La Liga president Javier Tebas has warned clubs, fans and law-makers that the European Super League’s (ESL) backers are still planning “an attack” on the game that will leave all the power with the richest clubs and “destroy” domestic leagues.
Speaking at a conference in Brussels on Thursday, Tebas said the threat from the three clubs that have refused to drop the ESL plan — Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid — remained real and those who love football should “not be fooled” by their more recent claims to have learned lessons from the botched launch of the breakaway competition in April 2021.
The La Liga-sponsored event Tebas was speaking at was called “Defending the European Football Ecosystem and Tradition” and it featured academics, broadcasters, members of the European Parliament and representatives from clubs and fans groups.
They were all united in their opposition to the creation of a European Super League, claiming it was anti-competitive and would see less money going down the pyramid to smaller clubs and the grassroots, as well as harming international football.
The company set up to run the ESL, the Madrid-based A22, is sponsoring its own event in Brussels on Friday — titled “The Future of Sports Governance in Europe: The Times they are A-Changin’” — and Tebas believes it will finally reveal what new idea is for the format of an ESL.
When the league was first launched 21 months ago, the idea was for a midweek league competition, which would rival UEFA’s Champions League, with 15 permanent members and five other clubs, although only 12 clubs signed up to join and it was never made clear how the other five would qualify or if they would just be invited.
And because the ESL collapsed so quickly — the embarrassed withdrawal of the Premier League’s “Big Six” killed the league within 48 hours of its launch — neither its clubs nor its financial backers ever got the chance to explain how the format would work, when it would start, who would broadcast it and many other fundamental questions.
But, unlike the six Premier League clubs and the remorseful trio of AC Milan, Atletico Madrid and Inter, Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid never quit the project and nor did they accept UEFA’s financial punishment for plotting a breakaway.
Instead, they, under the umbrella of A22, took UEFA and FIFA to the European Court of Justice, claiming the game’s governing bodies had abused their dominant positions, in breach of European Union competition law, when they announced pre-emptive disciplinary action against the clubs.
That argument was heard by the Luxembourg-based court in August and the court’s advocate general, Greek jurist Athanasios Rantos, gave his written opinion on the matter last month.
That, to the dismay of A22 and the ESL holdouts, was a big win for UEFA, as it backed its right to block the creation of new competitions which could potentially damage the wider industry.
Rantos’ opinion is not legally-binding but the ECJ is expected to follow it when it announces its final decision on March 15. However, the ruling is very unlikely to provide UEFA with unfettered powers to block potential rivals, as its actions must be justified by legitimate objectives, such as ensuring sport remains fair and open to all.
This is why the debate has moved on to what A22 does next. For example, if it can come up with a format that does not look like an attempt by the continent’s richest clubs to create an NFL-style closed shop, any future effort to get an ESL off the ground may have more luck.
And it is telling that while Tebas was speaking at his event in Brussels, A22 was advertising its event on Twitter.
“How to organise an EU system of sports competitions where values such as open competition, promotion and relegation are ensured?” said one such A22 Tweet.
In #EuropeanClubFootball, principles such as open competition, promotion and relegation must be respected to ensure protection and sustainable development. Let’s talk together about the future of European club football:https://t.co/Aa180lJbgM pic.twitter.com/Vjj5jlRYiE
— A22 Sports (@A22Sports) January 12, 2023
Tebas, however, is convinced he knows what A22 is planning and he has been saying it for several months now.
The 60-year-old lawyer-turned-football-chief believes the new ESL plan is to create two divisions of 20 teams, with four teams being relegated from division one to division, four teams going the other way, and the bottom four teams in division two being replaced by teams that have earned their places via their domestic leagues.
If he is right, and his theory is widely shared, it is similar to an idea UEFA and the European Club Association (ECA) considered in 2019 when the ECA was led by former Juve president, and leading ESL advocate, Andrea Agnelli. That plan involved turning the three separate European club competitions into three divisions, with retained places, promotion and relegation, and some degree of turnover based on domestic success.
That idea, however, provoked a furious response from the domestic leagues, who said it would reduce interest in their competitions, which would lead to lower revenues, further skewing the competitive balance towards Europe’s biggest clubs. Those leagues, and most of their clubs, feel exactly the same about the European Super League.
“Let’s be very clear,” said Tebas on Thursday, “A22 and those three clubs are the same thing, and A22 is not a philanthropic organisation – this is about controlling the distribution of money.
“Do not be fooled by talk of promotion and relegation: 16 clubs will be the same every season and it will be a closed league. Tomorrow they will present the same 2019 models that clubs and leagues told them would not work.
“European competition has to be open to all, with access via domestic competition. Do not fall for their trap. They are trying to sell us an open competition but the gap between ESL clubs and the rest will balloon and they will destroy local leagues.”
A22 has previously rejected Tebas’s claims that its revised ESL format will be based on the 2019 proposals. “A22 is currently pursuing an open dialogue to develop the best format for European club football – this process is ongoing. However, we have made it clear over and over again that the competition will be based on open access and sporting merit and will fully respect the existing domestic leagues,” an A22 spokesperson told The Athletic.
“The Advocate General of the court of justice of the European Union (CJEU) has pointed out that UEFA should open access for new competitions. The path to change is real and will eventually provide the opportunity for clubs to manage their own destiny in Europe.
“A22 is preparing for that moment and will present the results of the dialogue in due course.”
Tebas may be at loggerheads with his league’s biggest clubs over their ambitions to earn more money from European competition but he is not the advocate for US-style competitive balance that some may wish him to be: in fact, he appears to be quite relaxed about the idea of big clubs winning everything, as long as they do not win by too much.
When asked if he worried about a decline in the competitive balance across Europe, Tebas said: “Bayern Munich will always win (the Bundesliga) but the problem is when they win by a mile.
“If I think about my league, the problem is when the winner gets more than 90 points, as we want the other clubs to be fighting to win – we don’t want leagues that are too predictable.”
Tebas, who is never afraid to ruffle feathers, also had a grenade up his sleeve for the league that A22 has been suggesting is the real European Super League: the Premier League.
“I’m not worried that the Premier League has increased its revenues – that means the rest of us just have to fight harder — but I am worried that the Premier League is not financially sustainable,” he said.
“All their clubs make losses and they are funded by their owners. That distorts the market. We can compete with the Premier League, no problem. And I don’t mind if the 15th team in the league buys a Spanish player. But they are doing it with their owners’ money and it isn’t sustainable.
“We wouldn’t let our clubs do that. There are only two sustainable leagues in Europe: La Liga and Bundesliga.”
(Photo: Getty Images)
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