European football was thrown into turmoil on Sunday night after new plans for a European super league were revealed that would mean six English clubs – Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham – joining the breakaway competition alongside three teams from each of Italy and Spain.
After a dramatic day that earlier saw Boris Johnson and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, both condemn proposals that had been met with widespread criticism from around the continent, a statement just after 11pm UK time from the newly formed European Super League confirmed plans to begin the new competition in August.
The plans, which would represent one of the biggest changes ever made in the football calendar, threaten not only the future of the Champions League but could have a seismic impact on the entire structure of the club game. In England the Premier League had urged clubs “to walk away immediately before irreparable damage is done”.
“Twelve of Europe’s leading football clubs have today come together to announce they have agreed to establish a new mid-week competition, the Super League, governed by its founding clubs,” it read. “AC Milan, Arsenal FC, Atlético de Madrid, Chelsea FC, FC Barcelona, FC Internazionale Milano, Juventus FC, Liverpool FC, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid CF and Tottenham Hotspur have all joined as founding clubs. It is anticipated that a further three clubs will join ahead of the inaugural season, which is intended to commence as soon as practicable.”
The statement added: “Going forward, the founding clubs look forward to holding discussions with Uefa and Fifa to work together in partnership to deliver the best outcomes for the new League and for football as a whole. The formation of the Super League comes at a time when the global pandemic has accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model. Further, for a number of years, the founding clubs have had the objective of improving the quality and intensity of existing European competitions throughout each season, and of creating a format for top clubs and players to compete on a regular basis.”
According to the ESL, the new format will involve midweek fixtures, with all participating clubs continuing to compete in their respective national leagues, “preserving the traditional domestic match calendar which remains at the heart of the club game”.
“An August start with clubs participating in two groups of 10, playing home and away fixtures, with the top three in each group automatically qualifying for the quarter-finals. Teams finishing fourth and fifth will then compete in a two-legged play-off for the remaining quarter-final positions. A two-leg knockout format will be used to reach the final at the end of May, which will be staged as a single fixture at a neutral venue. As soon as practicable after the start of the men’s competition, a corresponding women’s league will also be launched, helping to advance and develop the women’s game.”
Uefa and the Premier League had earlier strongly condemned the proposals, with the former describing the plans as a “cynical project founded on the self-interest of a few clubs”. Its statement, which was also signed by the Premier League, the Football Association and their counterparts in Spain and Italy, reiterated the threat to ban any players involved from “any competition at domestic, European or world level”.
Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich have so far insisted they have not signed up so it remains to be seen whether the others will carry out their threat to turn their backs on their domestic leagues and risk their players being barred from all competitions, including the World Cup. PSG’s reluctance to turn their back on Ligue 1 despite major issues with its new TV rights deal could be down to proposed stringent financial regulations in the new competition that would be similar to Uefa’s financial fair play regulations.
The impetus for the breakaway league has come from the Real Madrid president, Florentino Pérez – who will be chairman of the new organisation – along with Joel Glazer of Manchester United and Andrea Agnelli of Juventus, who will be vice-chairmen.
“We will help football at every level and take it to its rightful place in the world,” said Pérez. “Football is the only global sport in the world with more than four billion fans and our responsibility as big clubs is to respond to their desires.”
Agnelli added: “Our 12 founder clubs represent billions of fans across the globe and 99 European trophies. We have come together at this critical moment, enabling European competition to be transformed, putting the game we love on a sustainable footing for the long-term future, substantially increasing solidarity, and giving fans and amateur players a regular flow of headline fixtures that will feed their passion for the game while providing them with engaging role models.”
Uefa is due to sign off new plans for an expanded and restructured Champions League on Monday but the timing of the latest development could now put that in jeopardy. “We will consider all measures available to us, at all levels, both judicial and sporting in order to prevent this happening,” said Uefa’s statement. “Football is based on open competitions and sporting merit; it cannot be any other way.”
After the announcement, Fifa, the world fame’s governing body, said it “can only express its disapproval to a ‘closed European breakaway league’ outside of the international football structures … Fifa always stands for unity in world football and calls on all parties involved in heated discussions to engage in calm, constructive and balanced dialogue for the good of the game and in the spirit of solidarity and fair play. Fifa will, of course, do whatever is necessary to contribute to a harmonised way forward in the overall interests of football.”
The Premier League’s chief executive, Richard Masters, is believed to have written to all 20 of the league’s clubs in England to state his organisation’s opposition to the new proposals.
A separate statement added: “The Premier League condemns any proposal that attacks the principles of open competition and sporting merit which are at the heart of the domestic and European football pyramid. Fans of any club in England and across Europe can currently dream that their team may climb to the top and play against the best. We believe that the concept of a European super league would destroy this dream.
“A European super league will undermine the appeal of the whole game, and have a deeply damaging impact on the immediate and future prospects of the Premier League and its member clubs, and all those in football who rely on our funding and solidarity to prosper. We will work with fans, the FA, EFL, PFA and LMA, as well as other stakeholders, at home and abroad, to defend the integrity and future prospects of English football in the best interests of the game.”
The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, also said the plans “could create a closed shop at the very top of our national game. “Sustainability, integrity and fair competition are absolutely paramount and anything that undermines this is deeply troubling and damaging for football,” he added. “We have a football pyramid where funds from the globally successful Premier League flow down the leagues and into local communities. I would be bitterly disappointed to see any action that destroys that.”
The former United manager Sir Alex Ferguson led criticism of the new proposals, telling Reuters that a super league would be “a move away from 70 years of European club football”.
“Everton are spending £500m to build a new stadium with the ambition to play in Champions League. Fans all over love the competition as it is,” he said. “In my time at United, we played in four Champions League finals and they were always the most special of nights. I’m not sure [if] Manchester United are involved in this, as I am not part of the decision making process.”
“I am disgusted by Manchester United and Liverpool the most,” added former United defender Gary Neville on Sky Sports. “Liverpool, they pretend [with] You’ll Never Walk Alone [they are] the people’s club, the fans’ club. Manchester United – 100 years, born out of workers. And they are breaking away into a league without competition, that they can’t be relegated from?
“It is an absolute disgrace. Honestly, we have to wrestle back power in this country from the clubs at the top of this league, and that includes my club.”
The organisation Football Supporters Europe described the plans as “illegitimate, irresponsible, and anti-competitive by design” which “will be the final nail in the coffin of European football”.
It added: “It is driven exclusively by greed. The only ones who stand to gain are hedge funds, oligarchs, and a handful of already wealthy clubs, many of which perform poorly in their own domestic leagues despite their in-built advantage.”