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Javier Tebas: ‘It’s more likely I play in the Premier League than the Super League is launched’

La Liga president Javier Tebas, as you may have noticed, is not short of an opinion or a colourful turn of phrase.

State-backed clubs, Premier League debt, FIFA, Spanish politics… the 61-year-old lawyer turned football administrator has opined on them all, and football journalists everywhere are grateful.

But why settle for a few sentences? How about a whole interview on one of the biggest issues facing domestic leagues like La Liga — the possible return of the European Super League?

What follows is a transcript of a conversation between The Athletic and Tebas. Our questions were translated into Spanish for him, and his answers were translated into English for us.

The starting point for the interview is the ruling the European Court of Justice delivered just before Christmas on the legality of the response by world football’s governing body FIFA and its European equivalent UEFA to the launch of a breakaway European Super League in 2021.

Both sides of the debate claimed victory after the ruling was published: the ESL’s backers could celebrate the fact the court said FIFA and UEFA could not simply block new entrants to the market with sanctions, while the federations could point out they have changed their rules to acknowledge that and the ruling did not explicitly back the ESL. A draw, then.

So, here is Tebas to explain how the replay will go, when it inevitably comes.

The Athletic: You have been vocal in your opposition to a European Super League (ESL) for a long time — why do you think the idea keeps coming back?

Tebas: I have been saying it for years: the Super League is not a competition model, it is a consequence of a debate about how European professional football should be governed. Some people think European football should be governed based on the assets you have — the richer you are, the more influence you should have.

This is the same idea that led to the creation of the G14 (a group of leading clubs) in 1998, led by (Real Madrid president) Florentino Perez, who never tires of this idea. Every few years, Florentino disguises his ideas in new clothes to try to convince people that the richest clubs, especially his own, should dominate European football. 

The Athletic: As you point out, the ESL’s loudest champions have been Spain’s two biggest clubs. Why are Barcelona and Real Madrid pushing this so strongly and not clubs such as Bayern Munich, Manchester United or Paris Saint-Germain?

Tebas: Real Madrid are the ones leading this. Perez has been the ideologue of the ESL since 2000. But, I insist, the ESL is not a competition format: it’s a concept where the rich — and specifically, Florentino — dominate and direct European football, with everyone else becoming his vassals.

(Perez has spoken regularly in recent years about how his member-owned club needs extra income from a Super League project to keep up financially with rivals with super-rich backers, whether from Middle Eastern states or United States venture capitalists.)

In Spain, we are familiar with this. Florentino opposes everything in La Liga, from the centralised sale of media rights in 2015, to more than 100 lawsuits seeking to challenge agreements that 39 out of 42 clubs (in the top two divisions of Spanish football) have supported. His only thought appears to be, “I am the greatest, the richest — I generate everything, so everything must be done as I want.”

Barcelona are in a complicated situation. If you promise them a rainfall of millions, they’ll be there. But they are less active than Florentino and his team, which includes (ESL investor) A22. And let’s not be tricked, (A22 chief executive) Bernd “David Copperfield” Reichart is an indirect or direct employee of Florentino Perez.

Those other clubs you mentioned oppose the idea because they know Florentino Perez perfectly well and understand what he is seeking. They know that behind his words of being the “saviour” of football, hides a personal project for power.

And we have also seen stakeholders in each country and the leagues themselves implement measures to block an ESL, since they are among the main victims of it. This, combined with the fans’ rejection of the idea, has brought about a massive “no” against this separatist project.

But, in terms of Spain, it is Florentino Perez who is behind this project and he is not going to back down because, no matter what happens, he will never consider he has lost.

Perez is 15 years into his second term as Madrid president (Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Athletic: Having Spain’s two biggest clubs in almost constant revolt with you over the ESL — and other issues — cannot be something you enjoy. What can you, as the president of their domestic league, do about that?

Tebas: At La Liga, we face this situation as we always have, by focusing on what 40 out of the 42 clubs want — those clubs who think about what’s best for the overall competition rather than personal interests. To achieve this, we will continue working with all the necessary resources and the support of fans and the entire ecosystem of European football.

I have been president for 10 years, and I am very clear about the difference between the collective good and the individual interests of the clubs. I will not succumb to pressure from any club.

The Athletic: Have you or your predecessors simply let Barca and Madrid get too dominant? Have they outgrown Spanish football?

Tebas: They are the biggest clubs in Spain, having played in the league for more than 90 years. It’s worth considering that they are based in the two most important cities in Spain. The same thing can be observed when examining the structure of other major leagues — big clubs often emerge from major cities.

