The Super League: Can it be stopped?

This is not the first-time attempts have been made to form a breakaway league, though it may be the most advanced. In June 2016, news leaked that some of England’s biggest clubs had met at the Dorchester Hotel in London to discuss such a prospect.  Long before that, in 1998 an Italian media conglomerate was thought to have initiated plans for a Super League with Europe’s biggest clubs. A variety of other moves have been made between these two examples.

On Sunday 18 April 2021, “The Super League” issued a press release confirming its advanced intentions to commence its breakaway league.  The media release is a roller coaster read, listing the football clubs that have signed on, moving through some of the financials involved, attempts to suggest that this is a magnanimous project with football in mind, all with a sprinkle of – ‘there’s nothing anyone can do about this’.

The shape of the proposed league is closer in concept to the American sports models of the NBA and NFL, a closed league notion that is largely foreign to the football fan. This is just one of the many reasons why the Super League has caused outrage, with promotion and relegation considered a staple in the football pyramid.

Having spent a considerable amount of time researching and writing under him, I waited in anticipation for comment, as I knew top legal scholar and senior researcher (Asser Institute, The Hague, Netherlands), Dr Antoine Duval would break down the issues better than most. As predicted, his comments in the form of a thread are instructive. “We are now entering a « drôle de guerre » phase” (“Phoney War”) Dr Duval said, “with both sides digging their trenches and waiting for the actual legal attack.”

In terms of what might happen next, this ultimately boils down to a few “can” and/or “will” questions; Can or will European Union law (or other jurisdictions) shape the outcome? Can or will the market stop the Super League? Can or will politics intervene? These core questions are indeed all intertwined, and most that has been written on the topic so far, is a questioning rather than answering exercise.

In December 2020, the “European Union (EU) General Court … determined that International Skating Union (ISU) rules prohibiting athletes from participating in events not run by the governing body were in breach of the EU’s competition law.

Many a Twitter lawyer, having spent a moment or two on the ISU case jumped to the conclusion that it was the perfect fit in relation to the Super League; that the principles therein would render FIFA and UEFA hamstrung to do anything about a breakaway league. That is a kneejerk reaction at best, perhaps short-sighted.

Whilst this is not the article for a comprehensive analysis on the ISU case, let us consider what there is to learn and where the ISU case and the matter of the Super League part ways. ***

The non-ISU sanctioned “Icederby” events were scheduled quite deliberately to not conflict with ISU schedule so they could co-exist. Quite distinct from the Super League’s intended mid-week fixtures that would clearly clash with the Champions League. An important distinction where there might be implications. Though the Super League is of course at present claiming that its teams will still “compete in their respective national leagues, preserving the traditional domestic match calendar which remains at the heart of the club game.”

There are lessons from the ISU case on the question of proportionality of penalty for competing in a non-sanctioned competition. Bans from national teams and life bans from ISU competitions for competing in non-ISU events were deemed an overstep by the General Court of the European Union, rendering the call for severe penalties for both clubs and players that participate in a Super League from all corners of football a “watch this space” issue.

Liverpool Manager, Jurgen Klopp drew further attention to the implications for players in his reaction to the Super League press release.  On the record as saying, “I hope this Super league will never happen”, Klopp pointed out “we are not involved in any process, not me or the players”. An interesting consideration then is that one of the few tools at the disposal of FIFA and UEFA could be to punish football players and staff, which is in other words, to punish people who have had no involvement in their clubs joining a so-called Super League. The potential ripple effects of the aforementioned scenario, cultural and legal, are too complex to go into for this short article. Food for thought, nonetheless. And what of the scenario of a Super League club buying a player from another league, and the variety of implications on for instance the current FIFA enforced obligations of buying clubs to pay training compensation and solidarity contributions, inter alia?

Solidarity is quite the buzz word in football not only because of the warm and fuzzy connotations but indeed because much of football’s structures and regulations historically derive from negotiations between a variety of governing bodies (namely the European Union, FIFA, UEFA and FIFPro) with solidarity at front of mind. The Super League have tried to get in on that action, invoking that charged term in their press release; “Solidarity payments will grow in line with league revenues and are expected to be in excess of €10 billion during the course of the initial commitment period of the founders. These solidarity payments will follow a new model with full transparency and regular public reporting.” A pot shot at football’s governing bodies? Perhaps.

Where EU backed structural and regulatory changes have been made in the past in the name of solidarity, the Super League’s purpose is axiomatically geared towards making the founding members wealthier, so compatibility with EU law or EU support seems questionable at best. I have written elsewhere on the Eurocentricity of FIFA regulations and criticised this feature somewhat, however the reality is we would be elsewhere and perhaps worse off, but for the intervention of the European Union, then negotiation between FIFA and UEFA (and FIFPro) that gave us EU compatible football law. “In any event, this will put EU law (and the European Union) at a center of one of the most public controversy of the coming years. Lots of political responsibility on the shoulders of the EC/judges”, Tweeted Dr Duval.

As to whether the market can or will stop the Super League, is ultimately a question of why fans (or perhaps consumers is the better noun in this context), consume the product that is football. Will consumers of football be sufficiently disgusted with the big clubs to abandon the Super League?  Some commentators have identified an unintended potential result that true fans might return to the clubs of history, reverting to following football and clubs of lower leagues for reasons quite separate to the commercial side of the game. Interestingly, there may be many lessons to learn in midst of this on the implications of the hyper-commercialisation of football. The reality is that fans were not consulted for this Super League. What would they have concluded had they been and what will the reaction be regardless?

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that” said Bill Shankly, former Scottish footballer most well-known for his time as manager of Liverpool.  Might this sentiment and perhaps a, culture over commercial, approach defeat the intentions of the Super League?

This issue was already political, however further confirmed with Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron Tweeting their disapproval of the proposal. If you still weren’t convinced this is a political issue, a multitude of reportedly Russian bots geared to stir and divide began Tweeting “the Super League is a good idea and will revolutionize football. Only small clubs like Liverpool and Arsenal are worried. I speak for everyone when I say YES to the European Super League”. How far governments will go is yet to be seen and Brexit adds an interesting dimension in the case of Britain. Further, if FIFA are truly against the Super League (some authors are not convinced), then governments intent on remaining cosy or developing a relationship with FIFA may play a greater role than others.

Do you know a more powerful entity than FIFA? Perhaps you do, but I would wager you don’t know of many. FIFA is certainly more powerful than some governments and its influence is in some instances frighteningly far-reaching. Time will tell on how FIFA uses its position in tandem with governments. “Will politics show its teeth and confer a real state-sanctioned monopoly to the football pyramid? A monopoly which would need to be conditional on a number of strict governance criteria. Eventually recognizing that FIFA/UEFA are delivering a transnational public service.

Perhaps this is all just an attempt by the big clubs to extract more money and power from the relevant bodies as has been the case in the past. For a range of reasons however, it appears a little more than that on this occasion. Afterall, the Super League have warned those who intend to get in the way, that motions have been filed in multiple courts to protect the project from any attempts at jeopardization. A project that already has $4 billion of financing in place. The Super League claims it has “taken appropriate action to challenge the legality of the restrictions to the formation of the competition before such relevant courts and European authorities as may be necessary to safeguard its future”.

A list far too long to cover in this short article, every piece one reads on this issue, one stumbles across an impact or consideration anew, legal or otherwise. This elucidates how far reaching the implications of the Super League may be on football stakeholders. The impact on football even if it is  not to proceed is significant.