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Football’s governing bodies have lost a landmark court case that threatens their hold over the sport in Europe, potentially opening a path for the biggest clubs to form new breakaway competitions.
The EU’s top court found on Thursday that Uefa, which oversees European football, and the global body Fifa acted unlawfully in threatening to sanction players and clubs that joined the European Super League in 2021.
The ruling by the EU’s Court of Justice did not suggest that the ESL, an attempted breakaway competition launched by 12 top football clubs, must be approved. But the judges challenged the fundamental powers of Uefa and Fifa, requiring the bodies to ditch “arbitrary” rules and be more open to competition.
The ESL project would have created a rival to Uefa’s lucrative Champions League, owned and run by a group of elite teams. But it unravelled within days after a fierce backlash from fans, national governments and domestic leagues.
Most of the clubs involved quickly distanced themselves from the ESL but Real Madrid and Barcelona have continued to press their case through the courts, complaining that Fifa, which runs the World Cup, and Uefa operate their own tournaments but act as gatekeepers for new entrants.
The ESL’s supporters argued that the threats to punish clubs and players by Uefa and Fifa were anti-competitive and therefore contrary to European law. On Thursday, the European Court of Justice sided with the ESL, saying that “rules making any new interclub football project subject to their prior approval . . . are unlawful”.
“There is no framework for the Fifa and Uefa rules ensuring that they are transparent, objective, non-discriminatory and proportionate,” it added. “Moreover, given their arbitrary nature, their rules on approval, control and sanctions must be held to be unjustified restrictions on the freedom to provide services.”
Uefa said the ruling was a reflection of an earlier “shortfall” in its own system for authorising other competitions, but that it was “confident” those issues had already been addressed with new regulations that comply with European law.
“We trust that the solidarity-based European football pyramid that the fans and all stakeholders have declared as their irreplaceable model will be safeguarded against the threat of breakaways by European and national laws”, it said.
The ruling, which cannot be appealed against, nevertheless opens the door for new entrants to launch rival competitions and threatens to upend the status quo in European football.
Mark Orth, a sports competition lawyer and lecturer, said the ECJ ruling meant that the “door for the super league is now wide open”, and would have implications beyond football.
“The organisation of sports competition is no longer under the monopoly of the sports federations,” he said.
Bernd Reichart, chief executive of A22 Sports Management, a company representing the ESL holdouts, declared victory in a statement.
“The Uefa monopoly is over,” Reichart said. “Football is FREE. Clubs are now free from the threat of sanction AND free to determine their own futures.”
However, the ECJ noted that its ruling “does not mean” that the ESL or any such rival competition “must necessarily be approved”.
The UK government, which threatened to drop a “legislative bomb” to prevent English teams taking part when the ESL launched, said after the ruling on Thursday that a new independent football regulator would “stop clubs from joining any similar breakaway competitions in the future”.
The ECJ judges also said that the rules that give Fifa and Uefa exclusive control over media and commercial rights “restrict competition” and are “harmful” to European football clubs and fans by depriving them of “new and potentially innovative or interesting competitions”.
The original ESL proposal would have created a largely closed competition, with 15 top clubs guaranteed to compete every year — rather than the Uefa system that requires teams to qualify through their domestic leagues.
However, those behind the project have revamped their plans, and more recently suggested a larger contest with more teams and no guaranteed participation.
In the meantime, Uefa has set out plans to expand the Champions League, while Fifa is revamping the Club World Cup.