Real Madrid and Barcelona are the clubs with the highest revenue and the most achievements in Spain, and that’s well-deserved. They have earned it over the years on the field, competing with 40 other (Spanish) clubs each year. Their success is thanks to competing in La Liga.

The Bernabeu (Real Madrid’s home stadium) is filled every weekend, drawing significant audiences no matter how small the opposing club is. Now, it seems Real Madrid are forgetting all of this — the camaraderie and shared effort that has been created among all those who have participated and continue to participate in this competition. Hence, the unanimous rejection (of the ESL) from the rest of professional football. The other clubs know it’s a selfish stance that disrupts what has been collectively built.

We cannot say they have outgrown Spanish football but rather that they are where they are thanks to Spanish football. Now, they want to continue growing independently of La Liga and European football, with a proposal that supposedly would provide them with more income in the short term but would be ruinous in the medium and long term, even for them. It would destroy the European football ecosystem.

The right path is precisely the opposite of what they propose. We should try to make the other teams more competitive to improve the overall competition and the fans’ experience.

The Athletic: For all the legal arguments about the ESL, the bottom line is its 2021 iteration was not defeated by UEFA or the domestic leagues — it was stopped by English fans. Why didn’t Spanish supporters do the same? Why didn’t the media in Spain attack the ESL idea back then?

Tebas: It is true English fans were the most active against the proposal, but there was a significant reaction in Spain. (Fans’ group) Aficiones Unidas, which brings together supporters’ clubs and associations of all La Liga clubs, joined the statements issued throughout Europe and carried out protests. In Spain, there are many passionate fans.

English fans deserve praise for their opposition to the ESL, says Tebas (Rob Pinney/Getty Images)

But I want to recognise the English fans for their response. I want to thank them for their efforts when important football values were at risk.

In regards to the Spanish media, several outlets expressed their discontent but I agree with you that the response has been milder than in other countries, likely due to the influence of figures like Florentino and (Barcelona president Joan) Laporta on some of them.

The Athletic: Much has changed in English football since 2021, with more change coming in the shape of independent regulation. No English clubs will be allowed to join a new competition without the new regulator’s approval. Furthermore, the EPL has introduced an “owners’ charter” that says any club that joins an ESL-like competition will be fined and docked points. We know the domestic TV rights deal you have done with U.S. private equity firm CVC has made it difficult for clubs to join an ESL, but Barca and Real opted out. What powers do you have to stop your clubs breaking away?

Tebas: Our competencies and the Spanish regulations do not allow La Liga to deduct points, especially for a situation like this. The British government and other institutions have been clear in their response, and we ask the Spanish government to safeguard the values of sports and the future of the football industry, which is the economic engine of Spanish sports.

Current champions Barcelona comfortably remain the biggest draw, alongside Real Madrid, in Spanish football (Joan Gosa/Xinhua via Getty Images)

What is really needed is not just for each country to take the measures you mention, but for a common response to be developed at the European level. Therefore, even though the position of fans, clubs, leagues, players, federations and all the separate EU institutions has been clear, to reinforce the defence of the European football ecosystem — its jobs, its contribution to the economy and so on — we urge the European Union to introduce legislative measures that protect football from similar attacks in the future.

The Athletic: You have repeatedly said you think there is “zero” chance of an ESL happening in the foreseeable future. Do you stand by that? How about within the next 10 years?

Tebas: We do not believe in the viability of the European Super League, neither now, nor in two years, nor 10. It is a failed project that lacks support from the European football ecosystem and is not economically or legally viable. Even less so with the new proposal presented by A22’s illusionist CEO, Bernd “Copperfield”, who tries to use magic to deceive us that this is not a project which harms national leagues, and tries to mislead us into believing it can be free for all fans.

This demonstrates a lack of respect for all leaders of European leagues and federations, as well as the bosses of pay-TV networks. Does he think we are stupid?

It is clear that the costs of such a competition cannot be sustained with advertising revenues alone. Unless, that is, the Super League is proposing a loss-making model with the intention of conducting unfair competition and financial dumping in the market? Or is it just a legal strategy to gain authorisation?

All they have done so far is try to create a clandestine Super League in 2021 and now one based on lies. 

The Athletic: If you are right, and we are no closer to an ESL today than we were on the morning of December 21, what is the most important message from the ECJ ruling? A more restrained UEFA? Greater power for the European Club Association? A LIV Golf-like challenge to the status quo?

