EU court: FIFA and UEFA defy competition law by blocking Super League

AFP , Thursday 21 Dec 2023

UEFA and FIFA defied European Union competition law by blocking plans for the breakaway soccer Super League, the EU’s top court ruled on Thursday.

Aleksander Ceferin
President of UEFA Aleksander Ceferin listens to questions during a news conference, after being reelected, at the end of the 47th ordinary UEFA congress in Lisbon, Wednesday, April 5, 2023. AP

 

The case was heard last year at the Court of Justice after Super League failed at launch in April 2021. UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin called the club leaders “snakes” and “liars."

The company formed by 12 rebel clubs — now led by only Real Madrid and Barcelona after Juventus withdrew this year — started legal action to protect its position and the court was asked to rule on points of EU law by a Madrid tribunal.

“We have won the right to compete. The UEFA monopoly is over. Football is free. Clubs are now free from the threat of sanctions and free to determine their own futures," said Bernd Reichart, the CEO of A22 Sports Management, the Madrid-based company promoting Super League.

The clubs accused UEFA of breaching European law by allegedly abusing its market dominance of soccer competitions.

“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,” the court said. “There is no framework for the FIFA and UEFA rules ensuring that they are transparent, objective, non-discriminatory and proportionate.”

The court acknowledged FIFA and UEFA were abusing a dominant position and their rules on approval, control and sanctions “must be held to be unjustified restrictions on the freedom to provide services.”

The ruling will boost Super League promoters' hopes of reviving their project, although the court said it “does not mean that a competition such as the Super League project must necessarily be approved.”

“The court, having been asked generally about the FIFA and UEFA rules, does not rule on that specific project in its judgment.”

UEFA said it addressed last year “a historical shortfall within UEFA’s pre-authorization framework” and pledged to continue defending the central role of governing bodies in the European sports model.

“UEFA is confident in the robustness of its new rules, and specifically that they comply with all relevant European laws and regulations,” it said.

Two years after the original idea collapsed, Super League promoters presented in February a new proposal for a multi-division competition involving up to 80 European soccer teams and operating outside of UEFA’s authority.

English clubs are still unlikely to join such a revived plan. The Premier League’s international appeal and financial power has only grown in the past two years, and a U.K. government bill announced last month by King Charles proposed powers to block English teams from trying to join a breakaway league.

In a document explaining the new Football Governance Bill, the government said Super League was “fundamentally uncompetitive” and “threatened to undermine the footballing pyramid against the wishes of fans.”

The Spanish League reacted to Thursday's verdict, repeating “that the Super League is a selfish and elitist model. Anything that is not fully open, with direct access only through the domestic leagues, season by season, is a closed format.”

In its ruling, the court also noted that rules giving FIFA and UEFA exclusive control over the commercial exploitation of the media rights related to their competitions are “such as to be harmful to European football clubs, all companies operating in media markets and, ultimately, consumers and television viewers, by preventing them from enjoying new and potentially innovative or interesting competitions.”

Reichart of A22 said he will offer to fans “free viewing of all Super League matches,” and sent a message to clubs that “revenues and solidarity spending will be guaranteed” in Super League.

The Court of Justice's ruling was the most anticipated sports decision since the so-called Bosman Ruling in 1995. That case upended soccer’s transfer system, drove up pay for top players who became free agents when contracts expired, and ultimately accelerated a wealth and competitive divide between rich clubs and the rest.

When Super League was unveiled — a largely closed competition as an alternative to the UEFA-run Champions League — widespread condemnation hit the rebel clubs from England, Spain and Italy.

UEFA's defense was that it protected the special place of sports in European society by running competitions in a pyramid structure open to all, and funded the grassroots of the game. This season, the Champions League included Royal Antwerp, which won its first Belgian title for 66 years, and Union Berlin, which rose into the German top division only in 2019.

The proposed 20-team Super League with locked-in places for up to 15 founders would have effectively replaced the Champions League and weakened the sporting and commercial appeal of domestic leagues.

The lack of relegation was fundamentally at odds with European soccer which, unlike elite U.S. sports leagues, has the risk and reward of moving up or down divisions based on performance.

“UEFA remains resolute in its commitment to uphold the European football pyramid, ensuring that it continues to serve the broader interests of society,” UEFA said. “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.”

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