The Super League saga rumbles on. On Wednesday, ESPN reported that UEFA were prepared to begin disciplinary proceedings against clubs that did not formally withdraw from the Super League that could result in a maximum of a two-year ban from European competitions.
On Friday evening, UEFA released a statement announcing “reintegration measures” for nine of the 12 clubs involved in the Super League (including Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea) who agreed to — among other things — formally abandon the project and commit to UEFA competitions such as the Champions League.
The following morning, the three clubs excluded from the deal — Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid — issued their own joint statement in which they complained of “third-party pressures, threats and offences,” reiterated their reasons for launching the Super League in the first place and insisted that court rulings already exist stopping UEFA and FIFA from taking any immediate disciplinary action against them.
It’s a messy situation, so here’s a Q&A to unpack it.
Q: Why did UEFA and the nine clubs agree to these measures?
A: UEFA obviously wants them playing in the Champions League because they generate a big chunk of revenue for the organization. And that’s important because UEFA redistributes more than 90% of the revenues to clubs, member associations and other stakeholders. It’s an elected body and if, for whatever reason, it can’t deliver those funds to its stakeholders, its leaders aren’t doing their jobs… and can get voted out.
At the same time, UEFA couldn’t just welcome the clubs back as if nothing had happened, with the risk of finding themselves in the same position in a year or two. It was important that it gets a firm commitment and this agreement includes a €100 million ($120m) fine if clubs “seek to play” in an “unauthorized competition” like a future Super League.
Plus, as a “gesture of goodwill” the nine clubs will contribute €15m ($18.2m) in total for youth and grassroots projects and they’ll be fined 5% of whatever they earn from UEFA club competitions for one season. It’s hard to say how much that will be, and it will vary from club to club because it depends on performance and size of market, but it could be anywhere from €1m to €8m. That should add up to perhaps €30m in total which will also be redistributed.
Q: OK, so on average it might end up costing each of the “rebel” clubs maybe around €3m to €4m each… that doesn’t sound like a lot. Is that why they took the deal?
A: I think so. Right now, these clubs are hurting financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic and there was little point in UEFA trying to squeeze them further. Even that €100m fine is more for show, because if they were to simply break away and quit, I’m not sure how legally enforceable it would be. But it matters to the clubs to be back in the fold, especially the six Premier League clubs, given how forceful their fans’ reaction was. Now they can move on.
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Q: As of Wednesday, you reported that only seven clubs — the six English ones, plus Atletico Madrid — had agreed the deal. What changed for the other two, Milan and Inter? Was it the threat of a ban from European competition?
A: They felt — as the three holdouts still do — that they were on pretty solid ground legally. I just think the screws turned on them. One person I spoke to described it like those cop movies where they separate the suspects, stick them in different rooms and try to get the suspect to confess and turn on his friends by telling them that the other suspects are about to testify against them.
They weren’t just under pressure from UEFA, they were under pressure from the other seven clubs as well, who were urging them to take the deal. Particularly since it’s likely UEFA would only offer the deal if a minimum of nine clubs accepted it: that would mean, based on the Super League’s own by-laws, that the competition would be dissolved. Remember, these clubs exist in the same ecosystem: they do business together; they’re interdependent.
Q: So why did it take them so long?
A: For a start, they believed in the project. And as long as it was still around in some form, they still had leverage with UEFA in terms of cutting a better deal for themselves in terms of revenue distribution and access to European competitions. These are two issues which, despite UEFA approving the Champions League reform with the Swiss Model from 2024 onwards, remain unresolved.
Beyond that, when the 12 clubs formed the Super League company, they agreed to pay a massive fine (as much as €150m) if they dropped out in the first five years. That would then be redistributed to the remaining clubs.
Q: Wait a minute… so nine clubs have dropped out. Each one is contractually obligated to pay €150m to the remaining three clubs… does that mean Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona will get to split €1.35 billion among them?
A: In theory, yes. That’s what they claim the contract says. However, we’re talking lawyers here and as we’ve seen from legal disputes over the years, it’s anybody’s guess what would actually happen if they sued. Plus, it’s hard to see Europe’s mega clubs suddenly suing each other over this. After all, long-term, they all have to work together. Not to mention that, under FIFA rules, clubs (and associations) can’t sue each other, they have to pursue matters through sporting courts, under penalty of suspension. So I’m not sure this massive penalty means anything, unless the three remaining clubs want to become perennial pariahs.
Q: What about Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid? What happens to them now? Will they get banned?
