The European Super League: A legal perspective
On the 18th of April, twelve of the biggest football clubs in the world announced the creation of a new “European Super League”, meant to replace the UEFA Champions League. What followed was a unprecedented backlash from football fans, a decisive reaction from the Premier League, UEFA, and FIFA, and even politicians threatened to intervene in order to prevent the creation of this league. Within 3 days, the majority of the participating clubs withdrew, and the sun has already set on the shortest living football league in history.
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UEFA and Premier League regulations
The European Super League (‘ESL’) was meant to be a competition amongst the biggest clubs in Europe, with more games than the current top European football competition, the UEFA Champions League (‘UCL’). The participating clubs wished to increase their revenues through more high-profile matches between them and through the removal of UEFA’s money distribution rules. Naturally, UEFA vehemently opposed the ESL, threatening to take any legal action necessary to prevent the exit of its top clubs from its competitions.
The most significant punishments that UEFA can inflict upon the clubs within its jurisdiction are fines, bans, point deductions, and withdrawal of a title or award. The current version of UEFA’s disciplinary regulations includes a cap on fines. This cap is set at just €1.000.000, which is paltry sum for the mega-clubs that would have comprised the ESL. According to news reports, JP Morgan would have financed the ESL and the participating clubs would have been due a staggering €200m to €300m ‘welcome bonus’ each. Even more money would have followed for the participating clubs once TV revenues and cash prizes for performance are considered, showing how ineffective a €1m fine from UEFA would have been.
Bans from UEFA competitions and any point deductions would have been similarly ineffective. Since the ESL clubs would be competing in a new competition, the threats and speculation of such bans and point deductions would not affect the ESL clubs. These penalties would be irrelevant if the clubs were already competing in non-UEFA competitions. While some people argued that the UEFA titles of the ESL clubs should be withdrawn, this was not a popular option, and it would punish the performances and efforts of people that had nothing to do with the ESL proposal.
The backlash from national associations was likely a more significant factor in the ESL’s downfall. In England, the 14 non-ESL clubs that comprise the Premier League came together to condemn the ESL. The Premier League had a lot of reasons to dislike the ESL. Firstly, it took away the opportunity of the rest of the Premier League clubs to participate in Europe’s top competition. The likes of Leicester FC and West Ham are currently challenging the English ESL clubs for a position in next year’s UCL, yet the creation of the ESL would have essentially downgraded the UCL into a 2nd-grade competition, with reduced revenues for the clubs that would participate in the UCL. Crucially, the proposed structure of the ESL would be easily scalable. The two groups of 10 teams could easily merge to make up a full 20-team league, replacing the domestic leagues of the ESL clubs altogether, something which the national associations were not prepared to accept.
Importantly for English clubs, the Premier League has its own rules relating to the participation of Premier League clubs in other competitions. Rule L9 of the Premier League’s Handbook explicitly provides that:
The Premier League has much wider powers of enforcing its disciplinary rules. Under Rule W.49, the Premier League can impose unlimited fines, it can deduct points from the infringing clubs, and it can even expel clubs from the Premier League. None of the ESL clubs were prepared, at this stage, to risk being thrown out of the lucrative and historic Premier League. The supporters of these clubs were instrumental in forcing their clubs to withdraw from the ESL. Through protests and online condemnation, they made it clear that they did not approve of the ESL project, especially if this would come at the cost of their club’s participation or performance in the Premier League.
Even after the English ESL clubs announced their withdrawals, the calls to punish them have remained. The Premier League has clarified that the English ESL clubs would not be expelled, a sensible decision considering the commercial and sporting significance of these clubs to the Premier League. No point deductions are expected either, as that would punish the players, the managers, and the fans, more than the people who pushed for the ESL; the owners of the ESL clubs. The option of fines remains on the table, but the most likely outcome is an indirect financial penalty. This might come in the form of a change in the Premier League’s revenue distribution mechanism, which will seek to bring more balance to the earning power of the English ESL clubs and the remaining Premier League clubs.
Expulsion of players and player contracts
UEFA would have been the party most greatly affected by the ESL. Yet, as analysed above, it had little options in its arsenal to combat the proposal. It is for this reason that it resorted to threatening the expulsion of the players of ESL clubs from its national competitions, such as the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship due to take place in the summer. FIFA also supported a similar measure to prevent the creation of the ESL. This was a smart tactical move from UEFA and FIFA, as it turned the players of the ESL clubs against the proposed league.
Players hold a lot of power in modern football, both in terms of shifting the public’s opinion and in terms of their legal rights. It is a standard clause in a football player’s contract that the player’s club can’t prevent him from playing with his international team. Such clauses are essential in football, as clubs have little motivation to send their players abroad in far-flung countries, where they risk injuries and fatigue. Contrastingly, most football players take huge pride in representing their countries, with many ESL players being the talismans for their national teams. Players such as Portugal’s Christiano Ronaldo, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, and South Korea’s Son Heung Ming take huge pride in representing their countries on the international level and would oppose anything that could jeopardise their international footballing career.
The legality of a banning some players based on the competition they play in is not clear, and a legal battle would have ensued if the plans for the ESL were to go ahead. It is easy to envision some of the arguments that the ESL clubs would rely on, such as the potential for discrimination, the lack of equality and the inhibition of free competition. Players themselves could have sued their employers for breach of contract if they were to be banned as a result of their club’s participation in the ESL. As it stands, the plans for the ESL have been frozen and the players would be able to represent their countries normally.
Sticking to their guns
For most, the fate of the ESL was sealed once all six Premier League teams announced their decision to withdraw from the competition. Yet, Florentino Perez, Real Madrid’s president, was not prepared to accept the failure of his project. In interviews over the past week, he revealed that none of the ESL clubs had formally left the ESL yet. He argued that all clubs had signed binding contracts which did not include any withdrawal mechanisms. Therefore, any ESL club seeking to formally leave would be in breach of the ESL agreement and Perez appears willing to enforce their contract. Unless the parties come to an arrangement, this could lead to a long court battle between the top European clubs.
Europe’s top clubs have illustrated their desire for a new competition, but for the time being the ESL has been put on indefinite hold. This represents an impressive win for UEFA, yet this was not a one-game final. More battles will surely follow, and legal questions revolving around breach of contract claims, disciplinary proceedings and infringements of free competition will add off-the-field excitement for football-loving lawyers.