On 18 April 2021, twelve football clubs across Europe announced the creation of the European Super League. Although most of the clubs have since withdrawn, the idea of a breakaway competition opened a discussion as to whether this could be legally challenged, and could sanctions be placed on football players who are under contract with their football clubs.
The twelve football clubs across Europe announced the creation of a European Super League. The reasons cited for creating it were a reduction in revenues from broadcasting rights, discontent about how these revenues were being distributed, the COVID-19 pandemic and the inability to find a solution with UEFA that would suit clubs.
UEFA is the sole organiser of the two current European club competitions (the Champions League and the Europa League). The European Super League would have been a new entrant on the market for European club competitions, competing against the Champions League.
However, according to UEFA setting up the European Super League would contravene the UEFA statutes, in particular article 49 (3) which states that:
“International matches, competitions or tournaments which are not organised by UEFA but are played on UEFA’s territory shall require the prior approval of FIFA and/or UEFA and/or the relevant Member Associations in accordance with the FIFA Regulations Governing International Matches and any additional implementing rules adopted by the UEFA Executive Committee.”
UEFA stated that participation in the European Super League would lead to sanctions being placed against the football clubs and the clubs’ football players being banned from participating in international football events.
It is possible these types of measures from UEFA could be a breach of competition law. If the UEFA measures constitute an agreement between an association of undertakings having the object of effect of preventing, restricting, or distorting competition in breach of Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union or an abuse of a dominant position in breach of Article 102 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, unless a sport association’s restrictive practices and/or conduct have a legitimate objective and are inherent and proportionate to the objective, then there would be no infringement of competition law.
The European Union Courts have held that sporting bodies do have the power to authorise alternative sports events, if such power is subject to restrictions, obligations, and review.
In respect to banning players from participating in International football events, such a ban may potentially contravene the principles of ‘restraint of trade’ which state that an individual should be free to follow their trade without undue influence. The most recent authority on this issue is the EU General Court decision of December 2020 in the International Skating Union case (Case T-93/18 International Skating Union v Commission). The General Court held that the International Skating Union’s eligibility rules, providing for a ban on athletes participating in events not approved by the International Skating Union, were considered in breach of Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. These rules were not inherent or proportionate to the pursuit of a legitimate objective.
The European Super League has been postponed for now but the ability to sanction footballers and an argument to increase competition may succeed in the future.