European Super League: EU’s top court says FIFA and UEFA’s rules against controversial competition were unlawful

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 20: Fans of Chelsea Football Club protest against the European Super League outside Stamford Bridge on April 20, 2021 in London, England. Six English premier league teams have announced they are part of plans for a breakaway European Super League. Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur will join 12 other European teams in a closed league similar to that of the NFL American Football League. In a statement released last night, the new competition "is intended to commence as soon as practicable" potentially in August. (Photo by Rob Pinney/Getty Images)

Chelsea fans protest against the European Super League outside Stamford Bridge on April 20, 2021, in London.Rob Pinney/Getty ImagesCNN — 

The European Union’s top court ruled against FIFA and UEFA – two of soccer’s top governing bodies – in the European Super League (ESL) case on Thursday, saying that their rules demanding prior approval for establishing a new competition, such as the ESL, and prohibiting clubs and players from playing in them were “unlawful.”

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) was considering whether FIFA and UEFA were legally permitted to block the formation of the controversial breakaway league in 2021. The case was referred to the CJEU by a Madrid court and the CJEU’s judgement had been keenly anticipated by a number of leading soccer clubs as well as fans and governing bodies.

The court added that the ruling “does not mean that a competition such as the Super League project must necessarily be approved,” emphasizing that it was considering “FIFA and UEFA rules” rather than the legality of the controversial breakaway league, which it referred back to the Spanish court to determine.

The ESL’s “anti-monopoly” case against European governing body UEFA sought to establish whether its “dominant” position in the continent’s soccer is legal, according to A22 Sports Management CEO Bernd Reichart.

A22 was formed to “sponsor and assist in the creation of the new European Super League,” according to its website.

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The CJEU ruled that FIFA and UEFA are “abusing a dominant position” in terms of organizing football competitions, since their powers are not subject to any criteria “ensuring that they are transparent, objective, non discriminatory and proportionate” when any potential conflicts of interest arise.

It defined the “organisation of interclub football competitions and the exploitation of the media rights” as “economic activities” which must comply with the “competition rules and respect the freedoms of movement.”

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In a statement, A22 said the decision was a “landmark in football history,” with Reichart adding: “The UEFA-monopoly is over. Football is FREE. Clubs are now free from the threat of sanction AND free to determine their own futures.”

CNN has reached out to world governing body FIFA and UEFA for comment.

GRANADA, SPAIN - APRIL 22: Players of Granada CF wear t-shirts in protest at the plans for a European Super League during the La Liga Santander match between Granada CF and SD Eibar at Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes on April 22, 2021 in Granada, Spain. Sporting stadiums around Spain remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Fran Santiago/Getty Images)

Granada CF players wear t-shirts protesting the European Super League before their La Liga match against SD Eibar at Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes on April 22, 2021, in Spain.Fran Santiago/Getty Images

A 48-hour collapse

On April 18, 2021, 12 of Europe’s biggest, most successful and financially powerful clubs announced their intention to break away from the current UEFA competition format and create a Super League. The idea was to guarantee 15 clubs a place in the 20-team competition every season, regardless of performance on the pitch.

The 20 teams would be made up of the 12 founding members as well as three other permanent unnamed clubs and five others who would qualify every year.

However, after vehement opposition from fans and the wider public – with many saying it was a power grab intended to guarantee the Super League’s founding members status and revenue – the plans were scrapped just 48 hours later, though Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona remain committed to the project.

It was criticized at the time as undermining the promotion and relegation principle that underpins soccer which ensures the sport retains a measure of equality between the clubs.

LaLiga voiced such criticisms again on Thursday after the ruling, posting on X that “today more than ever we remember that the ‘Super League’ is a selfish and elitist model.

“Every format that isn’t totally open, with direct access, year after year, via domestic leagues is a closed model.”

Arsenal, AC Milan, Chelsea, Atlético Madrid, Inter Milan, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur pulled out of the ESL project but were subsequently handed financial penalties by UEFA.

In July 2023, Serie A’s Juventus – one of the 12 founding members – said in a statement that the club had “initiated the procedure” to withdraw from the ESL, but that “under the applicable contractual terms, its exit will be completed and effective only if previously authorised by Real Madrid, FC Barcelona.”

