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 AC Milan in Italy – could make an announcement shortly, according to multiple people familiar with the plans.
The so-called superleague they have agreed upon – an alliance of top clubs closer in concept to closed leagues such as the NFL and the NBA than soccer’s current model – would bring about the most significant restructuring of elite European soccer since the 1950s and could herald the largest transfer of wealth to a small set of teams in modern sports history.
In its current form, European soccer supplements domestic league play – an English league for English teams, a Spanish one for Spanish clubs – with continental competitions such as the Champions League. Both funnel hundreds of millions of dollars of annual television and sponsorship revenue to the world’s richest clubs, who regularly qualify for the European play based on their success in their own leagues. But the format also sustains smaller teams in each country, who benefit from the gloss of their encounters with the giants and share in the money those teams bring in from broadcasters.
The new superleague model would change that by effectively walling off the richest clubs in their own closed competition – and allowing them to split billions of dollars in annual revenue among themselves.
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 its top officials and their counterparts in Spain and Italy held emergency board meetings Sunday.
Officials at European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, labeled the proposal for a closed superleague a “cynical project” in a 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 how to block the plan, including banning the breakaway teams from their domestic leagues and blocking their players from competing for their national teams in events such as the World Cup. UEFA also pointedly reminded the breakaway clubs (and, effectively, their players) that FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, and its six regional confederations have backed that 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 began contacting lawmakers at the European Union, hoping the bloc would be able to strengthen its hand in preserving the status quo. Politicians in France and England quickly signalled their opposition to the plans.
The teams committed to the superleague are, for the moment, limited to 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. Atletico Madrid is the other team from Spain that is said to have endorsed the project, while Milan rivals Internazionale and AC Milan would join Juventus as Italy’s representatives.
The leaders of the breakaway group have been trying to get other top teams, such as Germany’s Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and 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.
PSG, 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 New York Times contacted a number of clubs involved in the breakaway plans, but all declined to comment or did not respond. But the Premier League wrote to its 20 clubs after a board meeting 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 most deep-pocketed clubs would be seismic. 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 air their 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.
According to documents reviewed by the Times in January, plans for the breakaway league had gathered pace since last 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 superleague is being promised €350-million, or US$425-million, to sign up, the documents said.
Earlier this year, UEFA found a powerful ally in opposition to the plans in FIFA. FIFA warned that any player who took part in such an unsanctioned league would be banned from appearing in its events, including the World Cup. The statement came after UEFA’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, demanded support from his FIFA counterpart, Gianni Infantino, amid mounting speculation that the breakaway group had FIFA’s backing.