Uefa warns of ESL’s ‘threat to football’ but drops legal action against clubs

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP</span>
Photograph: Andrew Medichini/AP

The European Super League still represents “an ongoing existential threat to the foundations and future of European football,” Uefa has warned, as an aggressive court action originally brought by all 12 breakaway clubs continues to challenge its structure.

Related: ‘The project is alive’: Barcelona president says ESL is still possible

Although nine of the original 12 clubs, including the six from the Premier League, rapidly stated they had withdrawn from the project after the vilification that met its launch on 18 April, they are all still members of the Super League company that is maintaining the legal challenge. The action in a Madrid court was taken against Uefa by the 12 clubs, including Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham, on the day they announced their widely derided plan for a breakaway competition with themselves as permanent members, after months of secret discussions and planning.

The clubs’ lawsuit principally attacks Uefa’s position as the governing body and regulator of European football as well as the organiser of the Champions League, claiming it is a monopoly and anti-competitive, unfairly preventing clubs from forming their own competitions. Supporters’ groups, FAs, Uefa, Fifa and politicians across Europe denounced the breakaway as a self-interested venture by rich clubs seeking a closed circle to make even more money, and the six Premier League clubs announced their withdrawal within two days.

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However, the court action they started is continuing and, although Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus are the only clubs actively supportive, the Super League company bringing the case has not been dissolved. All 12 clubs remain shareholders and the agreement they signed committing to the breakaway is still in place. City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs declined to answer questions from the Guardian about their intentions but several sources have said these four clubs are willing to try to dissolve the company or convene a board meeting to end the legal action.

That has led to some suspicion that Liverpool and United are privately still supportive of the breakaway despite their public statements. However, both clubs emphatically deny that, suggesting they are following different legal advice, which warns against taking action that could be regarded as defying Madrid court orders preventing Uefa from seeking liquidation of the company.

The threat against Uefa has been escalating even while the Super League project has generally been considered to have collapsed. On Tuesday Uefa has to answer to a ruling by the Madrid court last week that Uefa was in breach of previous orders not to take action against the Super League or its clubs while the case is continuing. It accused Uefa of acting “outside the rule of law, actively promoting anticompetitive practices”, for taking disciplinary proceedings against Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona and agreeing settlements with the other clubs.

The court threatened to impose fines and even file a complaint of “judicial disobedience” with the Madrid public prosecutor.

Uefa declined to comment but is expected to argue that it has complied with the court, having late on Monday night declared the disciplinary proceedings “null and void” and said that while the case is continuing, it will not collect the €15m agreed in settlements with each of the other nine clubs, which were to be used for grassroots football across Europe.

The Madrid judge has referred competition aspects of the clubs’ lawsuit to the European Court of Justice, and there is intense frustration around football that Uefa is still having to fight a case brought by a self-selected few clubs, including the six Premier League clubs, despite their withdrawing from the breakaway.

In guidance recently issued to all Europe’s national football associations, seen by the Guardian, Uefa warned: “The persistent pursuit of this ESL [European Super League] project and the resultant court cases comprise an ongoing existential threat to the foundations and future of European football and the European Sports Model.”

Setting out an adamant defence of European football’s decades-long organisation through FAs, Uefa and Fifa, with promotion and relegation, agreed rules and some redistribution of revenues, Uefa’s note states: “The choice is between solidarity and selfish indulgence,” and that the Super League is “purely motivated by greed and a means to prevent competition”.

It also warns against assuming that the court case will be dismissed easily: “Inaction, complacency and/or over-confidence with regards to the governmental and judicial rejection of this ESL project would be dangerously naive and risks inviting the unravelling of the European model of sport by aggressive commercial interests.”

Liverpool denied any suggestion that their US owners remain sympathetic to the breakaway, pointing to changes made to the club’s constitution giving the Spirit of Shankly supporters’ trust a determining vote if the club considers joining a new competition.

A Liverpool spokesperson said: “Our involvement in the proposed ESL plans has been discontinued. We are absolutely committed to following that through and there should be no ambiguity to suggest otherwise. We are acting on the best legal advice and approach to appropriately end our involvement.”

Manchester United said in a statement: “Our position as announced previously has not changed – we shall not be participating in the European Super League. The process for dissolving the European Super League entity is impacted by ongoing litigation in Spain. We are not involved in that litigation and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment.”

Adding to the perception that these clubs have created an unseemly mess, the Guardian understands that the Super League company still owes money to some of the people who worked for it up to its failed launch. The explanation given is understood to be that the company has not held a board meeting since April, so payment of its debts has not been authorised.

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