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Sunday, March 26, 2023

Barcelona, Arsenal, Others Sign Up to Join European Super League

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A group of the world’s richest and most storied soccer clubs has agreed in principle on a plan to create a breakaway European club competition that would, if it comes to fruition, upend the structures, economics and relationships that have bound global soccer for nearly a century.

After months of secret talks, the breakaway teams — which include Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea in England, and Juventus and A.C. Milan in Italy — could make an announcement as early as Sunday, according to multiple people familiar with the plans.

At least 12 teams have either signed up as founding members or expressed interest in joining the breakaway group, including six from England’s Premier League, three from Spain’s top division and three from Italy’s, according to the people with knowledge of the plans.

European soccer officials moved quickly to try to block the plan. The Premier League condemned the concept in a statement and sent a letter to its 20 member clubs warning them not to take part, and it and the leagues in Spain and Italy held emergency board meetings on Sunday.

Officials at European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, labeled the proposal for a closed super league a “cynical project” in a strongly worded statement that was co-signed by the Premier League, La Liga in Spain and Italy’s Serie A, as well as the soccer federations of each country.

But UEFA also was taking the threat seriously. Its leaders spent the weekend in discussions about its options to block the plan, including potentially banning the breakaway teams from domestic leagues and their players from competing for their national teams in events like the World Cup. And it reminded the breakaway clubs (and, effectively, their players) that FIFA and its six regional confederations already had made a similar threat.

“We will consider all measures available to us, at all levels, both judicial and sporting in order to prevent this happening,” the UEFA statement said. “Football is based on open competitions and sporting merit; it cannot be any other way.”

Still, UEFA also has begun contacting lawmakers at the European Union, hoping the bloc would be able to strengthen its hand in preserving the status quo. And the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A all held emergency board meetings on Sunday.

The teams committed to the super league plan are, for the moment, limited to almost a dozen clubs from Spain, Italy and England. A cohort of six teams from the Premier League — United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham — represents the biggest grouping from a single country. Atlético Madrid is the other team from Spain that is said to have endorsed the project, while the Milan rivals Internazionale and A.C. Milan would join Juventus as Italy’s representatives.

But the leaders of the breakaway group have been trying to get other top teams, like Germany’s Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and the French champion Paris St.-Germain, to commit. But to date those clubs — and others — have declined to walk away from the domestic structures and Continental competitions that have underpinned European soccer for generations.

P.S.G., for example, has been invited to join but has so far resisted the overtures. Its president, Nasser al-Khelaifi, sits on the UEFA board and also heads beIN Media Group, the Qatar-based television network that has paid millions of dollars to UEFA for the right to broadcast Champions League games.

The Premier League wrote to its 20 clubs after a board meeting on Sunday, warning them that the league’s rules bar clubs from joining outside competitions without approval and urging them to “walk away” from the idea.

“This venture cannot be launched without English clubs and we call upon any club contemplating associating themselves or joining this venture to walk away immediately before irreparable damage is done,” it said in a letter to the teams.
The timing of Sunday’s news appeared designed to overshadow UEFA’s plan to ratify a newly designed Champions League on Monday. That competition would be decimated by the departure of its biggest teams.

The repercussions of a split between European soccer and its best-known, best-followed and richest clubs would be seismic for all involved. Without the top teams, UEFA and the leagues would face demands for millions of dollars in refunds from the broadcasters who pay billions for television rights to tournaments. The clubs would lose revenue streams that could cripple their budgets as European soccer continues to emerge from the financial wreckage caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and any ban on national team play could affect their ability to recruit top talent.

Among the most notable teams involved in the breakaway group is Juventus, the serial Italian champion. Its chairman, Andrea Agnelli, also leads the European Club Association, an umbrella body for more than 200 top division clubs, the majority of which will be left out of the proposed Super League. He is also a member of UEFA’s executive board. When asked by The Times this year to discuss his role in the talks of a breakaway league, Agnelli brushed off the idea as a “rumor.”

Still, according to documents reviewed by The Times in January, plans for the breakaway league had gathered pace since the summer. Top clubs sought to take advantage of uncertainty in the soccer industry caused by the pandemic to forge a new path that would ensure a degree of financial stability for them but would also almost certainly lead to a significant — and potentially devastating — loss in value and revenue for teams excluded from the project.

Each of the would-be permanent members of the proposed super league are being promised 350 million euros, or $425 million, to sign up, the documents said.

Under the proposals reviewed at the time, the super league, which would play its matches in the middle of the week, sought to secure 16 top soccer franchises as permanent members and to add four qualifiers from domestic competitions. The clubs would be split into two groups of 10, with the top four teams in each group qualifying for the knockout stages, culminating in a final that would take place on a weekend.

The event would, according to the documents, generate hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue for the participating teams, which are already the richest clubs in the sport. (An alternative version of the plan proposed 15 permanent members and five qualification spots.) The group had entered into discussions with JPMorgan Chase & Co. to raise financing for the project, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The firm has so far declined to comment.

UEFA found a powerful ally in opposition to the plans in FIFA, soccer’s global governing body. FIFA warned that any player who took part in such an unsanctioned league would be banned from appearing in the World Cup. The statement came after UEFAs president, Aleksander Ceferin, demanded support from his FIFA counterpart, Gianni Infantino, amid mounting speculation that the breakaway would have FIFA’s backing.

European soccer leaders huddled on the telephone and in video conferences over the weekend to forge a counterattack. However, finding a solution to the potential loss of the biggest brands in soccer is not an easy task. The Premier League, for example, would lose much of its sheen — and almost certainly a lot of the commercial appeal that has turned it into the richest league in soccer — should it move to banish its top six teams.

As member-owned clubs, Barcelona and Real Madrid would likely require the support of the thousands of their supporters before formally joining, and any German clubs that agree to take part would face similar obstacles. All can expect heavy internal opposition; fan groups from across Europe had already voiced opposition since details of the plans for a super league emerged earlier this year.

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