LIVORNO, ITALY - APRIL 20:  A newsagent shows two pages of the main Italian sports newspapers with a headline regarding the Super League reading 'No!' and 'Fermateli!' ('Stop them!) on April 20, 2021 in Livorno, Italy. There are three Italian teams at the moment that would participate in the European Super League, Juventus, AC Milan and Inter. At the moment the 12 clubs, called 'scissionisti' (splinters) in Italy, have jointly announced an agreement for a new football competition, the Super League, governed by the Founding Clubs: AC Milan, Arsenal FC, Atlético de Madrid, Chelsea FC, FC Barcelona, FC Internazionale Milano, Juventus FC, Liverpool FC, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid CF and Tottenham Hotspur. In a statement released last night, the new competition "is intended to commence as soon as practicable" potentially in August.  (Photo by Laura Lezza/Getty Images)

A newsagent shows two pages of the main Italian sports newspapers with a headline regarding the Super League reading ‘No!’ and ‘Fermateli!’ (‘Stop them!) on April 20, 2021, in Livorno, Italy.Laura Lezza/Getty Images

‘European Sport Model’

UEFA attempted to ban Real, Barça and Juve from competing in the Champions League, but a Spanish court ruling forced UEFA to pause the disciplinary case in June 2021.

In December 2022, a non-binding EU Opinion by Advocate General Athanasios Rantos at the CJEU said: “The FIFA-UEFA rules under which any new competition is subject to prior approval are compatible with EU competition law.”

The opinion also outlined that, while Super League clubs would be allowed to set up their separate competition, they would not be able to demand participation in FIFA and UEFA competitions if both governing bodies refused consent. Under this opinion, the punishments for Super League clubs would be fully compliant with EU law, which was subsequently contradicted by the CJEU’s ruling on Thursday.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 10:  Joan Laporta, President of FC Barcelona and Delfi Geli (R), President of Girona prior to the LaLiga Santander match between FC Barcelona and Girona FC at Spotify Camp Nou on April 10, 2023 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

FC Barcelona president Joan Laporta (C) and Girona president Delfi Geli (R) prior to the LaLiga match between the two clubs at the Camp Nou on April 10.Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

At the time, UEFA issued a statement welcoming Rantos’ opinion.

UEFA said it was “an encouraging step towards preserving the existing dynamic and democratic governance structure of the European football pyramid … [while reinforcing] the central role of federations in protecting the sport, upholding fundamental principles of sporting merit and open access across our members.”

However, lawyer Jean-Louis Dupont, who is advising A22, told CNN Sport via email that Rantos’ opinion had been “contradicted” in another case involving UEFA, Belgium soccer club Antwerp and the EU’s freedom of movement rules.

According to Dupont, an opinion on that case from Maciej Szpunar, who is First Advocate General at the Court of Justice, “in substance … stated that no article in the EU Treaties grants a mandate to UEFA to enforce any ‘European Sport Model’ whatsoever.

“And that UEFA is bound to be caught in a permanent conflict of interests since it is at the same time a commercial operator and a regulator of the very market that it dominates commercially,” added Dupont of Szpunar’s opinion, which was delivered in March 2023.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18: Florentino Perez president of Real Madrid FC looks on prior to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg match between Chelsea FC and Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge on April 18, 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images)

Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez looks on prior to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Chelsea FC at Stamford Bridge on April 18, 2023, in London.Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images

Revamped competition

In February this year, the organizers of the ESL unveiled a revamped competition with “60 to 80 teams.”

The renewed efforts to revive the ESL by A22 follows a decision by the Madrid High Court earlier in 2023 to restore the injunction issued in 2021 to protect the Super League, its clubs and participants from sanctions by UEFA, FIFA and their affiliated federations and leagues.

“UEFA and FIFA enjoy a self-proclaimed monopoly on transnational club football,” Dupont said in his email to CNN ahead of Thursday’s ruling. “The door is closed: no access to the market for anyone but them.

“The key issue is: will they still enjoy that monopoly on 21st December? Or will the ECJ open the door, one way or another?”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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