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Super League vs UEFA: Court rules on future of European football

The latest bid to set up a Super League of the biggest European football clubs collapsed swiftly under the weight of fan anger, but the idea did not die. 

Now Europe’s top court is to make a ruling in a case that could change the game forever.

The European Court of Justice will deliver a ruling on the breakaway Super League on Thursday that could be a key victory for European football’s governing body UEFA or send shockwaves through the sport.

The case goes back to April 2021, when 12 of Europe’s biggest clubs announced they had signed up to the planned Super League, just before UEFA was to reveal reforms to the Champions League.

The Super League was seen as a direct competitor to UEFA’s flagship competition. 

The upstart league quickly fell apart in the face of a strong backlash from supporters, both UEFA and the world governing body FIFA threatened to take disciplinary action against the clubs involved.

English fans in particular remained loyal to their traditional domestic league model and nine of the 12 rebel clubs—including six from the English Premier League—threw in the towel within 48 hours.

Two years on, only Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona have stood by the dormant project, with Italian giant Juventus withdrawing in July.

Juve president Andrea Agnelli had been a key pro-Super League voice but he resigned late last year and was then barred from Italian football for two years after his club broke financial rules.

Yet the threat of a breakaway by Europe’s most powerful clubs to form a lucrative US-style closed league, with no promotion or relegation, still hangs over football.

Proportionate punishments?

In October last year the promoters of the Super League launched A22 Sports Management, a company whose aim is to contest UEFA’s so-called “monopoly” over the sport on the continent.

Whether or not they will make a comeback may depend on Thursday’s judgement, when the court will rule on several questions put to it in 2021 by a judge in Madrid.

But most crucially it will decide whether UEFA is “abusing its dominant position” in submitting all tournaments in Europe to its authority, and threatening punishments against clubs and players.

UEFA has cause for optimism, given that ECJ Advocate General Athanasios Rantos advised a year ago that rules laid out by European football’s governing body, as well as by FIFA, were “compatible” with European Union competition law.

Yet, while the court’s top legal advisor’s opinion is respected, it is not binding. 

The details of the judge’s decision could have a major impact on club football, and more broadly for the regulation of sporting competitions in Europe.

The court will decide whether measures taken against the rebels by UEFA have “legitimate objectives” in mind and are “proportionate”.

The first question seems clear cut, given that European treaties explicitly protect the “sporting model” on the continent, with a system of promotion and relegation and a redistribution of revenues.

But it remains to be seen what are considered “proportionate” reprisals from UEFA to protect its model.

Should these be limited financial sanctions against clubs?

Or could players and clubs who take part in a rival competitions be banned from international tournaments such as the World Cup and the Champions League, as FIFA and UEFA envisaged in April 2021?

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