The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that soccer governing bodies FIFA and UEFA acted unlawfully by blocking clubs from joining the breakaway European Super League (ESL) competition.
The ECJ delivered its long-awaited verdict in the case today, providing a small victory for A22 Sports Management, the company that was set up to assist with the launch of the ESL.
The European Super League Company (ESLC) and its backers A22 took FIFA and UEFA to court claiming that they were violating European Union (EU) competition law by threatening to sanction clubs and players who joined the breakaway league.
Today’s ruling from Europe's highest court found against the governing bodies, which significantly damages their authority and governance of soccer.
#ECJ: The #FIFA and #UEFA rules on prior approval of interclub #football competitions, such as the Super League, are contrary to #EUlaw #EuropeanSuperleague 👉 https://t.co/ATb3CgbPxg pic.twitter.com/XCnLzwIKWb
— EU Court of Justice (@EUCourtPress) December 21, 2023
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In a statement, the ECJ said: “The 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.
“There is no framework for the FIFA and UEFA rules ensuring that they are transparent, objective, non-discriminatory, and proportionate. 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.”
Last December, the prospects for a revived ESL appeared to have been severely damaged following guidance by a senior advisor to the ECJ that FIFA and UEFA were within their rights to sanction any clubs that join any such breakaway competition.
The opinion, delivered by ECJ advocate general Athanasios Rantos, proposed that the court should rule that the FIFA-UEFA rules under which any new competition is subject to prior approval are compatible with EU competition law.
At the time, UEFA welcomed the announcement, saying that it was in line with its mission to govern European soccer, protect the pyramid, and develop the game across Europe.
European soccer's governing body does not believe the ECJ ruling will necessarily open the door for the ESL to be formed and remains confident of combating the threat of the breakaway competition with its new rules.
A UEFA statement read: “This ruling does not signify an endorsement or validation of the so-called ‘super league’; it rather underscores a pre-existing shortfall within UEFA's pre-authorization framework, a technical aspect that has already been acknowledged and addressed in June 2022. UEFA is confident in the robustness of its new rules, and specifically that they comply with all relevant European laws and regulations.
“UEFA remains resolute in its commitment to uphold the European football pyramid, ensuring that it continues to serve the broader interests of society. We will continue to shape the European sports model collectively with national associations, leagues, clubs, fans, players, coaches, EU institutions, governments, and partners alike.
“We trust that the solidarity-based European football pyramid that the fans and all stakeholders have declared as their irreplaceable model will be safeguarded against the threat of breakaways by European and national laws.”
The case was brought to the ECJ by the ESL organizers in June 2021 following the collapse of the project after only 48 hours in April before that.
The league had been proposed by 12 elite European clubs – Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid from Spain; Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Liverpool from England; and Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan from Italy.
However, the concept was widely rejected by a vast majority of European soccer’s range of stakeholders, with one of the main bones of contention being the proposed closed-shop format, without promotion or relegation.
Only Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Juventus continued to advocate for the ESL, and those clubs were behind the ECJ case.
— A22 Sports (@A22Sports) December 21, 2023
However, earlier this year, Juventus outlined their intention to withdraw from the ESL project.
This came after the Italian giants were found guilty of financial rule breaches by the Italian FA in January. After an initial 15-point deduction was temporarily overturned, a second hearing led to a 10-point penalty last season which the club accepted.
Juventus, who had qualified for the third-tier UEFA Europa Conference League after finishing seventh last year, were banned from European competitions this season by UEFA following a separate investigation around false accounting allegations.
It was claimed that the club’s decision to withdraw from the ESL was due to allegedly receiving a warning from UEFA, which threatened to ban them from European competitions for three years, which the Turin-based outfit denied.
The new approach from Juventus was believed to be an attempt from the new hierarchy at the club to distance themselves from the Andrea Agnelli era.
Agnelli, who was a key figure in the ESL project, stepped down as president of Juventus in November 2022 while the initial investigation into the club’s finances and accounting procedures was taking place.
In February, A22 unveiled new ESL plans for a continent-wide competition featuring 60 to 80 clubs across multiple divisions.
The new plans came almost two years after the collapse of the initial project.
Our proposed new men's ESL competition is a league structure based on a true pan-European pyramid: It will consist of 64 participating clubs in three tiers. Watch the video to learn more about the key elements. #BetterForFootball pic.twitter.com/yHfhVaPTFt
— A22 Sports (@A22Sports) December 21, 2023
The original plans envisaged a 20-club competition in which 15 of the teams would qualify by right and share an upfront sum of €3.5 billion ($3.8 billion), with US investment bank JPMorgan Chase driving the financing.
In October 2022, A22 appointed Bernd Reichart as its chief executive and held talks with UEFA in what was viewed as the first step in an attempt to revive the project in some form.
On today's ruling, Reichart said: “There is big news today: Football is free. Free from the monopoly of UEFA, free to pursue the best ideas without fear of sanctions, and under our proposal, free viewing of all live matches.
“This morning, the ECJ ended UEFA’s near 70-year monopoly and opened the door to innovation in football: Clubs can now openly discuss and consider proposals to address the sport’s most pressing issues.
“We will continue and expand our dialogue with football stakeholders to explain and further develop the proposal. […] Our job is to empower the clubs that will constitute and manage the new competition.”
The ECJ report went on to say that when new competitions potentially enter the market, FIFA and UEFA must ensure that their powers are “transparent, objective, non-discriminatory, and proportionate.”
The ruling added: “However, the powers of FIFA and UEFA are not subject to any such criteria. FIFA and UEFA are, therefore, abusing a dominant position.
“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 stated, however, that its ruling “does not mean that a competition such as the Super League project must necessarily be approved” and is only making a judgment on FIFA and UEFA rules.
The court made it clear that it “does not rule on that specific project in its judgment.”
Conrad Wiacek, head of analysis and consulting at GlobalData, commented: “The ECJ’s ruling that UEFA and FIFA have restricted competition by effectively banning the European Super League will embolden the likes of [Real Madrid president] Florentino Perez and [Barcelona president] Joan Laporta to push on with the Super League plan, despite opposition from fans.
“While going against the spirit of the sport itself, the likes of Perez dreamt up the ESL as a means of neutering the power of the English Premier League. Unwilling to sacrifice their dominant market positions domestically to create a more competitive product which in turn would drive higher media rights fees, the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona will see the ECJ ruling as an opportunity to enrich themselves and further imbalance the soccer ecosystem.
“This is the third significant intervention the ECJ has made in soccer over the past few decades, starting with the Bosman case and following this with the ruling that media rights must be sold in separate packages to promote competition. While the Bosman ruling impacted players, both the media rights ruling and the ESL judgment will be seen to only be to the detriment of soccer fans.
“In the case of media rights, fans have been the ultimate losers, being forced to pay more to watch the sport while the ESL ruling has the potential to fundamentally change and realign the sport.”
Read – Q&A: A22 Sports’ Bernd Reichart on the relaunched ‘European Super League’