UEFA battles Super League at EU’s top court

LUXEMBOURG — European football’s governing body UEFA and the rebel Super League renewed hostilities Monday in the EU’s top court at a hearing that could upend football governance for decades.

Lawyers for UEFA and FIFA, world football’s governing body, accused the Super League of trying to “have its cake and eat it” by seeking to create the breakaway league, while keeping its clubs in national competitions.  

The dispute at the Court of Justice of the European Union centers on a Super League complaint that UEFA and FIFA have an illegal monopoly over the organization of international competitions, notably through their right to pre-authorize rival events and potentially unload sanctions against them.

A dozen of Europe’s leading clubs launched the proposed Super League in April 2021, but the project collapsed after several clubs pulled out following two days of tumultuous opposition from fans, high-profile players and coaches, other clubs and politicians.

Super League holdout clubs — Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona — argued in court that UEFA has a clear “conflict of interest” as European football’s regulator and operator, and would “never” authorize a competitor to its flagship Champions League tournament.

Arguing in front of a packed courtroom, Super League lawyer Miguel Odriozola Alen said UEFA has ruled European football with an “iron fist and beaten away any alternative project that could threaten its monopoly.”

UEFA’s lawyer, Donald Slater, hit back. He said the Super League would have struck a “fatal blow” to the European sports model, causing its “systemic collapse.” That would be a “disastrous outcome for football and European society,” he argued.

Slater dismissed as “a textbook example of a cartel” the Super League’s initial proposal for a competition with 12 of Europe’s moneybags clubs as permanent members.

Quoting former Manchester United footballer and wannabe philosopher Eric Cantona, Slater said that “you don’t get to be champions without a struggle.”

“Competition should be open to all, and merit, not money, must determine the outcome,” he concluded.

The court heard lawyers for UEFA, FIFA, the Super League and A22 (promoter of the Super League), as well as Spain’s La Liga and the Spanish Football Association. Later, representatives for EU and EEA member countries began their pleadings, a lengthy section of the hearing given the number of parties weighing in.  

Twenty-one countries, an extraordinary number for the Luxembourg court, are scheduled to speak. Almost all are expected to back UEFA. Some have sent senior figures to make their case. The Czech Republic put up Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Smolek and Portugal’s representative is a former judge at the CJEU.

The Czech Republic, as reported previously by POLITICO, flipped its position after a previous government submitted a written observation last fall that was positive for the Super League. In court, Smolek contended the redistribution of financial resources in football was best protected by UEFA and FIFA.

Denmark’s representative argued that sporting integrity, as promoted by UEFA and FIFA, was a “legitimate objective” justifying a restriction of free competition and therefore was “compatible” with EU law.

Germany delivered a nuanced argument to the court, not backing one side or the other, and noting that both UEFA and the Super League were bound to obey the EU’s antitrust laws.

Despite its technical complexities, the hearing had moments of levity.

CJEU President Koen Lenaerts asked La Liga’s lawyer to “slow down a bit” during her statement. Ireland’s representative was similarly admonished, with a grin from Lenaerts. Smolek joked that the Czech Republic’s switch in allegiance meant he was like a player transferred to a rival team.

The Court of Justice was asked to rule on points of EU law by a Madrid tribunal. The court’s 15-judge Grand Chamber took the case, registered as C-333/21 European Superleague Company, because of its significance across Europe. Its judgment will guide a final decision from the Spanish court.

After the hearing concludes, the Super League and UEFA must wait until later this year for an opinion from the court’s advocate general, which judges often — but not always — follow.

A final decision is expected in late 2022 or early next year.

This story has been updated.

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