Battle lines are drawn as European Super League fight promises to get ugly

Football on continent thrown into turmoil with clubs and authorities set for legal battle

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Fast forward to next August. It is the opening fixture of the brand new European Super League, the ESL. It’s a glamour game, as most on the ESL calendar are. Real Madrid host Manchester United.

The Bernabeu Stadium will be full. But things have not worked out as smoothly as the founders of the ESL project – a plan designed to fundamentally alter elite club football – had envisaged.

There are drawn-out court cases being fought in various countries about the right of players to participate in ESL, which is outlawed by football’s governing bodies, while still playing for their national teams.

United’s Marcus Rashford, an England star, is not available for the grand opener in Madrid because he does not want to jeopardise playing for his country by appearing in the ‘rebel’ competition.

Karim Benzema, the Madrid captain, whose career with France ended many years earlier, will play against United. But he is frustrated. Some of his long-term Madrid teammates have left the club because of the ongoing legal wrangles about ESL.

A far-fetched scenario? It might seem so, but, the day after the bombshell announcement that 12 major European clubs – six from England, three each from Spain and Italy – had signed up as founding members of a proposed ESL, with financial backing from the world’s largest investment bank, JP Morgan, it is the scenario the power brokers of the world’s most loved sport are currently heading towards.

United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have publicly committed to the ESL, along with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan.

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They would like superclubs not on that list – Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain – to come on board, too, for a competition that, crucially, would have a majority of permanent club members in it every season, teams never at risk of relegation or of not qualifying.

Ranged against them, especially against the idea of a closed league, are the bodies under whose umbrella these clubs have become huge global brands: the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Fifa, Uefa and above all, millions of dedicated supporters.

But the drivers of the ESL are banking on fans’ continued loyalty, their guaranteed interest in paying to watch a new league where the frequency of matches which pit one superclub against another is higher than it is in the Champions League or Europa League.

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The ESL, as it is outlined, would effectively muscle out those Uefa tournaments from their prime place in the calendar, the midweek evenings. The 12 signatories to the ESL project claim it would bring in, via television and sponsorship, up to three times as much in revenue as the Champions League.

There is also the promise of an immediate ‘grant’ of around €300 million ($361m) each to the founding members of ESL, which specifically identifies as urgent their financial losses through the Covid-19 crisis. To the likes of Barcelona, whose vast Camp Nou stadium has been empty of spectators for over a year and whose debts exceed €1bn, that is an income boost hard to ignore.

The potential breakaway confronts football with a schism of enormous destructive potential. European Super League tanks have rolled on to Uefa’s lawns before, but usually it has led to a compromise, the tanks withdrawing after European football's governing body yields more access for the wealthier clubs to its prestige competition, mostly at the cost of clubs from the less powerful leagues in Europe.

At the end of the 1990s, in response to a breakaway proposal, the Champions League was expanded and its format enlarged. Where once only the winners of the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A qualified each year, now four clubs from each of those leagues go into the group phase.

On Monday, under pressure from elite clubs seeking more regular A-list matches and fewer group matches against the likes of Krasnodar or Cluj, another new format, swelling the group phase from 32 to 36 teams, was unveiled. But Sunday’s bombshell, the revelation that 12 major clubs had signed a provisional agreement to take part in ESL, made that announcement a mere footnote.

The Uefa president, Alexander Ceferin, was scathing of ESL. “A nonsense of a project, a disgraceful and self-serving proposal from clubs motivated by greed,” he called it and singled out the chief-executive of Manchester United, Ed Woodward, and the Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli.

Woodward, said Ceferin, had assured him United were “satisfied” with his Champions League reforms only three days before Woodward suddenly resigned his positions within Uefa to coincide with the announcement of the ESL plan. Of Agnelli, Ceferin said “I have never seen a person lie so persistently.”

Agnelli and United co-chairman Joel Glazer have been named as vice-chairmen of ESL, with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez the chairman. They hope, ideally, to have their project – a 20-club competition with two parallel 10-team leagues in a group phase, a play-off section and then knockout ties – up and running by August 2022.

They knew there would be outrage at the breakaway project, but some club sources acknowledge the degree of supporter anger against the idea has raised eyebrows.

They expected robust criticism and the threat of bans from governing bodies. ESL sent a letter to Uefa and Fifa at the weekend, saying “we are concerned that Fifa and Uefa may respond by seeking to take punitive measures to exclude any participating club or player from their respective competitions.”

They have armed their lawyers, and filed “a motion before the relevant courts” in anticipation of possible sanctions against clubs or individuals committing to the new competition.

Uefa is so far united with the major European domestic leagues in insisting that any involvement in the ESL must carry a heavy punitive cost. "We're still assessing with our legal team but we will take all the sanctions that we can,” said Ceferin. "My opinion is that as soon as possible they have to be banned from all our competitions and the players [banned] from all our competitions."

Battle lines have been drawn. This will be an ugly, attritional fight.