A: They’re obviously in an even weaker position now. UEFA can start disciplinary proceedings and the maximum punishment is a two-year ban. But they genuinely don’t think they will be banned or even disciplined, primarily for two reasons.
First, there’s a ruling from a court in Madrid that bars UEFA from punishing them until the case over whether a Super League is legal has been heard. It’s basically an injunction and it could take ages to resolve. By the time it does get resolved, there could be a whole different climate at UEFA. Or, the Super League clubs could win… who knows?
Gab Marcotti recommends punishment for individual executives, not clubs, after the European Super League debacle.
Q: But that’s a court in Madrid. UEFA is in Switzerland, what does it care?
A: Without getting too far into the weeds, it has to do with European Law and where UEFA does business and, based on something called the Treaty of Lugano, the injunction can be enforced. It would make UEFA in contempt and, the clubs say, it would make members of their Disciplinary Committee personally liable.
Q: OK, what’s the other reason?
A: UEFA would most likely start the disciplinary proceedings arguing the three remaining Super League clubs have violated Article 51, which says that clubs can’t “form alliances” without UEFA permission. Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid claim that when the Super League was formed, the first thing they did was ask for permission and recognition.
Q: That’s a bit sneaky. Didn’t they secretly plan this for years, agree every detail right down to the format and participants and then go to UEFA as if it was a done deal?
A: Pretty much. But we’re talking legal fine print here. And if UEFA did take disciplinary action, in addition to the injunction from the Madrid court, they’d have the option of taking it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne. And, as we’ve seen, UEFA’s record there isn’t great: that’s essentially the “supreme court” of sporting justice and those are the guys who overturned Manchester City’s ban last summer. Still, it was important to hear from the three clubs, because other than Madrid president Florentino Perez’s rambling TV appearances, they never put their case across.
Q: What do you mean?
A: We never got to hear why they felt a Super League was necessary until now and they never pushed back on the notion that this was a “breakaway” league. They said they were only ever going to do this with UEFA and FIFA approval — a bit like basketball’s Euro League.
They said these were necessary structural reforms because the game had become unsustainable; they said they were willing to share and make “solidarity payments” to the rest of the pyramid; they said women’s football was a priority; they argued they would implement cost-controls and financial oversight to make the system sustainable. And they said it would be irresponsible not to do this, because global interest in the sport “is not a given.”
Q: Do they have a point?
A: While I agree global interest is not a given, I’d also point out that revenues in European football doubled in the decade pre-pandemic, so it’s pretty good. Equally, it’s by no means guaranteed that their format would have increased interest across the board: certainly they provided zero evidence of this. And if the women’s game and solidarity payments were such a priority, why didn’t they offer a modicum of detail in their original press release. (You may recall, it simply said a women’s league would be created “in due course.”)
As for cost-control, it’s not lost on anybody that three of the clubs involved breached UEFA’s financial fair play system, designed to keep member clubs from spending more than they earn. More to the point, these clubs had senior positions in the European Club Association, Juventus president Andrea Agnelli was on UEFA’s Executive Board, they spent six months negotiating — and then approving — the new Champions League format.
If all these were massive priorities, why not bring it up then? Why not mount your campaign then?
Q: Yeah, why not?
A: Whether you agree with the Super League or not, there is no question that the way they tried to bring it to life was incredibly ham-fisted and, frankly, incompetent. That’s something even some of the staunchest Super League backers agree on. They basically misread everything: from the reaction of the fans, to the media, to UEFA and FIFA and, perhaps most of all, other Super League clubs. Maybe I’m cynical, but the fact that they would try to launch this project is less of a surprise to me than the abjectly incompetent way in which they did it.
Q: What happens next?
A: UEFA says it reserves the right to take “whatever action they deem appropriate” against Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid. If they do go the disciplinary route, I’d imagine it will be tied up in red tape and legal proceedings for a long time. My hunch is that some sort of face-saving compromise will, ultimately, be reached.
As for the three clubs trying to enforce the clause and trying to claim €150m from those who left, I’m skeptical. It might be different if they were owned by private investors simply looking to make a buck and play the long game, even if means harming the club. But Barcelona and Real Madrid are run by associations of fans. Juventus has been in the Agnelli family for more than a century. I can’t seen them wrecking everything in an improbable chase for cash, even if it’s more than half a billion each.
Ultimately, it’s about money and overspending just as a pandemic hit. You can fix it with money. And in that regard, don’t discount the possibility of FIFA popping up and, perhaps, expanding its Club World Cup (the 24 team World Cup-style tournament involving club sides which was due to launch this summer but has been postponed due to COVID), both in terms of participants and frequency.