On Thursday, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the highest (non-sports) court in the European Union, delivered their verdict that UEFA and FIFA had acted unlawfully in their attempts to block the upstart (European) Super League (ESL) in 2021, specifically by making it subject to their approval and threatening to impose sanctions on players and clubs that might have joined.
“The FIFA and UEFA rules making any new interclub football project subject to their prior approval, such as the Super League, and prohibiting clubs and players from playing in those competitions, are unlawful. [...] Given their arbitrary nature, their rules on approval, control and sanctions must be held to be unjustified restrictions on the freedom to provide services. That does not mean that a competition such as the Super League project must necessarily be approved.”
-ECJ ruling; source The Athletic
Of course, UEFA didn’t really have to do anything that extreme two years ago. The fans did most of the “dirty work” for them, protesting en masse outside of clubs who had initially signed up to that concept, including Chelsea. (And also in limited numbers in the grounds since it was still pandemic-times.) UEFA, football’s governing body in Europe, a for-profit organization themselves synonymous with little more than greed and self-interest, somehow weaponized fan sentiment and came out on the moral high ground. That nearly at the exact same time they were proposing their own pseudo-Super League (which will actually now start next season in the guise of the reworked Champions League) only added to the irony of the situation.
I realize that my view on this is more cynical than most, and this is obviously a very emotional issue for many. (Also ironic: protecting the supposed “sanctity” of the Premier League, a league that’s as much a global Super League as anything else at this point, also born out of pure greed some thirty years ago.) The Super League is inevitable, in some way, shape, or form. We’ll get there eventually, do not fear, fret, flail.
In any case, the ECJ’s ruling didn’t specifically endorse the Super League or make any demands of UEFA, despite their monopoly on things — even with the ECA partnership, which UEFA hold up as evidence to the contrary (the ECA itself was born out of a need to protect club interest against UEFA, mind).
But much of the European football establishment, except Real Madrid and Barcelona of course, spent Thursday throwing their fealty in with the current powers that be. Just as all good flunkeys should.
Here’s Chelsea’s absolutely meaningless official statement (maintaining, for what it’s worth, the current ownership’s position on this issue, since it were the previous regime who went on the 72-hour ESL bender):
“The judgment issued today by the European Court of Justice does not change Chelsea FC’s position. We firmly believe that, by working with the Premier League, The FA, other European clubs through our strong relationship with the ECA, and with UEFA and FIFA, we can, together, continue to develop the European game for the benefit of everyone.”
Note how we say nothing at all against a Super League concept specifically, just that we love UEFA and please sir, may we have some more European competitions?
The ECJ’s ruling did prompt A22 Sports, who are behind the vestiges of what remains of the ESL currently, to release their latest grand vision, which now includes a three-tier league of 64 teams total (divided into uh ... Blue?, Gold, and um ... Star?), with some promotion and relegation, and also a parallel women’s competition. The details don’t really matter that much because this isn’t going to become a reality, but they’re essentially proposing to replace every UEFA competition with a different version — “Star” is the new 16-team Champions League; “Gold” is the 16-team Europa League, and “Blue” is the greatly expanded, 32-team Europa Conference. There would be group stages, and knockout rounds, and Champions, sorry I mean STAR League Finals, and so on.
Here’s a video, if you’re curious. (And it’s slightly more professional than the hilariously rudimentary web presence of the ESL crew two years ago!)
It really isn’t a “bad” format, per se. It might even be interesting. The entry rules remain a problem for the idea of, or at least pretension of, competitiveness — only the “Blue” league would admit new teams based on domestic success and the rest of promotion/relegation is between the tiers thus taking away from the importance of success in domestic leagues — but if A22 can work with UEFA, which they apparently intend to try, we might even see something like this eventually. Can’t usurp the King from the outside ... but from the inside? (And if the changes come “from UEFA”, that would nullify any of the silly nonsense of governments interjecting themselves into professional sports competition structures, like the UK government’s looking to do.)
Am told that the new Football Governance Bill will stop licensed clubs from joining breakaway competitions. So no chance of Premier League teams joining a rebel Super League unless they want to be thrown out of English football.— Ben Rumsby (@ben_rumsby) December 21, 2023
UEFA’s current “new” format is already doing away with the Champions League as we know it anyway. It’s essentially a Super League in all but name and a few minor details, with pretty much the same teams every year, and that’s only going to get more clear as we move forward.
We cling to these noble ideals of competition and look for the romance and beauty in the game and embrace the proper values of support and community and meaning beyond just sports ... but at the end of the day, football is just a business. UEFA’s a business. FIFA’s a business (hello, 32-team Club World Cup). Chelsea’s a business. We’re just the customers, consuming the content. And there’s no going “back”. (And “back” to what anyway? That’s notion of the past being better is off-base and romantic, too. Chelsea were always a business, from day zero, founded to make money from an empty stadium, for example.)
Obviously, beyond that sort of cynicism and fatalism, there is value in the shared experiences, in the sense of belonging, the sense of togetherness, in the community that exists around a club, be that in-person or online, local or global. That’s why we’re here in this mostly virtual space in the first place.
And we can fight against the rising tide, against the rising costs, the rising investments, the rising pressures and expectations (and all the rising nonsense around the game, be that financial or social). And we probably should. But I’m not sure we should do it while championing UEFA in the process, for example.