The legal battle between the European Super League, UEFA and FIFA intensified significantly after the case was referred to the European Court of Justice.
The surprise decision effectively forces UEFA to abandon its current measures to punish Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, for their role in the breakaway, according to expert lawyers.
The European governing body has launched a “disciplinary investigation” which could lead to the exclusion of the three rebel clubs from UEFA competitions, including the Champions League, for the next two years.
The two La Liga and one Serie A clubs are the only three of the top 12 entered in the escaped competition not to have officially withdrawn.
Their refusal to back down has infuriated UEFA and its chairman Aleksander Ceferin. Earlier this month, UEFA said it “reserves all rights to take any action it deems appropriate against these clubs”.
Real Madrid won the Champions League in 2018, but UEFA’s action could have led to a ban
But any immediate prospect of a ban was effectively overturned after the European Court of Justice was asked to review UEFA and FIFA’s treatment of the renegade competition, it has been claimed.
Lawyers met by Sportsmail suggest UEFA would be “foolish” to call for a ban – or sanction – at this point, as it could incur the wrath of Europe’s highest court or face enormous damage if the judges rule in favor of the Super League.
“UEFA is in a risky position,” said competition law expert with knowledge of the case Sportsmail. “It’s a strong warning and UEFA will have to think twice. They should know when to stop, and it’s a good time.
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Lionel Messi’s Barcelona could face two-year Champions League ban if UEFA’s ‘disciplinary investigation’ of them, Real Madrid and Juventus results in action
Another competition lawyer, Mark Orth, agrees. He said Sportsmail: ‘It wouldn’t be the smartest move, it would be a confrontation with the judges, which is never a good idea’.
The three rebel clubs were the driving force behind the outbreak of the Super League plan, which saw the light of day on April 18.
Backed by around £ 3.5bn funding from US bank JP Morgan, the idea was to create a new midweek competition with at least 12 founding members who could not be relegated.
Six Premier League clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur – as well as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid of Spain and the Italian trio Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan have signed up as founding members.
FIFA and UEFA have threatened clubs and players who have participated in any European Super League with a ban from their competitions, but lawyers have been skeptical of the claim
However, all six England teams withdrew from the plans 48 hours later following a furious backlash from fans. Inter, AC Milan and Atletico also backed away from plans later.
The nine clubs reached a peace deal with UEFA earlier this month.
The question is whether UEFA and FIFA should allow the establishment of a rival competition and whether they abused their position by threatening clubs that wanted to participate in the Super League.
If the European court finds that football’s governing bodies have treated the Super League unfairly, the consequences are far-reaching.
“A judgment by the European Court of Justice in favor of the Super League will make this more likely in the future,” said Orth, of MEOLaw in Munich. “The legal steps currently being taken give a lot more certainty for a Super League in the future.
“This would limit UEFA’s ability to discipline rebel clubs and make it much more difficult for them to ban clubs from the Champions League or other competitions.
‘The risk [in this case going to the European court] is much higher for UEFA.
There are legal precedents that will worry UEFA.
The European Commission has already ruled that the International Skating Union cannot prevent speed skaters from participating in new money spinning events. This decision was supported by a judgment of the second highest court in Europe, the Tribunal de Luxembourg, in December.
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has been a driving force behind the Super League plan
The involvement of the European Court of Justice took European competition lawyers by surprise, after it was reported in a specialist magazine in Spain called Confilegal.
It is part of an ongoing case, which opened in Madrid in April, in the brief 48-hour period after the Super League was announced and before it collapsed.
Super League plans
Manchester United, Real Madrid and AC Milan have been among the driving forces behind plans for a European Super League, to replace the UEFA Champions League.
An 18-page proposal, which emerged earlier this year, included details about the proposed league, such as format, membership, cash prizes and even financial fair play rules.
The proposal was for the league to have 15 permanent founding members, who would receive a larger financial reward and five annual qualifiers.
The league would have been split into two groups of 10. The top four in each group would have played in quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final, which would take place over a weekend.
The participating teams would play between 18 and 23 matches per season, as well as in their domestic leagues, it has been suggested.
The plan called for six clubs to be included as founding members from England – this could have been the Big Six from Liverpool, Manchester City and United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur – plus three from Spain, three from Italy, two from Germany and one from France.
The company had the backing of investment bank JP Morgan Chase
The proposal included huge revenues for participating clubs as well as the ability to offset losses associated with Covid.
Preferred teams with ‘founding member’ status would receive up to £ 310million to join the competition and up to £ 213million to participate in the partially closed league.
The Super League complained to the court in Madrid that they were being treated unfairly by UEFA and FIFA as they threatened to expel clubs from competitions and to ban players from representing their country if they joined the breakaway.
Spain’s judge Manuel Ruiz de Lara agreed and delivered a provisional judgment – on the very eve of the Super League’s collapse – banning UEFA and FIFA from making more threats or doing anything whether to intimidate the Separatist League or one of its participants.
Unusually, given that Judge Ruiz de Lara has only issued a provisional judgment and has yet to hear UEFA’s defense, he has now asked the European Court of Justice to clarify whether UEFA and FIFA have the power to prevent other rival competitions from being organized and if they have abused their positions.
Lawyers say Judge Ruiz de Lara is essentially upping the ante for UEFA as he appears to believe the EU governing body has ignored its initial ruling by pursuing a “disciplinary investigation”.
The Spanish courts’ provisional ruling is not binding outside Spain, until a notice is served on UEFA, which could take time. The judge is believed to be trying to outsmart the governing body. The European Court could send the case back to Spain without ruling at this stage, but the point will have been made all the same, say the lawyers.
“It puts a lot of pressure on UEFA,” said senior competition lawyer Sportsmail. “The judge warns them by implicating the highest court in Europe. It is like saying “here is my power”.
‘This is a warning signal. The judge wanted to stop any action that could prevent football clubs from organizing differently.
“Now he says: ‘If you think you can ignore a judge in Madrid, I will report this situation to the Luxembourg Court of Justice and you will have to behave.
The European court is expected to issue an opinion in about two months, and if it rules in favor of the super league, that will set a solid precedent for any future court cases anywhere in Europe.
Indeed, this development elevates the case and all conclusions above the level of Spain to a level that will have an impact on the entire continent, including Switzerland, where UEFA is based.
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In his submission to the European Court, Judge Ruiz de Lara asks six specific questions, including whether UEFA and FIFA have broken the law by imposing sanctions on clubs and players participating in a Super League and whether they actually prevent competition in football by asserting a dominant position.
And according to Confilegal, the judge called for a quick ruling because of the importance of the case.
“The indisputable social and economic importance which arises from this dispute and from the interpretation of Community law requires a swift resolution of the Court of Justice of the European Union on the application of Community provisions”, wrote Judge Ruiz of Lara.