaugural season, “which is intended to commence as soon as practicable”, the statement said, and with clubs intending to continue playing in their domestic league and cup competitions.
French and German clubs are so far not involved in the project, depriving it, as it stands, of the likes of Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, two of the game’s current superpowers and biggest global brands. The structure of Bundesliga clubs that prevents private investors from owning more than 49 per cent of a club and encourages fan ownership could preclude any involvement of German sides, particularly given the strong fan backlash to the Super League news.
Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez is to be the first chairman of the league. Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli and Manchester United co-chairman Joel Glazer are to be vice-chairmen. Agnelli has resigned as president of the European Clubs Association, which last night underlined its strong opposition to the Super League plans.
The league is backed by $6bn (€5bn) in financing from bank JPMorgan. Reports of this financing and the piecing together of the ESL project emerged last October.
The founding clubs are to receive €3.5bn “solely to support their infrastructure investment plans and to offset the impact of the Covid pandemic”, a statement from the ‘European Super League Company S.L.’ said. It promised that the competition would be built on a “sustainable financial foundation” and would require founding clubs to sign up to a “spending framework”.
Addressing the potential for the new league to skew financial power in European football even more heavily towards the continent’s biggest clubs, the league claimed that it plans large ‘solidarity payments’.
“The new annual tournament will provide significantly greater economic growth and support for European football via a long-term commitment to uncapped solidarity payments which will grow in line with league revenues. These solidarity payments will be substantially higher than those generated by the current European competition and are expected to be in excess of €10bn during the course of the initial commitment period of the clubs.”
According to the plans, the €10bn would be paid out over 23 years.
Sharp opposition, clubs’ pre-emptive legal steps
The plan has drawn a sharp rebuke from European football’s governing body Uefa, the English Premier League and Football Association, Italy’s Lega Serie A and national football federation (FIGC), and Spain’s LaLiga and national football federation (RFEF).
In a joint statement, the organisations condemned the European Super League as a “cynical project” and vowed to oppose it with “all measures available to us, both judicial and sporting”.
The organisations referenced a previous statement made alongside Fifa, threatening that clubs participating in the ESL would be banned from playing in any other competition in world football and that their players could be barred from national teams.
The statement thanked “clubs in other countries, especially the French and German clubs, who have refused to sign up to this”.
World governing body FIFA expressed disapproval of “a ‘closed European breakaway league’ outside of international football structures” that failed to respect “core principles of solidarity, inclusivity, integrity and equitable financial redistribution” within the game.
The 12 clubs have written to FIFA and UEFA to inform them that legal action is already being pursued to stop them from action intended to prevent the launch of the breakaway competition, according to a letter obtained by the Associated Press.
The letter from the clubs read: “Your formal statement does, however, compel us to take protective steps to secure ourselves against such an adverse reaction, which would not only jeopardize the funding commitment under the Grant but, significantly, would be unlawful. For this reason, SLCo (Super League Company) 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.”
The courts in question have not been named.
FIFAs firm stance on the “closed European breakaway league” comes despite the the world governing body deciding against enforcing promotion and relegation in the United States soccer pyramid. Lower-league US soccer clubs Miami FC and Kingston Stockade FC filed a case with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2017 against FIFA, North American regional governing body CONCACAF and US Soccer. CAS ruled in 2020 that FIFA is not legally required to enforce promotion and relegation.
Uefa was this week expected to announce a major shake-up of the formats and commercial structures around its club competitions, following months of discussions with the ECA.
The shake-up was to involve an expansion of the Champions League format – with the introduction of the so-called ‘Swiss model’ – and the creation of a new company to manage commercial rights. The company would be jointly owned by UEFA and the clubs, giving clubs an ownership stake in European competitions for the first time. The reforms are to be introduced for the next commercial rights cycle, beginning 2024-25.
The breakaway threat is not new, albeit plans are now at an apparently more advanced stage than ever before. Leading clubs, disillusioned at their financial share of revenues from the Champions League and the ‘damage’ to the brand caused by the inclusion of sides from smaller countries at the expense of other heavyweights, have issued similar threats previously before new agreements were ultimately thrashed out.
In response to the news of the breakaway threat, the ECA said it was “strongly opposed” to a closed super league model and remained committed to working with Uefa to develop the club competitions.
The pandemic and the resultant hit to European football finances spurred the reform discussions, which had been taking place on-and-off for years before. Some clubs and prominent figures within European football, including Real Madrid’s Pérez, have been agitating for a European Super League for many years.
The ESL referenced the pandemic in explaining its rationale for the new league and said the reforms proposed by Uefa would not go far enough in solving problems with current structures: “The formation of the Super League comes at a time when the global pandemic has accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model.
“Further, for a number of years, the founding clubs have had the objective of improving the quality and intensity of existing European competitions throughout each season, and of creating a format for top clubs and players to compete on a regular basis.
“The pandemic has shown that a strategic vision and a sustainable commercial approach are required to enhance value and support for the benefit of the entire European football pyramid.
“In recent months extensive dialogue has taken place with football stakeholders regarding the future format of European competitions.
“The founding clubs believe the solutions proposed following these talks do not solve fundamental issues, including the need to provide higher-quality matches and additional financial resources for the overall football pyramid.”
The planned ESL would involve 20 clubs each season, with five qualifiers per season joining the 15 permanent members. Matches would be played midweek so that all clubs could continue to play in their domestic leagues.
The tournament format would involve:
- Two groups of ten, playing home and away fixtures
- The top three in each group qualifying for the quarter-finals
- Fourth- and fifth-placed teams competing in two-legged playoffs for the remaining quarter-final spots
- Two-legged knockout fixtures for the quarter-finals and semi-finals
- A single-fixture final at a neutral venue
- The season would start in August and run until May.
The ESL statement said the tournament scheduling would preserve “the traditional domestic match calendar which remains at the heart of the club game”.
The UEFA-led statement said the ESL plan was “founded on the self-interest of a few clubs at a time when society needs solidarity more than ever”. It added: “We call on all lovers of football, supporters and politicians, to join us in fighting against such a project if it were to be announced. This persistent self-interest of a few has been going on for too long. Enough is enough.”
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron were among a string of prominent figures to criticise the ESL plan yesterday, following a story about it in UK newspaper The Times.
Reuters reported that the French presidency published an official statement saying: “The president of the republic welcomes the position of French clubs to refuse to participate to a European football Super League project that threatens the principle of solidarity and sporting merit…The French state will support all the steps taken by the LFP, FFF, UEFA and FIFA to protect the integrity of federal competitions, whether national or European.”
Boris Johnson published on Twitter, saying: “Plans for a European Super League would be very damaging for football and we support football authorities in taking action. They would strike at the heart of the domestic game, and will concern fans across the country. The clubs involved must answer to their fans and the wider footballing community before taking any further steps.”