The idea of a European Super League (ESL) operating inside the continental soccer mainstream appears to be dead, so what remains is to discover whether its advocates are committed enough to the concept to make a full breakaway.
The European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) initial, non-binding opinion on the ESL case was handed down on 15th December and upheld Uefa and Fifa’s right to block new competitions.
Uefa described the advocate general opinion as ‘unequivocal’ and said it was ‘a clear rejection’ of the Super League’s argument that the sport’s governing bodies had acted against EU competition law in blocking the league’s formation in April 2021.
A22, a company formed to sponsor and assist the creation of the Super League, expressed confidence that the final ruling from the ECJ’s Grand Chamber would differ from the advocate general’s interpretation. That final, binding ruling is due in the springtime.
However, final court judgments often closely mirror the advocate general opinion, so A22 must realistically be looking at how it can proceed if that is the case.
If European soccer’s governance really is as broken as Super League backers like Real Madrid president Florentino Perez claim it is, then there is the possibility they will take what Peter Nunn, a partner at international law firm Mishcon de Reya specializing in intellectual property, sports and commercial disputes, described to me as the “nuclear” option and break away.
Nunn highlighted the advocate general opinion stating it would be unreasonable for Uefa to sanction players belonging to clubs in a Super League, opening up the possibility of a league existing outside of Uefa jurisdiction but its players competing in national team tournaments under Uefa and Fifa auspices.
Nunn said: “That makes a true breakaway more feasible, as participating players could still represent their countries. These sorts of breakaways happen in other sports – LIV Golf being the most recent example.
“However, given the overwhelmingly adverse reaction of fans, governments and the EU to the idea of a largely closed ESL, such a move does not seem likely any time soon.”
What Nunn sees as more likely is that the Super League-supporting clubs, and Europe’s other heavyweights, will continue to mold Europe’s top competitions to suit their interests as they have since the 1990s.
There is an argument that to a large extent, the new Champions League format due to start next year already gives them a lot of what they want – albeit falling short of one of the earliest stated goals in the initial plans presented by Uefa in 2019 for matches to be played at the weekends, a huge red flag for the Premier League and others and now seemingly buried forever.
The new Swiss system though means teams play eight group stage matches instead of six, a further infraction on domestic calendars, and there is the flexibility to add more dates as the years roll by. Although proposals for safety net places to be reserved for teams with the strongest club coefficients were ultimately rejected, the format does reserve spaces for the countries with the strongest coefficient. England would have gained an extra place in four of the last five seasons up to 2021/22 had this system been in use.
The battle over how revenue from the new formats is distributed is still being fought, with big clubs believing they should at the very least maintain their share of the income as they drive the interest, while the European Leagues group wants a greater proportion of revenue to be distributed based on performance in that season’s competition, rather than on the size of a club’s domestic television market or their past performances.
Nunn is right to say that clubs have been hugely successful in driving changes to suit their own ends since the 1990s, but wouldn’t a ruling from the ECJ severely weaken the big clubs’ bargaining position?
We have already seen with the ham fisted effort in 2021 how unpopular the concept was with fans, and if a true breakaway is legally the only option, who is really going to be brave enough to take that risk? Surely no club in the Premier League, enjoying record broadcast revenues, could be tempted any time soon.
The Super League had lined up backing from JP Morgan, but the prospect of clubs securing such startup cash for a renewed breakaway will be hampered by the fact that financial markets have changed dramatically since then with interest rates rising globally and financial institutions less inclined to speculate .
Another intriguing element thrown into the mix is Fifa’s plan for an expanded Club World Cup to start in 2025. It would be another revenue stream for the clubs who qualify to compete, but the World Leagues Forum has already stated that the plans would have ‘damaging consequences for the football economy and player welfare’. Could the financing necessary to make that competition alluring and ultimately successful come from Saudi Arabia, a country which is bidding to co-host the 2030 World Cup?
Whichever way you look at it, there are still so many areas of uncertainty and conflict within European and global soccer politics that make for fascinating times ahead.