More than two years after a European Super League (ESL) proposal rocked the foundations of the soccer world, the ESL has found its way back to the forefront of the sport following a landmark ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ).
On Thursday, Europe’s top court ruled that FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, and UEFA, the continent’s governing soccer body, acted contrary to EU competition law by blocking plans for a breakaway ESL.
That news was celebrated by Spanish soccer giant Real Madrid, which has been leading the fight to get the new competition off the ground.
“Today a Europe of freedoms has triumphed, and also football and its fans have triumphed,” said club president Florentino Pérez. “We are facing a great opportunity to improve European club football.”
The court’s decision has resurrected the proposal many thought was long dead and buried — much to the dismay of fans who mightily protested against the league in 2021. Read on for a primer on this controversial topic.
What is the European Super League?
The ESL is a proposed seasonal soccer competition for club teams in Europe. It was proposed on April 18, 2021, by a group of 12 of Europe’s biggest and most storied teams from across England, Italy and Spain, including Real Madrid, Manchester United and Juventus.
At the time, the proposal was a 20-team elite soccer tournament that would have seen locked-in places for up to 15 of the founding clubs. It would have effectively replaced the Champions League, which is run by UEFA, as Europe’s current top club competition.
In the Champions League, teams enter on merit, usually depending on their place in domestic leagues — and there are no guaranteed spots.
But that plan fell through almost instantly. The formation of the ESL led to widespread condemnation from UEFA and several national soccer federations, including those in England, Italy and Spain.
UEFA and the governing bodies of those federations, warned that any clubs involved in the ESL would be banned from all other domestic, European and world football competitions, and noted that players from those clubs would also be banned from representing their national teams.
These threats, along with widespread fan anger, prompted nine of the original 12 teams to back out of the competition almost immediately, leaving only Madrid, Juventus and FC Barcelona — until Juventus withdrew earlier this year.
Just days after it was proposed, the ESL announced it was suspending its operations.
Why has the European Super League come back?
Despite widespread protests against the ESL, some of the clubs involved claimed UEFA abused its market dominance of European competitions. Currently, UEFA governs football in Europe, as well as in some transcontinental and Asian countries. It consists of 55 national association members.
Bernd Reichart, whose sports development company A22 assisted with creating the ESL, said the new league wanted to break what he described as a monopoly of competitions run by UEFA, which has organized pan-European competitions for nearly 70 years.
The ESL clubs’ case was heard in July 2022 by the ECJ. Judges from 15 of the 27 EU member states heard arguments over two days, with a majority of those governments supporting UEFA.
Then, in January 2023, a Madrid court backed an earlier order for FIFA and UEFA not to carry out their threats to punish teams and players taking part in the project.
But in its decision Thursday, the ECJ ruled that FIFA and UEFA had abused their dominant positions and breached EU law by forbidding clubs from joining the breakaway ESL — though it crucially added that the judgment did not necessarily mean such a league must be approved.
“We have won the right to compete. The UEFA monopoly is over. Football is free,” Reichart said in a statement after the ruling. “Clubs are now free from the threat of sanctions and free to determine their own futures.”
What are the details of the verdict?
The court said both regulating and organizing sporting competitions was not an infringement of EU competition law and that sports federations can refuse third parties access to the market, but only if the refusal is justified by genuine objectives.
At this moment “there is no framework for FIFA and UEFA rules ensuring that they are transparent, objective, non-discriminatory and proportional,” the court ruled.
The court’s ruling said both bodies must “comply with the competition rules and respect the freedoms of movement,” adding that their rules on approval, control and sanctions amounted to unjustified restrictions on the freedom to provide services.
How have opponents reacted?
UEFA said the ruling did not signify an endorsement or validation of the Super League.
“We will not try to stop them. They can create whatever they want. I hope they start their fantastic competition as soon as possible, with two clubs,” UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin told a news conference.
FIFA said it would analyze the decision with UEFA, other confederations and member associations before commenting further.
“With the greatest respect for the European Court of Justice, today’s judgment does not change anything, really,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said.
“Historically, we have been organizing the best competitions in the world, and this will also be the case in the future.”
Several top club teams, including Manchester United and Bayern Munich, also issued statements saying they remained committed to UEFA’s competitions while domestic leagues across Europe rejected the Super League.
The U.K. government also said it was working on legislation to prevent English clubs from joining another breakaway competition.
But Reichart said the ESL was not a breakaway league and that it would be compatible with domestic league calendars.
What’s next for the European Super League?
Since the EJC’s ruling, A22 has revealed plans for three new competitions involving 64 teams, based on league and knock-out formats. But it did not provide details about when it expected to launch or what support it had from specific clubs.
“The challenge is working with sporting clubs and others, whether the best competition in the world can be created,” said Reichart. “We believe it can be and that is the objective of this initiative.”
A22 also announced its plans for a Women’s Super League with 32 teams playing in two different competitions. This tournament would also be based on a league and knock-out format.
The ruling could also lead to more breakaway proposals — or a similar competition to the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf series, backed by any state, consortium or individual with enough money.
But like the ESL, backing from clubs would be fundamental to any similar proposal, and there is little evidence that there is a wide-reaching appetite to form such a breakaway.