Real Madrid, Barcelona attempt to revive Super League after European court ruling. But it’s still dead

FILE PHOTO: A metal figure of a football player with a ball is seen in front of the words
The European Super League's revival attempt, following a Thursday court ruling against UEFA and FIFA, faces challenges as the court's decision does not guarantee approval for the league. (REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo)

The last remaining proponents of a European Super League attempted to revive the idea Thursday after a landmark court ruling limited UEFA’s and FIFA’s ability to block a breakaway league run by soccer’s dominant clubs.

In a long-awaited judgment, the European Union’s Court of Justice wrote that UEFA and FIFA, the European and global soccer governing bodies, were “abusing a dominant position” when they opposed and threatened to sanction the so-called Super League in 2021.

The league’s architects, an opaque company called A22 backed by Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, jumped on the decision to unveil revamped plans, including a new meritocratic format for men’s and women’s competitions that would usurp the current UEFA Champions League.

But the Court of Justice clarified: Its ruling “does not mean that a competition such as the Super League project must necessarily be approved.” And it does not mean the Super League will suddenly come back to life.

In fact, the full, 258-paragraph judgment is far more favorable to UEFA and FIFA than initial headlines suggested. It does not necessarily undercut their power or invalidate their self-appointed positions atop the sport.

And no legalese could invalidate the fundamental reason the Super League swiftly collapsed in 2021, two days after 12 top clubs tried to launch it. Nine of those 12 clubs withdrew amid backlash from fans, coaches, players, politicians and a broad coalition of soccer’s established stakeholders. The establishment viewed the project as a greedy attempt by wealthy owners and commercially driven institutions to consolidate power. On Thursday, the establishment rose once again to shout down a potential Super League 2.0.

So no, explosive change is not imminent. Here is what we know about the Super League’s future after Thursday’s ruling, which cannot be appealed.

What did the European Court of Justice rule?

A22 had accused UEFA of operating an illegal monopoly on European soccer — controlling tournaments (such as the Champions League), selling commercial rights to monetize them and enforcing rules that impede other entities from creating renegade tournaments (such as the Super League) that challenge the Champions League’s supremacy.

The court ruled, essentially, that UEFA had indeed done this in 2021. “The FIFA and UEFA rules making any new interclub football project subject to their prior approval, such as the Super League, and prohibiting clubs and players from playing in those competitions, are unlawful,” the court explained in a news release.

Its full reasoning and context, though, were more nuanced. The rules were unlawful because they weren’t sufficiently “transparent, objective, non-discriminatory and proportionate.” With some updates, though, the rules have a right to exist.

Paragraph 144 of the court’s judgment confirmed, crucially, that UEFA and FIFA are allowed to maintain and enforce rules that “guarantee the homogeneity and coordination of [] competitions within an overall match calendar” and rules that “promote … the holding of sporting competitions based on equal opportunities and merit.”

So if the rules are amended to comply with EU law — a process that already began last year — UEFA can (and likely will) still control European soccer.

And UEFA seemingly can (and likely would) prevent the formation of a Super League, unless member clubs break from soccer's established structure, including national leagues, entirely — something they've explicitly said they won't do.

“We will continue to shape the European sports model collectively with national associations, leagues, clubs, fans, players, coaches, EU institutions, governments and partners alike,” UEFA said in a statement.

And FIFA will continue to control global soccer. "With the greatest respect for the European Court of Justice,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a statement, “today’s judgment does not change anything, really.”

How did the Super League founders respond?

Despite all those details, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez “welcome[d] the decision with great satisfaction.”

A22 boldly proclaimed, “after nearly 70 years, UEFA’s monopoly over European football has come to an end. Without fear of punishment, clubs can now propose and openly discuss new ideas for midweek European competitions. With the #RightToCompete, a new era begins.”

Within a few hours, with pre-produced videos on a spruced-up website, they’d already proposed two such competitions.

What is the new Super League proposal?

The “European Men’s Super League” would be an expanded, amended version of the reviled April 2021 Super League — with one key difference: Nobody would be guaranteed a permanent place in it.

Back in 2021, the 12 founders pitched a 20-team league. They hoped to woo three more traditional powers, and they indicated those 15 clubs would be entrenched, immune to relegation out of the Super League. Only five places would be open to others, via qualification through domestic leagues.

That semi-closed format reeked of unabashed self-interest. It drew widespread, scathing rebuke. So, two-and-a-half years later, the new proposal features promotion and relegation.

The reimagined format would feature 64 teams divided into three tiers — 16 in the top tier, 16 in the second and 32 in the third. And after each season …

  • In Tier 1: Two last-place teams fall down into Tier 2; the Tier 2 finalists replace them in Tier 1.

