UEFA 2, Super League 0.
The Court of Justice of the European Union may deliver a huge blow to the breakaway Super League after a court legal adviser handed down an opinion Thursday that falls firmly on the side of football governing bodies UEFA and FIFA.
UEFA and FIFA have the right to use tough measures to protect their existing tournaments without falling foul of EU competition law, wrote Advocate General Athanasios Rantos. The court aide's opinion is usually followed in judges' final rulings and the court should come out with that in spring 2023.
Rantos wrote that the governing bodies’ existing rules — which require prior approval for new leagues — were “compatible with EU law.” Crucially, he added that EU law did not prohibit UEFA and FIFA from threatening sanctions against clubs that would join rebel leagues. He also came down on UEFA and FIFA’s side regarding the “exclusive marketing” of the rights to their tournaments.
The opinion is a major setback to the Super League, which had complained that UEFA ran an illegal monopoly in European football and hopes that the court would open a new pathway for it. It also wanted UEFA’s roles as the sport's operator and regulator to be broken up — but that now looks almost certain not to happen.
Antitrust regulators have appeared sympathetic to players' arguments that sporting federations wield monopoly-like powers over where they can compete. A landmark 2017 antitrust decision from the European Commission slammed International Skating Union rules that forbade athletes from competing in rival events.
But logic contained in the ISU opinion also delivered Thursday, where Rantos pointed out that “the mere fact that the same entity performs the functions of both regulator and organizer of sporting events does not in itself entail an infringement of EU competition law,” is a clear boost for UEFA’s current structure.
The opinions point toward sports governing bodies being “let off the hook most of the time” by EU competition law as interpreted by the EU’s top court, said Pablo Ibáñez Colomo, professor of law at the London School of Economics.
“The moment Rantos says the object of these measures — whether it is the pre-authorization, whether it is the sanctions — is not anticompetitive, then I think it's all over,” he told POLITICO, adding that the opinion follows established case law.
The opinion also marks a defense of the European Sports Model with its key tenets of open competition and solidarity. If followed by the judges, it will strengthen UEFA and FIFA's role in governing football.
After the setback, the Super League scrambled for morsels of comfort in the opinion.
In a statement, Bernd Reichart, CEO of A22 — the company promoting the Super League — said it was "pleased with the recognition of the right of third parties to organize pan-European club competitions." He said the advocate general had "made clear that UEFA has a monopolistic position which comes with important responsibilities for enabling third parties to act freely in the market."
On the other side, Europe's football establishment was jubilant over an opinion that is seen as a "resounding victory,” according to one senior official.
In a statement, UEFA said it “warmly welcomes today’s unequivocal opinion recommending a ruling of the CJEU in support of our central mission to govern European football, protect the pyramid and develop the game across Europe.”
The European Club Association, which represents nearly 250 clubs across the Continent, said that the opinion “proposes a clear rejection of the efforts of a few to undermine the foundations and historical heritage of European football for the many.”
Javier Tebas, the outspoken head of Spain’s La Liga, which Super League holdouts FC Barcelona and Real Madrid are members of, said that his league would “continue to fight for [the] right of European institutions to legislate and provide legal protections for the current European football model.
And the Continent’s leading fan group, Football Supporters Europe — which lambasted Super League chiefs at a heated meeting in Switzerland in October — echoed those thoughts.
It said the opinion “chimes with the position of football supporters across the Continent. Giving even more money and power to a few would be catastrophic, enriching a handful of clubs at the expense of all other levels of the game.”
A dozen of Europe’s leading football clubs launched the proposed Super League in April 2021, but the project collapsed after several clubs pulled out following two days of vociferous opposition from fans, high-profile players and coaches, other clubs and politicians.
Organizers of the rebel league, however, promptly complained to a Madrid court that UEFA and FIFA were running an illegal monopoly in European football. The Madrid court referred the case to EU judges in Luxembourg, and the EU’s top court heard arguments in July 2021.
Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Juventus remained solidly in favor of the project, with the latter two currently facing economic and legal problems.