From top EU officials to European leaders, UK politicians and bosses of nationalist parties: the universal condemnation against the project of a new football tournament has reunited Europe for once.
In an unprecedented move, twelve of the world’s biggest football clubs revealed on Sunday (18 April) the plan to start a new midweek international competition, the Super League, to compete with the existing Champions League tournament, organised by Europe’s football governing body UEFA.
The breakaway move, motivated by decreasing audiences and the economic potential of such operation, has been immediately condemned by UEFA, who threatened to ban the Super League rebels from all other competitions.
The global uproar caused by the announcement has quickly come down to Brussels, with Commission Vice-President in charge of promoting the European way of life, Margaritis Schinas, being one of the first to slam the Super League idea.
“We must defend a values-driven European model of sport based on diversity and inclusion,” he tweeted on Monday (19 April), adding that there is no scope for reserving football for the few rich and powerful clubs.
Schinas, a supporter of the Greek team Aris Thessaloniki, was among the EU lawmakers who met with UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin last December as he lobbied at the EU level against Super League.
Since 2017, UEFA has had a representative office in Brussels, starting a close dialogue with the EU institutions in different policy areas such as promotion of physical activity and social inclusion through sport.
UEFA and the European Commission also signed a cooperation agreement back in 2014 and renewed in 2018 to work in a tangible and constructive way on matters of shared interest.
Later on Monday (19 April), the Commission clarified its position, saying the EU executive defends a European model of sport, as part of the fabric of society.
“The main principles of this model are the autonomy, openness, solidarity between grassroots and elite sports and interdependence of sports federations,” a Commission spokesperson said.
According to the Commission, good governance based on clearly defined, transparent, non-discriminatory rules is a condition for the autonomy and self-regulation of sports organisations.
“This is our tradition, our DNA, and should not be jeopardized. We, therefore, invite all parties to take into account these principles, when assessing the potential impact of this proposal,” the spokesperson concluded
The Commission’s reaction suggests that, although sharing the overall position of Schinas, the EU executive does not want to be really involved in the matter for the moment, as it could end up in a competition law dispute at a later stage.
The Commission declined to comment on the antitrust aspects of the proposals, in the absence of detailed information.
“If disputes related to the governance of the sport arise, they can usually be handled best by relevant arbitration bodies and national courts,” another spokesperson said.
But a precedent seems to allow Super League rebels to set up their tournament without running into sanctions.
In 2015, the European Commission opened an Antitrust proceeding after a complaint filed by two Dutch professional speed skaters who were imposed penalties by the International Skating Union (ISU) for having participated in a competition not authorised by the governing body.
In a decision released in 2017, the Commission ruled that these penalties were in breach of the EU Antitrust law, asking the ISU to change its rules.
“The severe penalties the International Skating Union imposes on skaters also serve to protect its own commercial interests and prevent others from setting up their own events,” Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager commented at the time.
United Europe of football
Speaking to the French football newspaper L’Equipe, European Parliament President David Sassoli – a supporter of Italy’s Fiorentina – said that “in Europe, football belongs to the people, with a model based on fairness and solidarity.”
He mentioned that one of the articles of the founding treaties refers to the European dimension of sport, based on cooperation and transparency with the competent bodies in this field.
“The initiative taken by these big European clubs does not respect these principles. It even runs counter to them. That is why I am strongly opposed to this project,” he said.
Asked what the EU institutions might do, he replied that “the idea is to support all the initiatives of the national leagues and authorities to move towards a sport open to all.”
Likewise, the European Parliament’s intergroup on sport lambasted the project in a statement: “The proposed closed competition of super-rich clubs would form a privileged caste outside of the structures of European club football, with no other purpose than making profits.”
The opposition to the Super League project became widespread all across Europe and beyond.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his government is “going to look at everything that we can do with the football authorities to make sure that this doesn’t go ahead in the way that it’s currently being proposed.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, a supporter of Olympique de Marseille, welcomed the position of French clubs, who refused to participate in the Super League project.
Italy’s PM Mario Draghi also said his government will back UEFA to preserve national competitions, meritocratic values and the social function of sport.
Nationalist politicians, from Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán to Marine Le Pen’s party Rassemblement national joined in the criticism.
“I like victories won with the sweat of the field, not those bought with millions on the stock market,” said Italian right-wing Lega party leader Matteo Salvini, who supports AC Milan, one of the teams joining the Super League.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]