LUXEMBOURG — European football’s governing body UEFA and the rebel Super League renewed hostilities on Monday outside the EU’s highest court in a hearing that could upend football governance for decades.
Lawyers for UEFA and FIFA, world football’s governing body, have accused the Super League of trying to ‘get their cake and eat it’ by seeking to create the breakaway league, while maintaining its clubs in national competitions.
The dispute before the Court of Justice of the European Union concerns a complaint by the Super League that UEFA and FIFA have an illegal monopoly on the organization of international competitions, in particular through their right to pre-authorise events rivals and possibly to lift sanctions against them.
A dozen major European clubs launched the Super League project in April 2021, but the project collapsed after several clubs withdrew after two days of tumultuous opposition from top fans, players and coaches, other clubs and politicians.
Recalcitrant Super League clubs – Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona – argued in court that UEFA had a clear ‘conflict of interest’ as regulator and operator of European football, and would not allow “never” a competitor to his flagship Champions League tournament.
In front of a packed courtroom, Super League lawyer Miguel Odriozola Alen said UEFA had ruled European football with an “iron fist and rebuffed any alternative project that might threaten its monopoly”.
UEFA lawyer Donald Slater hit back. He said the Super League would have dealt a “fatal blow” to the European sporting model, causing its “systemic collapse”. It would be a “disastrous result for football and European society”, he argued.
Slater dismissed as “a classic example of a cartel” the Super League’s initial proposal for a competition with 12 of Europe’s wealthiest clubs as permanent members.
Quoting former Manchester United footballer and budding philosopher Eric Cantona, Slater said “you don’t become champions without struggling”.
“Competition should be open to all, and merit, not money, should determine the outcome,” he concluded.
The court heard from lawyers from UEFA, FIFA, Super League and A22 (promoter of the Super League), as well as from the Spanish La Liga and the Spanish Football Federation. Later, representatives from EU and EEA member countries began their closing arguments, a lengthy part of the hearing considering the number of parties present.
Twenty-one countries, an extraordinary number for the Luxembourg court, must speak. Almost all are expected to support UEFA. Some have sent senior officials to champion their cause. The Czech Republic has appointed Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Smolek and Portugal’s representative is a former CJEU judge.
The Czech Republic, as previously reported by POLITICO, reversed their position after a previous government submitted a written observation last fall which was positive for the Super League. In court, Smolek argued that the redistribution of financial resources in football was better protected by UEFA and FIFA.
The representative of Denmark argued that sporting integrity, as promoted by UEFA and FIFA, was a “legitimate aim” justifying a restriction of free competition and was therefore “compatible” with EU law .
Germany made a nuanced argument in court, supporting neither, and noting that UEFA and the Super League were bound by EU antitrust laws.
Despite its technical complexities, the audience experienced moments of levity.
CJEU President Koen Lenaerts has asked La Liga’s lawyer to ‘slow down a bit’ during his statement. The representative of Ireland was similarly reprimanded, with a smile from Lenaerts. Smolek joked that the change of allegiance from the Czech Republic meant he was like a transfer player to a rival team.
The Court of Justice has been asked to rule on points of Community law by a court in Madrid. The 15-judge Grand Chamber of the court took up the case, registered as C-333/21 European Superleague Company, because of its importance across Europe. His judgment will guide a final decision by the Spanish court.
Once the hearing is over, the Super League and UEFA must wait until later this year to get the opinion of the court’s general counsel, which the judges often follow – but not always.
A final decision is expected in late 2022 or early next year.
This story has been updated.
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