Tebas: The most important aspect of the judgment is that it does not endorse the ESL. In fact, it clearly states a competition like the Super League project does not necessarily have to be authorised. The judgment reaffirms what has been consistently said: anyone can organise competitions outside the UEFA and FIFA frameworks. That cannot be prohibited. But the legal issues are about the conditions these competitions must meet to be part of the UEFA and FIFA ecosystems, and say there must be transparent, clear and objective regulations for the approval of new competitions. 

UEFA has modified its regulations on the pre-authorisation of new competitions, and now complies with what the ECJ requests. But, on the other hand, the European governance system is not perfect and I have been criticising it for many years, even when Real Madrid and Barcelona participated in it without complaining. UEFA is making changes. They are insufficient and slow but they are attempts to improve the situation. European football stakeholders must push for it to continue in this direction, which is what we are doing at La Liga.

If everyone pushed together, the reforms would be deeper and faster, but never in the direction of the ESL. Both in the competitive and governance aspects, we must move away from the concept that football should be in the hands of the richest clubs. That is the greatest risk in the governance of European football today.

Professional football is like society. Countries are not governed according to each citizen’s wealth. Football must be the same. If not, the majority of clubs would end up in ruins. It’s natural that some clubs will be wealthier than others; that’s life. But it’s a different matter for the wealthiest to have control over all decisions.

The Athletic: What is more likely: the launch of an ESL or the creation of cross-border leagues in places like Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) and Scandinavia? Or perhaps Saudi Arabian teams playing European sides in an annual competition?

Tebas: I can only say that it is more likely for me to play in the English Premier League than for the ESL to be launched.

I am unaware of what might happen in other countries but what I have learned, in the last 30 years I have been involved in football management, is that there is a strong sense of belonging to the club of your heart. This love is a result of the historical rivalry with your neighbours. Breaking that connection is not easy and it must be done very carefully.


Tebas insists broadcasting a Super League for free would not be sustainable (Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

The Athletic: You have ridiculed A22’s claim that it could stream ESL games free of charge, and that view is shared by most experts. But is it time for the likes of La Liga, the Premier League and UEFA to consider a direct-to-consumer streaming model?

Tebas: We have to consider the value of premium sports broadcasting rights, with part of this value residing in audiovisual operators, whether it be a telecommunications company, an OTT (over-the-top streaming service), or a media corporation. If we suddenly remove the value added by these businesses, the value of the product would decrease significantly.

Additionally, we need to think about the segmentation that has occurred in the audiovisual market, where many OTTs have emerged in recent years, such as Amazon, Netflix and HBO. This is now happening in premium sports, with some differences. Furthermore, each country has a different scenario, leading to the conclusion that the B2C (business-to-consumer) model is one we must struggle with for many years to come and that it must coexist with B2B (business-to-business) models.

Therefore, I believe that before a total B2C model emerges, we will have non-exclusive, co-exclusive, windowed models and so on. There are mixed models, like the NBA League Pass (in basketball), coexisting with telecommunications or OTT, but it is not free. La Liga has an OTT — LALIGA+ — offering region-specific content with rights not only for football but for other sports, depending on the territory.

But what is clear is that broadcasting for free is not sustainable. To understand this, one simply needs to analyse what percentage of each country’s total advertising spend would have to be dedicated to covering the costs of the premium product and the indirect consequences of that model. Can you imagine having six or seven Premier League teams broadcast for free during the week in the ESL and then having to pay to watch them (on TV or other devices in domestic competition) at the weekend? The weekend price would collapse.

The Athletic: Is A22’s “free football” only possible if the entire project is underwritten by Saudi Arabia’s PIF or some other sovereign wealth fund?

Tebas: I insist, you are not familiar with the market if you think this model is sustainable in the long term. Offering the competition entirely for free and on a permanent basis is absolutely unrealistic. There is no high-level sports league whose rights are not commercialised. In fact, the NFL (American football), NBA, Premier League, La Liga, Champions League, Bundesliga and so on all distribute their content through pay-per-view television because it is the only way to make the competition profitable for their clubs.

The ESL proposal only makes sense if they are aiming to eliminate competitors through financial dumping, although I also believe there is a legal strategy behind their actions. There is so much malice in this project that this alleged gratuity would only be to undermine UEFA and the national leagues. Once they are damaged, ESL would likely start charging fans to watch.

The ESL claims to have European and American investors behind it. I don’t really believe that but, if they do, I send them the following message: if you want to “destroy” your money, the best place is to invest in this project with a CEO like Bernd “Copperfield”.

This is not just the opinion of a CEO of one of the world’s most important sports leagues, with years of experience; it is a unanimous opinion. Therefore, I wouldn’t call them investors; I would call them destructors.

(Top photo: Gustavo Valiente/Europa Press via Getty Images)

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