European Super League: EU’s top court says FIFA and UEFA’s rules against controversial competition were unlawful



European Super League: EU’s top court says FIFA and UEFA’s rules against controversial competition were unlawful
CNN — 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 Associationreiterated 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.”

Fran Santiago/Getty Images
Fran Santiago/Getty Images. Granada CF players wear t-shirts protesting the European Super
League before their La Liga match against SD Eibar at Estadio Nuevo Los Carmenes on April 22, 2021, in Spain.


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.”


A 48-hour collapse

On April 18, 2021, 12 of Europe’s biggest, most successful and financially powerful clubs announced their intention to break away from the current UEFA competition format and create a Super League. The idea was to guarantee 15 clubs a place in the 20-team competition every season, regardless of performance on the pitch.

The 20 teams would be made up of the 12 founding members as well as three other permanent unnamed clubs and five others who would qualify every year.

However, after vehement opposition from fans and the wider public – with many saying it was a power grab intended to guarantee the Super League’s founding members status and revenue – the plans were scrapped just 48 hours later, though Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona remain committed to the project.

It was criticized at the time as undermining the promotion and relegation principle that underpins soccer which ensures the sport retains a measure of equality between the clubs.


LaLiga voiced such criticisms again on Thursday after the ruling, posting on X that “today more than ever we remember that the ‘Super League’ is a selfish and elitist model.

“Every format that isn’t totally open, with direct access, year after year, via domestic leagues is a closed model.”

Arsenal, AC Milan, Chelsea, Atlético Madrid, Inter Milan, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur pulled out of the ESL project but were subsequently handed financial penalties by UEFA.

Laura Lezza/Getty Images. A newsagent shows two pages of the main Italian sports newspapers with a headline regarding the Super League reading 'No!' and 'Fermateli!' ('Stop them!) on April 20, 2021, in Livorno, Italy.
A newsagent shows two pages of the main Italian sports newspapers with a headline regarding
the Super League reading 'No!' and 'Fermateli!' ('Stop them!) on April 20, 2021, in Livorno, Italy. Laura Lezza/Getty Images


In July 2023, Serie A’s Juventus – one of the 12 founding members – said in a statement that the club had “initiated the procedure” to withdraw from the ESL, but that “under the applicable contractual terms, its exit will be completed and effective only if previously authorised by Real Madrid, FC Barcelona.”

Barça and Real remained as the driving forces behind the project and, on Thursday, the Catalan club said in a statement that it was satisfied with the CJEU’s ruling.

“The sentence paves the way for a new elite football competition in Europe by opposing the monopoly over the football world,” the club said, adding that it “wishes to initiate new discussions as to the path that European competitions should take in the future.”

Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid’s president, echoed Barcelona’s satisfaction with the ruling and said that, “from today, clubs are the owners of their destiny.”

He added: “We will keep defending our modern project, plainly compatible with the national competitions, open to all, based on sporting merit … which will bring economic sustainability for all clubs.”

A new proposal

Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images.  FC Barcelona president Joan Laporta (C)
and Girona president Delfi Geli (R) prior to the LaLiga match between the two clubs at the Camp Nou on April 10.


A22’s proposed competition resembles the initial doomed ESL in that it would effectively guarantee top-tier European soccer for a minority of clubs.

However, there are some notable differences such as the men’s competition now comprising of three leagues with promotion and relegation between them and qualification into the lowest tier would be dependent on domestic performance, providing more access than the original ESL.

The clubs would be selected in the first year “based upon an index of transparent, performance-based criteria,” A22’s statement said.

Under this model, men’s and women’s matches would be freely available on a streaming app that would generate income from advertising, premium subscriptions and distribution partnerships.

“[The CJEU ruling] means that at least they can get going now because there isn’t a blanket ban on them on them being able to operate,” Taylor Heath said to CNN.

“And I’m sure that the people behind this entity are probably quite powerful corporations that know how to know how to establish a foothold in the market … it may succeed, or it may fail.”

 Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez looks on prior to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Chelsea FC at Stamford Bridge on April 18, 2023, in London.
Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images.  Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez looks on prior
to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Chelsea FC at Stamford Bridge on April 18, 2023, in London.


Realizing such a competition still remains uncertain, especially since it is unclear which clubs will compete in it.

Premier League clubs are unlikely to join the proposed competition given that the British government plans to put its Football Governance Bill to Parliament this year, which would prevent clubs from joining a breakaway league without prior consultation with the Football Association and fans.

In fact, the English league released a statement on Thursday noting the ruling, saying that it will “full examine its implications for the game” and that it still “continues to reject any such concept” of a Super League.

Manchester United, which joined the shortlived ESL two years ago, said in a statementthat it remains “fully committed to participation in UEFA competitions, and to positive cooperation with UEFA, the Premier League and fellow clubs.”

Meanwhile, original Super League member Atlético de Madrid said that “the European football community does not support the European Super League” and added that the court’s decision “refers to outdated UEFA statutes that were already amended in June 2022.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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