The fallout from the European Super League (ESL) project of 2021 has returned to focus following a landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice.
The initial plans to form a ‘breakaway’ European league were met with fierce fan opposition following the decision of 12 major European sides to publicly back the project — including six Premier League clubs.
Both UEFA and FIFA rallied alongside individual national league associations to condemn and block the proposal with the majority of clubs involved quickly withdrawing their intention to join up.
However, the ESL and its backers, Sports Agency A22, have now received a positive judgement over their claims of unfair treatment by UEFA and FIFA.
What has the European Court of Justice said?
Proposed ESL chairman — and Real Madrid club president — Florentino Perez has remained steadfast in his support of keeping the project in motion with the Spanish businessman calling on all involved to wait for the ECJ ruling.
The ECJ have delivered a blow to UEFA and FIFA in the wording of their judgement, which focuses on competition rules, and reopens the ESL debate.
“FIFA and UEFA rules making any new interclub football project subject to their prior approval, such as the Super League, and prohibiting clubs and players from playing in those competitions, are unlawful”, the statement confirmed.
“There is no framework for the FIFA and UEFA rules ensuring they are transparent, objective, non-discriminatory and proportionate.
“The powers of FIFA and UEFA are not subject to any such criteria. FIFA and UEFA are, therefore, abusing a dominant position.
“Similarly, the rules giving FIFA and UEFA exclusive control over the commercial exploitation of the rights related to those competitions are such as to restrict competition, given their importance for the media, consumers and television viewers in the European Union.
“Moreover, given their arbitrary nature, their rules on approval, control and sanctions must be held to be unjustified restrictions on the freedom to provide services.”
The ECJ’s bold declaration has been met with positivity by the ESL, and A22, with the latter’s chief executive Bernd Reichart claiming the ‘right to exist’ has been secured.
“UEFA’s monopoly is over. Football is free. Clubs are now free from the threat of sanctions and free to determine their own future. For fans: we offer free broadcasting of all Superleague matches. For clubs: Income and solidarity expenses will be guaranteed”, Reichart posted on X (Twitter).
„We have won the #RightToCompete. The UEFA-monopoly is over. Football is FREE. Clubs are now free from the threat of sanction AND free to determine their own futures”, our CEO Bernd Reichart comments the CJEU decision. 1/4
— A22 Sports (@A22Sports) December 21, 2023
What does the ruling mean for Super League members, UEFA and FIFA?
Despite the apparent universality of what the ECJ have said, the ruling is also very clear in its position on the ESL and the next steps.
“[The ECJ ruling] does not mean that a competition such as the Super League project must necessarily be approved. The Court does not rule on that specific project in its judgment”, the ruling added in its conclusion.
This comment is crucial to maintain the joint UEFA and FIFA position on the project with individual member associations and leagues, including the Premier League and La Liga, already reaffirming their position of objection.
Effectively, the judgement does not move the situation in a dramatic direction for either side, with the ESL emboldened by their claim of unfair treatment receiving validation, but no significant switch has been taken from a legal body offering its backing to it.
With UEFA and FIFA still set in their positions, the Super League members (both active and non-active) have now been given more flexibility, but only from a theoretical standpoint.
Within the ESL debacle, clubs and players were concerned by the ability of UEFA and FIFA to impose competition bans and financial penalties on them, if they joined a ‘breakaway league’.
Whilst the ruling does not encourage the ESL, it has effectively freed those involved from the possibility of UEFA/FIFA-backed sanctions if they did make a move, and that could have a deeper future impact if clubs reassess their position.
What is UEFA and FIFA’s response?
UEFA have responded to the judgement by claiming it has taken note of the ECJ’s ruling and stating it “does not signify an endorsement or validation of the so-called ‘Super League’ in its wording”.
European football’s governing body have confirmed their readiness to update internal rules over transparency and fair competition whilst remaining unmoved in their opposition to the ESL.
FIFA are yet to release a formal response, but they have been closely aligned with UEFA throughout, and the ECJ’s ruling will not impact the stance.
Super League timeline, key events
The concept behind a ‘alternative’ European competition, outside of UEFA’s framework, has been on the agenda since the 1960s with major clubs wanting more control over revenue streams and structure.
However, in April 2021, within the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the Perez-led project was unveiled and the criticism unfurled.
- April 18, 2021: Twelve clubs from England, Spain and Italy confirm their intention to join the ESL with Perez’s opening statement claiming project would guarantee financial security for the clubs involved and open football to a younger generation of fans.
- April 19, 2021: FIFA, UEFA and all major European leagues issue a joint statement confirming their objection to the project based on Perez’s suggestion of removing domestic qualification and other issues which would impact sporting integrity.
- May 2021: Following the withdrawal of nine of the 12 ESL members — including all six Premier League clubs — UEFA confirmed their plan for ‘reintegration measures’ for the nine.
- June 2021: Multiple fan bodies across Europe unite with public statements against the ESL plan.
- October 2022: With the remaining members awaiting a legal ruling, amid UEFA threatened sanctions, A22 agrees a deal to ‘sponsor and assist’ revived model.
- February, 2023: A22 and the ESL produce a manifesto on a reformatted tournament, which would include promotion and relegation, with qualification awarded on merit.
- December 21, 2023: ECJ ruling on UEFA/FIFA unfair use of power against the ESL delivered, but does not sanction its creation.