  • In Tier 2: Two last-place teams fall down into Tier 3; the Tier 3 finalists replace them in Tier 2.

  • In Tier 3: Twenty of the 32 teams — the bottom five in each eight-team group — fall out of the Super League altogether; they’re replaced by other clubs that, as with the current Champions League, qualify through performance in their domestic leagues.

The women’s format would replicate the top two tiers of the men’s competition. Both are explained, verbally and visually, here and here. Teams would be split into groups of eight, with the top four in each group advancing to a traditional knockout. Games would be played on weekday nights throughout the season, replacing the Champions League but allowing clubs to remain in their standard domestic leagues.

A22 also teased grandiose plans to create a free, direct-to-consumer streaming platform; to "strictly" enforce "Financial Sustainability rules"; to make more money than ever before; and then to share at least 400 million euros annually, or 8% of Super League revenue, with non-Super League and grassroots clubs.

A22 and its backers, though, did not detail how they'd achieve any of that. And they have one all-encompassing problem: They don't have 64 or even 32 clubs that want to participate. They have two.

Which clubs are in the Super League?

Within 48 hours of their April 2021 announcement, nine of the 12 founders — Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan — pulled out of the project.

Real Madrid, Barca and Juventus remained faithful until Juve also withdrew its support this past summer.

The two Spanish giants forged ahead and celebrated Thursday’s ruling. Perez, the Real president, said it would mark an inflection point and “a great day for the history of football and for the history of sport.”

But their former partners quickly distanced themselves from the Super League. “Our position has not changed,” Manchester United said in a brief Thursday statement. Nor has Bayern Munich’s — “such a competition would be an attack on the importance of the national leagues and the structure of European football,” CEO Jan Christian Dreesen said in a statement. “So let me make it very clear once again that the door for the Super League remains closed at FC Bayern.”

Borussia Dortmund, PSG, Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan, Manchester City, Chelsea and a laundry list of other top clubs also opposed it. The English Premier League, as a united entity, said it “continues to reject any such concept.” The European Clubs Association, an umbrella group representing more than 400 pro clubs, said Thursday’s court ruling “in no way whatsoever supports or endorses any Super League project.”

“In short, the world of football moved on from the Super League years ago, and progressive reforms will continue,” the ECA said.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, speaking at a news conference as most of his members united in their opposition, took a shot at A22 and the Super League holdouts.

“It's close to Christmas; [they] saw a big, well-decorated box under the tree; they were super happy, and started to celebrate,” Ceferin crowed. “But then when they opened the box, they realized there was not much inside.”

Is the Super League still dead?

For now, the Super League itself is very much dead. A22 is a corporate zombie. But the concept will likely never die because the market forces that fueled it still exist.

European soccer’s power dynamics have evolved over the past decade. Wealth, and therefore talent, has migrated to England. The Premier League makes gobs of money; its clubs woo players with that money; the players create an entertaining product, which the Premier League sells to broadcasters and sponsors for lucrative sums, which filter down to the clubs, which can then woo even greater players.

The cycle, catalyzed by gigantic TV deals, has become irreversible. And continental Europe is struggling to keep pace. Per Transfermarkt data compiled by Yahoo Sports, the annual gulf in net spend between the Premier League and the other four “big five” leagues combined was around 200 million euros in 2011-12, the last season before the EPL secured its first true TV contract bonanza. Five years later, the gulf had grown to 800 million. Last summer, it grew to 1.35 billion, and it rose further in January.

Chart: Yahoo Sports | Data: Transfermarkt
Chart: Yahoo Sports | Data: Transfermarkt

To keep up with England, continental superclubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid push for greater shares of their national league's revenue — which, in turn, exacerbates domestic inequality. Spending within those leagues has become hugely inequitable. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2019, the English Premier League's top spender outspent its poorest club by a ratio of 10-to-1. In Italy's Serie A, that ratio was 16-to-1; in Germany's Bundesliga, 22-to-1; in Spain's La Liga, 25-to-1; and in France's Ligue 1, 36-to-1.

A shocking number of clubs in Italy, France, Spain and beyond — including Barcelona — are now hurting financially. And if they can’t reverse the cycle, they’ll probably have to break it.

Their first attempt, the 2021 Super League, was an overreach. It was poorly conceived, poorly communicated and politically miscalculated. Its mistakes and subsequent collapse stained the entire Super League concept, so much so that Thursday’s proposal — which is far more sensible — was summarily dismissed as a nonstarter. It has failed.

But similar concepts still have merit. European soccer's current trajectory is unsustainable. The rich are getting richer, and the poor comparatively poorer. The same teams always win. Something has to change. Disruption is necessary.