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European Super League returns to the table to challenge the status quo

A 2021 attempt to question the authority of UEFA to organize tournaments including the Champions League was met with widespread rejection, but ESL backers have not given up

(Left to right): Florentino Pérez, Bernd Reichart, CEO of A22 Sports Management, and Joan Laporta, during an informative breakfast on the Super League held on December 16 in Madrid.
(Left to right): Florentino Pérez, Bernd Reichart, CEO of A22 Sports Management, and Joan Laporta, during an informative breakfast on the Super League held on December 16 in Madrid.Mariscal / efe

A22 Sports Management, the company behind the proposed soccer European Super League (ESL), has drawn up a framework – published today by EL PAÍS together with other European newspapers – which sets out the bases on which it is working to redefine its project. The new Super League project seeks to iron out some of the most conflictive points of its initial attempt to challenge the hegemony of the UEFA Champions League while advocating for a competition in which the biggest clubs across the major European leagues have a place and in which sporting merit prevails.

While awaiting Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruling in the coming weeks on whether UEFA and FIFA have abused their dominant position as organizers of international soccer competitions, proponents of the Super League continue to work on the creation of a competition that, in its new guise, will be open and will not feature permanent members, as the initial proposal suggested.

Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus – the only three clubs from a group of 12 that would have formed the founding members of the proposed 20-team league who did not withdraw from the Super League after it was announced in 2021 to considerable backlash – have contacted over 50 European clubs and hope to create a huge league of between 60 and 80 sides divided into different divisions. However, the other nine clubs involved in the ill-fated Super League launch of two years ago – Atlético Madrid, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Inter Milan and AC Milan – have not yet contractually disassociated themselves from the project.

The promotion agency in charge of the project on behalf of the European Super League Company is aiming to create a new ecosystem in which European soccer competitions are managed by the clubs themselves, a move intended to emulate efforts by the major professional leagues in Europe to exploit national tournaments beyond their respective federations. In that case, UEFA would be removed from the economic and governance equation, but the independence of the Super League would also preclude any FIFA involvement.

The ESL intends to guarantee a minimum of 14 games for participating teams and its aim is to effectively supplant the UEFA Champions League, in which only the two finalists play a maximum of 13 games per competition proper. To this end, it would create an organization to replace the current governing body of European soccer as tournament operator.

The reasoning behind a new Super League is nothing new. For many years, clubs have been calling for a greater share of the revenue generated by international competitions, as well as a greater say in the decision-making on the formats of these tournaments. Before the Super League rather clumsily announced itself on April 18, 2021, most of Europe’s top clubs were already demanding increased revenues from participating in UEFA competitions and a more attractive format for the Champions League.

The argument for giving free rein to these demands now is the same as those put forward by the Super League, of which Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez is the chairman. The clubs argue that they were obliged to make large investments in their stadiums to meet UEFA requirements and to spend vast sums on competitive squads while the European governing body, without taking any similar risks, remains the main financial beneficiary of the revenues generated by continental tournaments, primarily the elite Champions League.

Faced with an ongoing economic crisis that has placed the sport in check, backers of the project argue that economic and political self-management is now paramount. The Super League, which saw its first project blown out of the water by massive fan protests, largely on the streets of England where six Premier League clubs signed up to the initial proposal, has also provided a carrot to some of Europe’s historic clubs, who have been left adrift in the second or third tier of European soccer due to financial hardship. Former winners of the old European Cup, the defunct Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Cup (Now the Europa League) have been sounded out and some of them have already expressed their willingness to be recruited.

UEFA had already reacted to this challenge by agreeing to change the format of the Champions League from the 2024-2025 season, raising the number of participating clubs to 36 from 32 expanding the group stage from six matches to eight, with four to played at home and four away against different opponents. A 50/50 partnership with the clubs is already in place to share out the spoils from UEFA competitions.

The CJEU ruling will be decisive for the Super League’s aspirations. The CJEU’s Advocate General, Athanasios Rantos, landed on the side of UEFA and FIFA in their bid to block the ESL last year and backed the legitimacy of UEFA to organize, and authorize, European competitions. However, the magistrate’s opinion is not binding on the court and a very different ruling could be issued in the spring, but the two tend to coincide 80% of the time. Without the backing of the European judiciary, the Super League’s power of persuasion to attract clubs would be greatly diminished.

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