Will court case revive European Super League? Explaining what’s at stake

European Super League was soccer’s biggest controversy in decades. Will a court case revive the idea?

The media may be full of transfer stories right now — Cristiano Ronaldo’s future, Barcelona’s hunt for Robert Lewandowski, Paul Pogba’s second homecoming at Juventus — but something far more important, something that could change the club game forever, will be argued in a Luxembourg courtroom on Monday and Tuesday.

Case C-333/21 will be heard by the European Union’s Court of Justice (CJEU) at the request of a Spanish court that has asked for an interpretation of European competition law. The outcome will either cement the existing “European model” of football — with its pyramid structure and its governing body, UEFA, acting as both competition organiser and regulator — or it will lead to the game’s Big Bang moment, opening the door to a European Super League like the one that was quickly quashed in the spring of 2021.

Or, because these are lawyers and these matters are complex, we could end up with some legal gobbledygook that leaves room for some sort of “Super League lite,” albeit without many of the perks the original Super League Twelve assigned themselves (i.e. no guaranteed places, more open access, greater solidarity payments flowing down the pyramid).

Q: Is it really that dramatic?

A: I think so. At the heart of it are two models of running sport. The current model effectively gives much of the power to governing bodies — such as national associations, UEFA and FIFA — on the basis that they are run by elected officials and represent the entire “pyramid” of football: from the biggest right down to amateur and youth athletes.

This setup has been largely taken for granted for the past 50 years or so, but it’s now being challenged by an alternate model that would shift a fair amount of power away from governing bodies and into the hands of the biggest clubs, who are the ones generating a lot of the revenue.

Q: What are the three rebel Super League clubs — Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona — arguing?

A: They say UEFA are operating an illegal monopoly over European football because they organise the European competitions like the Champions League and Europa League, and at the same time act as a governing body for the sport. The clubs say they should be free to organise their own tournament, divide up the revenues as they see fit and invite whoever they like to join.

Technically, they can already do this — nobody’s forcing them to play in the Champions League; they could compete in their own league instead, if they liked — but in real terms they can’t, because there are a bunch of hurdles in the way. For example, their players would be banned from international competitions like the World Cup, they would have trouble transferring players to non-Super League clubs, and in some leagues, they could get kicked out of their domestic competitions, like LaLiga in Spain or Serie A in Italy. So in practice, they say, they’re not allowed to compete the way they would want to.

European competition law is designed to encourage fair competition and stop entities from abusing dominant positions. UEFA regulate the sport in Europe, but they also organize the biggest, most lucrative international competitions (and, in so doing, effectively compete with clubs for sponsors and broadcast revenue too). The Super League clubs insist UEFA should not be allowed to do both.

Q: What’s the counterargument?

A: UEFA can point to the fact that they’re not some sort of self-appointed oligarchy running the game, but they are elected, ultimately, by everyone in the system and that’s who they answer to. Their stated mission is to act for the good of the sport as a whole. That means acting as a regulator, sure, but also funding the system and organising the game’s most important international club competitions.

UEFA redistributes the vast majority of the net revenues they get back to clubs and national associations. It helps the former grow, and it allows the latter to develop the game, investing in areas such as football for youth athletes and athletes with disabilities, which in many cases might not be sustainable on their own.

Q: It kinda sounds like capitalism vs. socialism…

A: In some ways it is, though there’s a lot of give-and-take from both sides. The original Super League proposal, for example, set aside a chunk of money in “solidarity payments” that would have gone to clubs and national associations not involved in the Super League. (Nowhere near as much as UEFA gives away out of the Champions League revenue, but still a sizeable amount.)

And on the other front, UEFA have moved closer over the years to what the biggest clubs want. They’ve given the European Club Association (ECA) seats on the UEFA executive committee, they’ve expanded and redesigned the Champions League to generate more revenue, they’ve set up a joint venture with clubs to better sell commercial rights. And, of course, the bigger clubs get a bigger share of revenue than they did in the past.

Q: How so?

A: Well, if it’s totally in favour of the Super League clubs, it’s pretty obvious. They can form their own tournament, sell their own commercial and broadcast rights and still be entitled to play in their domestic leagues without any sort of sanction, for example. There’s no penalty for doing any of that. Heck, we could have an NBA-style global Super League, with investors paying franchise fees and setting up clubs in major cities like Berlin or Moscow (or heck, maybe Dubai and New York).

Equally, if they come down strongly on the side of UEFA and argue that clubs have to accept the current system, that’s a potential game-changer too. After all, UEFA negotiate European cup formats — and revenue distribution — with stakeholders like clubs (via the ECA). They would have even more leverage to do so than they do now, and they might end up with more leverage vis-a-vis FIFA too (remember, relations between UEFA and FIFA are far from idyllic). It will also likely create a precedent that will shut down (or make much more difficult) further breakaway attempts, or something like we saw in golf with the Saudi investment in the LIV Golf tour.

They will have to consider the broader impact their decision will have in the future, and I think this is going to be one of the more interesting things that will go into the court’s deliberations. That may be part of the reason it’s going to take them 10 to 12 weeks to come up with a verdict.

Q: Does that mean they’re more likely to end up somewhere in the middle?

A: Maybe not in the middle, but somewhere between the two extremes, for sure. One thing that, I think, will be emphasised is that “closed leagues” (or de facto closed leagues, like the Super League was, with its 27-year licence) are off the table. But the Super League, for example, may push for something like what exists in basketball with the EuroLeague. Some teams qualify for it every year, other teams acquire multiyear licences (up to 10 years) based on their achievements, infrastructure and the revenue they bring. They say it’s necessary to guarantee financial stability and future investment, because missing out on the Champions League for even one year can cost a club anywhere from 20% to 40% of their revenue.

I’d expect UEFA’s lawyers to make some sort of “specificity of sport” argument: a legal concept that says sports aren’t just any other business. They’re an intrinsic part of European culture, they have a social value, they can’t be left to the whims of a free market. It’s a little bit like utility companies or the fire department, or even schools: private and state-owned can exist side-by-side, but there have to be rules in place to protect everybody.

Q: Care to make a prediction about which way it’s going to go?

A: Not really, but since you ask, I’d imagine they will land somewhere closer to the UEFA position.

Folks who follow the CJEU more closely than I do tell me that it’s a political court and that they don’t rule in a vacuum. They take into account prevailing sentiment — among governments, stakeholders, fans and voters — and support for the Super League is very limited, outside of the three rebel clubs and their fans and possibly a portion of the supporters of clubs like Milan, Inter and Atletico Madrid (who would benefit the most). The six Premier League clubs who were involved and did a sharp U-turn after fan protests are also officially against it, and some have even pledged never to be a part of it … though you wonder if they’d change their mind based on the verdict. There may be some private equity people or other investors and maybe some broadcasters/sponsors who would favour it, but right now, they’re all quiet.

Most European governments have weighed in against the rebel clubs. So too have most national associations, most leagues, most official fan groups, FIFA, the players’ union FIFPro and the ECA. There’s a ton of political weight and institutions hoping for a UEFA-friendly verdict here, and I think that matters.

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