The European Union’s top court ruled against FIFA and UEFA – two of soccer’s top governing bodies – in the European Super League (ESL) case on Thursday, saying that their rules demanding prior approval for establishing a new competition, such as the ESL, and prohibiting clubs and players from playing in them were “unlawful.”
The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) was considering whether FIFA and UEFA were legally permitted to block the formation of the controversial breakaway league in 2021.
The case was referred to the CJEU by a Madrid court and the CJEU’s judgment had been keenly anticipated by a number of leading soccer clubs as well as fans and governing bodies given its profound implications for the future of European soccer.
The court added that the ruling “does not mean that a competition such as the Super League project must necessarily be approved,” emphasizing that it was considering “FIFA and UEFA rules” rather than the legality of the controversial breakaway league.
The ruling kickstarted the latest round in the fight for European soccer as Real Madrid and Barcelona, the clubs who most vehemently supported the original ESL, voiced their “satisfaction” while fan groups such as the Football Supporters Association reiterated their opposition to an “ill-conceived breakaway super league,” and other clubs including Manchester United reaffirmed their commitment to existing competitions.
Political figures weighed into the debate too as Margaritis Schinas, the Vice President of the European Commission, seemingly opposed a new league, posting on X that: “Our consistent support of a values-driven European sports model is non-negotiable.”
He added: “European football will always remain a vector of inclusion and cohesion.”
Stephen Taylor Heath, Head of Sports Law at JMW Solicitors, told CNN Sport the court’s decision means that FIFA and UEFA could still prevent clubs from joining a breakaway league, “but they would have to do so by means of a fairer process, a more reasonable justification for doing that.
“They can’t just blanket restrict them simply because they don’t want there to be a competitor league.”
Shortly after the ruling, A22, which was formed to sponsor and assist in the creation of the new ESL, proposed a new, mid-week, continent-wide competition that would include 64 teams across three leagues in the men’s competition and 32 teams across two leagues in the women’s competition.
It also said there would be annual promotion and relegation between the leagues, and promotion into the lowest tier of the competition based on domestic league performance, though it did not say which clubs have agreed to the proposal during its launch.
The CJEU ruled that FIFA and UEFA are “abusing a dominant position” in terms of organizing football competitions, since their powers are not subject to any criteria “ensuring that they are transparent, objective, non discriminatory and proportionate” when any potential conflicts of interest arise.
It defined the “organisation of interclub football competitions and the exploitation of the media rights” as “economic activities” which must comply with the “competition rules and respect the freedoms of movement.”
In a statement, A22 said the decision was a “landmark in football history,” with Reichart adding: “The UEFA-monopoly is over. Football is FREE. Clubs are now free from the threat of sanction AND free to determine their own futures.”
UEFA said in a statement sent to CNN that it took “note of the judgement,” adding that “ruling does not signify an endorsement or validation of the so-called ‘super league’” but rather “underscores a pre-existing shortfall within UEFA’s pre-authorisation framework, a technical aspect that has already been acknowledged and addressed in June 2022.”
“UEFA remains resolute in its commitment to uphold the European football pyramid, ensuring that it continues to serve the broader interests of society,” it said.
UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin noted in a press conference that the judgment “accepts that UEFA maintains its role as the organizing and authorizing body” and also “embraces the key features of the European football pyramid – open competitions, sporting merit and solidarity.”
World governing body FIFA said in a statement that it too noted the ruling and will now “analyse the decision … before commenting further.”
“FIFA firmly believes in the specific nature of sport, including the pyramid structure – which is underpinned by sporting merit – and the principles of competitive balance and financial solidarity,” it added.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino later said on Instagram that “today’s judgement does not change anything, really,” and that his organization will “continue to deliver the world’s most spectacular, competitive and meaningful tournaments.”
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