Legal Case Summary
This is a landmark case that examines the legality and potential anti-competitive nature of the European Super League (ESL) decision against the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) regulations.
Also known as: ESL v UEFA
In response to financial pressures, 12 major football clubs across Europe announced their intention to create a breakaway tournament named the European Super League (ESL) in April 2021. This decision was made outside the existing UEFA system, which governs European football. The new league would significantly alter the established competitive structure and dynamics of European football, provoking robust opposition from UEFA, national football associations, fans, and the broader public. UEFA threatened legal action and penalties for participating clubs and players, indicating potential anti-competitive behaviours within the football industry.
The primary issue centres on whether the European Super League plan constitutes a breach of competition law, given its potential to create an effective monopoly over elite European football. An associated area of contention is whether UEFA's actions and threats of sanctions against those involved in the ESL could also be considered as potential violations of competition law. A secondary, but no less important issue, is the impact that this new league could have on the broader football ecosystem, as it would disrupt the traditional pyramid structure of competitions in national and European football. Additionally, potential contract breaches and intellectual property rights disputes form sub-issues in the case.
The ECJ has delivered a significant verdict, ruling that the actions taken by UEFA and FIFA to block the establishment of the ESL in 2021, along with the sanctions imposed on the clubs involved, were unlawful. This judgment is grounded in the finding that the rules requiring prior approval for interclub football competitions, such as the ESL, contravene EU competition law and the principles of freedom to provide services.
The court has articulated that while FIFA and UEFA have indeed abused their dominant position, this does not automatically sanction the approval of the ESL. This nuanced aspect of the ruling indicates a complex legal landscape where the mere establishment of anti-competitive behaviour does not equate to an endorsement of the ESL's proposed format.
In response to the judgment, A22, the entity promoting the ESL, has announced a revised proposal for both men's and women's midweek European competitions. Notably, this new iteration purportedly embraces sporting merit as the basis for participation, eschewing the concept of permanent membership and incorporating mechanisms for promotion and relegation. This shift appears to be a strategic response to the widespread criticism the initial proposal faced, particularly concerning its 'closed shop' nature.
Impact of Ruling
From a legal perspective, the ECJ's ruling does not represent an outright victory for the ESL proponents. It is crucial to note that the judgment is predicated on the regulatory landscape as it stood at the time of the ESL's announcement. The court's decision acknowledges the legitimacy of protecting sporting merit, a principle deeply ingrained in European football culture and governance.
In conclusion, while the ECJ's decision undeniably shakes the foundations of football governance in Europe, it does not provide an unobstructed path for the ESL. The ruling opens a dialogue about the balance between sports governance, competition law, and the preservation of the sporting merit principle. As the situation evolves, it will be essential to monitor how UEFA, FIFA, and the proponents of the ESL navigate this complex legal and regulatory terrain.
The Proposed European Super League (ESL)
The case of the European Super League (ESL) versus UEFA has been a seismic event in European football, involving 12 clubs, including Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Tottenham from the Premier League, along with AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus, and Real Madrid. These clubs agreed to establish a "new midweek competition" while continuing to compete in their respective national leagues. The ESL aimed to commence its inaugural season as soon as practicable and anticipated three more clubs joining the breakaway. It also planned to launch a women's competition after the men's tournament starts.
The ESL has been widely criticized as a move driven purely by money, threatening to destroy domestic leagues and undermine the integrity of the sport. Unlike the Champions League, where teams must qualify, the ESL would have 15 permanent members with an additional five qualifying annually. This closed system led to widespread condemnation from fans, players, and football authorities. FIFA and UEFA warned that players involved could be banned from other competitions and national teams. In response, the ESL issued legal proceedings in European courts to block any sanctions.
The proposed format of the ESL included 20 teams: the 12 founding members, three unnamed clubs expected to join, and five sides qualifying annually based on domestic achievements. The season would start in August with midweek fixtures, and clubs would be split into two groups of 10, playing home and away matches. The top three in each group would qualify for the quarter-finals, with the fourth and fifth places playing a two-legged playoff for the remaining spots. The knockout stages would follow a two-leg format, culminating in a single-leg final in May.
The ESL argued that the global pandemic had accelerated instability in European football's economic model and that the proposed solutions from extensive dialogue with football stakeholders did not address fundamental issues. They believed the ESL would provide higher-quality matches and additional financial resources for the football pyramid.
However, the reaction from the football community has been overwhelmingly negative, with widespread condemnation from fans, players, and football authorities. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and France's President Emmanuel Macron were among the political figures criticizing the move. UEFA, along with national associations and leagues, vowed to use all available measures to stop the breakaway. Fan groups associated with the English clubs involved have expressed strong opposition, viewing the ESL as a betrayal and a move driven by greed and self-interest.
As the situation unfolds, the future of the ESL and its impact on European football remains uncertain, with legal battles and intense negotiations expected to continue.
- 'UEFA, the English Football Association and the Premier League, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) and LaLiga, and the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) and Lega Serie A have today announced that they will not protest the creation of the Super League' (UEFA  Press Release)
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