Football’s Super League takes fight to EU’s top court

EuroActiv Politico News

A year after the Super League’s breakaway dreams were dashed, top football clubs face an uphill court battle to topple how the sport is run in Europe.

European Union heavyweights — including Germany, France, Spain and Italy — will throw their weight behind European football’s governing body, UEFA, in a two-day hearing starting Monday in the Court of Justice (CJEU) in Luxembourg. The rebel Super League will attempt to prove that UEFA and FIFA have an illegal monopoly over the organization of international competitions. The outcome could determine the fate of European football for decades to come.

The Super League project collapsed as quickly as it launched, in an April 2021 maelstrom. Despite the hopes of holdout clubs Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, no EU member country or institution is expected to speak for the Super League in court, according to officials with direct knowledge.

Most capitals will instead back the Continent’s established European sports model — and, by extension, UEFA — with its focus on protecting open competition in Europe.

Germany’s expected support, after it didn’t submit written observations to the court last fall, is a coup. Prague’s support comes after a change in the Czech government triggered a shift in the country’s Super League position; it’s now expected to back UEFA. Portugal will send José Luís Da Cruz Vilaça, a former CJEU judge, to make its intervention. 

“The hearing can lead to a landmark decision setting in stone and providing legal protection to the key features of the European sports model,” said Tomasz Frankowski, a center-right MEP who led work on a recent European Parliament sports report.

More than 20 EU and EEA members, a huge number for the CJEU, are set to weigh in during the court hearing. The hearing will be livestreamed with a delay as the Super League, UEFA and EU member countries argue their positions. 

Undeterred, Super League backers maintain their stance that UEFA acts illegally as a regulator, dominant operator and unique gatekeeper in European football. While the weight of UEFA’s support doesn’t guarantee victory in court, it will be a consideration. The public outcry against the Super League won’t have gone unnoticed either.

“It’s important because judges and courts don’t rule in a vacuum,” said Ben Van Rompuy, assistant professor of EU competition law at Leiden University and an expert on sports cases at the Luxembourg-based court.

The Court of Justice was asked to rule on points of EU law by a Madrid tribunal. The court’s Grand Chamber of 15 judges will hear C-333/21 European Superleague Company due to its particular importance around the bloc. Its judgment will guide a final decision from the Spanish court.

UEFA has made low-key moves to tighten the regulatory framework for its pre-authorization rules for competitions to align with recent EU antitrust rulings, including the International Skating Union case, the bloc’s last major sports-law dispute, which also has a CJEU hearing on Monday.

The rules have no direct bearing on the specific legal questions referred to Luxembourg by the Madrid tribunal. However, they’ve been shared with the European Commission and formally communicated to the court — taking into account the Commission’s and member countries’ comments in written observations on the Super League.

The Super League fallout compelled EU institutions to fortify Europe’s vaunted sports model, with Parliament adopting a report in November and the Council adopting its first sports resolution in more than 20 years. Both documents endorsed a model based on open competition and financial solidarity — clear jabs at the Super League.

A representative of the European Super League said the group was “confident the European Court of Justice will properly interpret EU competition law and existing precedent.”

UEFA said it remained “very confident in our legal position and the demonstrated strength of support and shared commitment from national governments, European institutions, fans as well as stakeholders to protect and promote the values-based, open European sports model.”

After the hearing concludes, the Super League and UEFA must wait about 10-12 weeks for an opinion from the court’s advocate general, which judges often — but not always — tend to follow.

“UEFA and FIFA might get a slap on the wrist for not having proper pre-authorization rules in place,” said Van Rompuy, “but that would be a Pyrrhic victory for the ESL as those rules exist now and their project was already killed by a combination of public and political pressure.”