EU legal adviser sides with UEFA, FIFA in Super League case

December 15, 2022 GMT
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FILE - Chelsea fans protest outside Stamford Bridge stadium in London, against Chelsea's decision to be included amongst the clubs attempting to form a new European Super League, April 20, 2021. Super League was dealt a blow when an EU legal adviser proposed the European Court of Justice should back UEFA and FIFA in blocking the breakaway competition. Advocate General Athanasios Rantos proposed on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022 that the court recognize FIFA-UEFA rules under which Super League should be subject to prior approval were compatible with European Union competition law. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, file)
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FILE - Chelsea fans protest outside Stamford Bridge stadium in London, against Chelsea's decision to be included amongst the clubs attempting to form a new European Super League, April 20, 2021. Super League was dealt a blow when an EU legal adviser proposed the European Court of Justice should back UEFA and FIFA in blocking the breakaway competition. Advocate General Athanasios Rantos proposed on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022 that the court recognize FIFA-UEFA rules under which Super League should be subject to prior approval were compatible with European Union competition law. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, file)

BRUSSELS (AP) — Super League was dealt a blow when an EU legal adviser proposed the European Court of Justice should back rules allowing UEFA and FIFA to block the breakaway competition.

Advocate General Athanasios Rantos proposed on Thursday that the court recognize FIFA-UEFA regulations under which Super League should be subject to prior approval were compatible with European Union competition law.

While organizers were entitled to set up an independent competition outside UEFA and FIFA, they can’t also continue to play in events sanctioned by UEFA and FIFA without their blessing, Rantos said.

Advocates general routinely provide legal guidance to the ECJ. Their opinions aren’t binding on the Luxembourg-based court but are followed in most cases.

The case was heard in July at the court after Super League failed at launch in April 2021. But the company formed by 12 rebel clubs — now led by only Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus — started legal action and the Court of Justice was asked to rule on points of EU law by a Madrid tribunal.

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The clubs accused UEFA of breaching European law by allegedly abusing its market dominance of soccer competitions.

UEFA’s defense was that it protected the special place of sports in European society by running competitions in a pyramid structure open to all, and funded the grassroots of the game.

Rantos acknowledged UEFA and FIFA could restrict competitors’ access to the European market of organizing soccer competitions. But he insisted “such a fact, if established, does not manifestly mean that those rules have the object of restricting competition.”

UEFA “warmly” welcomed the opinion, saying it was “an encouraging step towards preserving the existing dynamic and democratic governance structure of the European football pyramid.”

UEFA said Rantos’ opinion reinforced the role of federations “in protecting the sport, upholding fundamental principles of sporting merit and open access across our members, as well as uniting football with shared responsibility and solidarity.”

FIFA was glad Rantos considered sanctions could be imposed and recognized its exclusive marketing rights.

Football Supporters Europe, a group recognized by UEFA as a stakeholder, said the opinion mirrored the views of fans across the continent.

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“Giving even more money and power to a few would be catastrophic, enriching a handful of clubs at the expense of all other levels of the game,” the group said. “It would also destroy important principles such as sporting merit, promotion and relegation, qualification to Europe via domestic success, and financial solidarity.”

The European Club Association, which represents Europe’s top football clubs, was also satisfied by the opinion, saying it was “a clear rejection of the efforts of a few to undermine the foundations and historical heritage of European football for the many.”

Widespread condemnation hit the rebel clubs from England, Spain and Italy last year when they unveiled plans of a largely closed competition as an alternative to the UEFA-run Champions League. UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin called the club leaders “snakes” and “liars” and threatened to ban players from Super League clubs.

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The advocate general said the court should also state that EU competition rules do not prohibit FIFA, UEFA, their member federations or their national leagues “from issuing threats of sanctions against clubs affiliated to those federations when those clubs participate in a project to set up a new competition which would risk undermining the objectives legitimately pursued by those federations of which they are members.”

A22 Sports Management, the company sponsoring and assisting the creation of the Super League, took comfort that Rantos acknowledged “the special responsibility” borne by UEFA in ensuring fair access to the market when examining requests for authorization of a new competition.

“We believe the 15 judges of the grand chamber who are entrusted with the responsibility to examine this case, will go substantially further and provide the opportunity for clubs to manage their own destiny in Europe,” A22 CEO Bernd Reichart said.

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A final ruling is expected next year. It is the court’s most anticipated sports decision since the so-called Bosman Ruling in 1995. That case upended soccer’s transfer system, drove up pay for top players, and ultimately accelerated a wealth and competitive divide between rich clubs and the rest.

The court’s opinion was also a win for governing bodies of Olympic sports whose annual income can be less than the individual salary of many soccer players in Europe and are vulnerable to commercial rivals.

When the Super League launched in April 2021, IOC president Thomas Bach spoke at UEFA’s annual meeting and warned of the threat from “purely profit-oriented goals of commercial sport providers and investors.”

In a separate opinion on a long-running legal antitrust dispute won by two Dutch speed skaters and the European Commission against the International Skating Union, Rantos proposed on Thursday that the case be reviewed again.

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The EU general court ruled two years ago that rules imposed by the ISU that sanction athletes for taking part in events not recognized by the governing body were in breach of EU competition law.

Rantos said “the mere fact that the same entity performs the functions of both regulator and organizer of sporting events does not in itself entail an infringement of EU competition law.”

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Graham Dunbar in Doha, Qatar, contributed to this story.